Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Mug for the Office

And the sons of the Puritan pioneers/Saw the toil and thrift of a hundred years/Spoiled in an hour.
From "The Lay of Groton Height," by Leonard Woolsey Bacon1

On September 6, 1781, during the American Revolutionary War, British troops attacked New London and Groton, Connecticut. Many of Connecticut's "sons of the Puritan pioneers" lost their lives, their homes, businesses, churches, and their weapons cache. Thus, as the epigraph suggests, southeastern Connecticut "toil and thrift" was "Spoiled." Although the region lost soldiers, civilians, weapons, and material goods, many individuals survived to commemorate the event through the erection of a monument and a late nineteenth-century Centennial Celebration. One teabowl and saucer associated with the Burning of New London, the Battle of Groton Heights, and the Centennial commemoration of those events survived and found its way to a Delaware tag sale.

The hunt

I have been on the lookout for mug with charater for use at work. Last May, I pushed my boyfriend over for a prospective drinking vessel I spotted at a local tag sale. Among the mid-1990s chachka, we both spotted a cluster of old porcelain teabowls and saucers. We started picking them up and concluded that, although they weren't in the best condition, they were, in fact, early eighteenth-, mid-nineteenth century objects and therefore deserved some scrutiny. (There is a time and place for a circa 1990 coffee mug, but we were on the hunt for older items at good prices.)
As I cradled one teabowl in my hands, my boyfriend picked-up the matching saucer and discovered a note inscribed in ink:

"Bristolware./Given me by Mrs. Sophy Noyes/Stonington [Connecticut]. It antedates the burning of New London [Connecticut] Sep. 6./1781 because a companion/to it was picked-up in the/bushes the week after./It was on exhibition at the/Groton Centennial Sep. 6/1881/ 1243 [also inscribed in white paint on the saucer]/Bristolware manufactured/between 1768-1781/Maria Lake Peabody."

Old porcelain teabowl and saucer. Provenance. Less than $20.

I exclaimed: "That's mine. I saw it first. I'm buying it." Our fellow tag-salers chucked to themselves.

I still don't have a mug for work, but the teabowl and saucer I purchased last May facilitated my learning a lot about late-eighteenth-century porcelain and a Revolutionary-era battle, the latter of which remains important to southeastern Connecticut's heritage.

The materials, the design, and the manufacture

Ceramics is not my specialty, but I know the basics. The inscription identifies the teabowl and saucer as Bristolware. Today, English Bristolware can refer to delft (or tin-glazed earthenware) ceramics made in Bristol, England, and it may not necessarily refer to porcelain made in Bristol or its associated manufactory sites.2 A quick look at the teabowl and saucer's translucency confirms that the set is made from porcelain, ruling out the possibility that the set could be earthenware. The decorative motifs are similar to decorative motifs popular during the era (1768-1781) noted in the inscription. Based on the material and the design, the relics are late eighteenth-century porcelain, but are they Bristol porcelain? It turns out that my teabowl and saucer are less ornate than Bristol porcelain pictured in secondary sources such as Simon Spero's Lund's Bristol and early Worcester porcelain 1750-58 : the A. J. Smith Collection (London: C and J Smith, c2006).

Knowing that I was dealing with late-eighteenth century porcelain, I browsed some online museum collections. Instead of using geographic search terms in combination with production dates and media type, I narrowed my search by era (1765-1810) and media (porcelain) in hopes of finding similar designs that are not associated with Bristol porcelain. I found some design similarities in a Victoria & Albert Museum cup, teabowl, and saucer attributed to New Hall manufactories (which were at Staffordshire and Shelton, England).3

Cup, teabowl, and saucer, hard-paste porcelain with a lead glaze, painted in enamels, New Hall porcelain factory, Staffordshire, ca. 1790-1800, Given by Arthur Myers Smith, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, C.728 to B-1921.

The floral motif, the colors, and the trim on the V&A set are all similar to those on my teabowl and saucer. Although the New Hall designs are similar to my cup and saucer's designs, my specimens feature less-sophisticated (or, more quickly rendered) variations of New Hall decoration. Further, unless the mark is underneath the pasted inscription, the teabowl and saucer lack New Hall (or any) manufacture's mark.4 At this point, I decided that my teabowl and saucer were probably not made in England.

Asian (often Chinese) sources inspired mid-late eighteenth-century English porcelain design. The Asian-looking character painted on the bowl made me suspect (as a colleague suggested) that my teabowl and saucer may not be European-made in the first place. After ruling out the relics' origins suggested in the inscription, I flipped through a few Chinese export porcelain books and spotted some designs that are similar (but not identical) to those featured on my teabowl and saucer. In addition, I found a few similarly decorated porcelain examples at the Winterthur Museum (namely, cup 1954.0077.012, pounce pot 1961.1595, and teabowl 1982.0282), all of which are attributed to Jingdezhen, China, where the bulk of Chinese export porcelain was produced.5 Therefore, my "Bristolware" teabowl and saucer are probably examples of 1780s Chinese export porcelain. The mis-attribution on the inscription is logical, though, given the fact that English porcelain from Bristol, New Hall, and realated sites features designs similar to Chinese export designs from the same era.

The provenance: the bloodshed

Thus, the teabowl and saucer are contemporaneous with the 1781 "Burning of New London [Connecticut]." The Burning of New London is typically discussed in conjunction with the Battle of Groton Heights. For example, William Wallace Harris' The battle of Groton heights (1882) refers to the event as "the Burning of New London and Groton, the Battle of Groton Heights, and the Massacre in Fort Griswald [in Groton, across the River from New London]."

Any way you refer to it, on September 6, 1781, Benedict Arnold (of traitor fame) and his British troops set fire to American troops' (led by Colonel William Ledyard) supplies stored in the region. The ensuing battle occurred shortly prior to the British surrender at Yorktown and "sealed [Arnold's] reputation as a public enemy." Over 140 homes, businesses, workshops, public buildings, and vessels burned, and 83 Americans died in the conflict. As New London County Historical Society's executive director Edward Baker explains in an article about Benedict Arnold's legacy, "New London and Groton were almost entirely leveled."6 A monument commemorating the battle was dedicated in 1830, and the event remains important to local history. The battle's centennial inspired a flurry of publications and a Centennial Celebration featuring, among other goings-on, an exhibition of local relics.

The provenance: the commemoration

That's where the teabowl and saucer come into the story. As documented in Harris' The battle of Groton heights (1882), the Centennial celebration committee took care of Centennial details ranging from repairing the 1830 monument to the fireworks, but the committee left the exhibition planning up to the ladies of New London, Groton, Ledyard, and Stonington, Connecticut. The Centennial was a regional event. As Harris notes, "all [effort] was given gladly by these public-spirited members [of the planning committees], who still felt a thrill at the thought of the patriotism of family ancestors [displayed at the Burning, the Battle, and the Massacre]."7 But were Sophia Noyes and Maria Lake Peabody, whose names appear on the inscription, from Connecticut, and, if so, were they involved in the exhibition planning? Furthermore, did the teabowl and saucer appear in the exhibition?

John Warner Barber (1798-1885), Groton Monument and Fort Griswold, sketch for Barber's Historical Collections of Connecticut (New Haven, Conn.: Durrie & Peck and J.W. Barber, 1837).

The provenance: the women

Ancestry Library Edition census data gives me some idea as to whether these women existed. One of two Sophia Noyeses is likely the Sophy noted on the saucer. According to the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses, one Sophia was born in Connecticut circa 1795, and she was living in Stonington as a "housekeeper" as late as 1870. By the time the Centennial had rolled around, if she was still living, Sophy would have been about 87.

The other Stonington, Connecticut, Sophy is listed in the 1900 and 1920 censuses as Sophia A. Noyes and Sophia Noyes, respectively. She was born circa 1865, and she would have been about 17 at the time of the Centennial. The 1880 and 1900 censuses list Maria Peabody and Maria L. peabody, repectively, another housekeeper of Stonington, as having been born circa 1839, making her about 41 at the time of the Centennial. According to Harris's The Battle of Groton Heights, no Noyeses or Peabodys related to the women mentioned on the saucer seem to have been involved with the Centennial's planning. Additional searches using Ancestry Library Edition and America's Historical Newspapers contributed no new information. Therefore, one of two Sophys may be the Sophy in question, and the identified Maria may very well be the Maria who ended-up with the teabowl, the saucer, and a tale.

The provenence: the exhibition

As noted above, the exhibition was one facet of a carefully orchestrated Centennial event. Based on the list of relics published in the pamphlet Catalogue of articles shown at the Groton Heights Centennial Loan Exhibition, Groton, Conn., Sept. 6, 7, and 8, 1881 (available at the Winterthur Library, the Connecticut College Library, and the Duke University Library), I suspect that the women who organized the exhibition called upon friends, relatives, and neighbors to contribute objects associated with the battle itself, the Revolutionary War, American life, or family history.8 Here is a sampling of the 763 objects that appeared in the Groton Heights Centennial Loan Exhibition:

"24. Pewter platter, 150 years old," loaned by Mrs. Frothingham

"73. Fragment of Col. Ledyard's Vest.," loaned by Mrs. Adaline Miner

"378. Bed valance, made from flax grown in Stonington 100 years ago," loaned by Mrs. Mary Copp Williams

"432. Cane brought from Scotland in 1664 by Thos. Strickland, one of the four brothers of the original settlers in this country, now owned by the 7th Thos. Strickland in lineal descent," loaned, not surprisingly, by Thomas Strickland

"621. Quadrant, very old," loaned by New London Historical Society

"660. Pin cushion, made from brocade of Gen. Washington's easy chair," loaned by Edgar M. Warner

"745. fragment of Gen. Washington’s coffin," loaned by Mrs. Cash

Along with objects owned or used by famous individuals and miscellaneous "old" bits of material life, the Groton Exhibition included nine sets of cups (or teabowls) and saucers. Most are anonymous, linked only to their loaners. No. 207, however, may refer to the teabowl and saucer in question:

"Cup and saucer. Buried in New London in 1781," loaned by Mrs. S. P. Smith

This final clue further substantiates the veracity of the saucer's inscription. However, Mrs. S. P. Smith's story remains something of a mystery. A Connecticut-born S. P. Smith lived in Wisconsin with his Connecticut-born wife Ursula (also spelled Ulserra and Arsilla in the census)at least between 1860 and 1900. If this is the correct Connecticut Mrs. S. P. Smith, it is unclear as to how she was invovled in the long-distance loan of a two-hundred-year-old "harp backed chair" and the teabowl and saucer in question.


Which teabowl and saucer set was on exhibition? The teabowl and saucer found "in the bushes" a week after the burning, or the teabowl and saucer I purchased? I have interpreted the inscription to imply that this teabowl and saucer was on exhibition but that the set looks like a teabowl and saucer that were found "in the bushes" after that fateful September day in New London. Either way, the exhibition's catalogue documents the loaning of hundreds of relics imbued by their 1880s owners with remembrances of an event that shaped and continues to shape one region's understanding of and appreciation for its heritage. As Harris expounds, "[the Battle of Groton Heights/Burning of New London Centennial] must lead to a more thorough appreciation of our historic events, and stimulate the feeling of patriotism that will prepare the youth who have participated in it to emulate, should occasion require, the sacrifice that has been so nobly commemorated." 9 It is probable that this Chinese export teabowl and saucer would be deemed mundane and commonplace under most circumstances. However, the role the set played in the Centennial exhibition, its inscription, and its survival encapsulate the patriotism and curiousity inspired by all the exhibition relics' associations with the Burning of New London.

As this entry's epigraph suggests, New London residents mourned the material and mortal losses brought about by the Burning of New London and the Battle of Groton Heights. Perhaps relics--commonplace examples such as a Chinese export teabowl and saucer or extraordinary examples such as a scrap of Col. Ledyard's Vest--displayed at the Centennial Exhibition were all the more cherished by their loaners and the exhibition attendees because these objects represent New London's extant proof of "toil and thrift." It is likely that the exhibition served multiple agendas, but each exhibition object represented a reason for locals to take pride in their ancestors' sacrifices and to continue contributing to their town's, region's, and country's prosperity.

Alas, no mug for the office, but I have a piece of New England history with a great story.


1. Leonard Woolsey Bacon, "The Lay of Groton Height", in The battle of Groton Heights: a collection of narratives, official reports, records, etc., of the storming of Fort Griswold, the massacre of its garrison, and the burning of New London by British troops under the command of Brig.-Gen. Benedict Arnold, on the sixth of September, 1781, by William Wallace Harris (New London, Connecticut: C. Allyn, 1882), 366-370, accessed using Google Books.

2. Furthermore, it seems that twentieth-century "Bristolware" tins are collectible today. As a modifier, "Bristol" has also been applied to glass made in the same region. Also, note that decorative arts terminology evolves continuously and is not applied uniformly across the field.

3. This is not surprising, as New Hall porcelain is sometimes grouped with Bristol and Plymouth porcelain for study purposes since some of the same individuals and patents were involved at manufactories associated with these groups of porcelain. Sophy Noyes and Maria Lake Peabody may have been referred to their teabowl and saucer as "Bristolware" because it resembled some Bristol porcelain made in the associated region in England.

4. I have not determined what the "1239" inscribed on the saucer's underside means. It may be an old museum accession number or a personal collection inventory number.

5. I need to do more research to figure out if the character on the bottom of the bowl has any special significance. Ronald W. Fuchs II in collaboration with David S. Howard, Made in China: Export Porcelain from the Leo and Doris Hodroff Collection at Winterthur (Winterthur: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 2005), 20.

6. Edward Baker, "Benedict Arnold," New London County Historical Society, June 3, 2009, . First published in Hog River Journal, Fall 2006.

7. William Wallace Harris, The battle of Groton Heights: a collection of narratives, official reports, records, etc., of the storming of Fort Griswold, the massacre of its garrison, and the burning of New London by British troops under the command of Brig.-Gen. Benedict Arnold, on the sixth of September, 1781 (New London, Connecticut: C. Allyn, 1882), 305, accessed using Google Books.

8. Catalogue of articles shown at the Groton Heights Centennial Loan Exhibition, Groton, Conn., Sept. 6, 7, and 8, 1881 (1881).

9. Harris, 306.

Further reading

New London County Historical Society

Fort Griswald Battlefield State Park

Connecticut Museum Quest

For more on the first hard-paste porcelain production in England, see the Plymouth City and Art Gallery web site.

For more on New Hall porcelain, see David Holgate, New Hall and Its Imitators (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1971).

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