The spice of life

We’ve talked about food in the 19th century before on the blog, but we’ve mostly focused on the weird and wonderful (because, let’s face it, therein lies the fun stuff). In reality, a lot of food in the 19th century would have been bland and basic, especially for those of lower socio-economic status, who may not have been able to afford to buy the more flavoursome ingredients. In fact, much of it may have only been made palatable by the addition of the humble condiment, otherwise known as the saviour of tastebuds everywhere. The Victorians (and Edwardians) loved their condiments, from catsup to Worcestershire sauce, with an enduring appreciation that is more than evident in the archaeological and historical records.

Here in Christchurch (and, indeed, throughout the country) we find quite a lot of condiments on 19th century archaeological sites. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of them elaborately designed and decorated, from ‘gothic’ or ‘cathedral’ pickle jars to ‘swirly’ or ‘twirly’ salad oil bottles. Although we define the primary function of such bottles as ‘food storage’, condiments were also public objects, in the sense that unlike a lot of other food containers (jars, for example), condiment bottles were intended for use during a meal, at the table (much as they are now). As such, they were affected by the same philosophy of display and presentation that created decorated dinner sets and serving dishes: the things we put on our tables are almost always nicer than the things we use in our kitchens.

Several shapes and sizes of condiment bottles from an archaeological site in Christchurch's central city. Image: J. Garland.

Several shapes and sizes of condiment bottles from an archaeological site in Christchurch’s central city. Note the Mellor’s Worcester Sauce and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce bottles at the front right. Image: J. Garland.

Most of the condiment bottles we find are unlabelled, and the only clue we have to their original contents lies in the shape of the bottle, a correlation that (as we’ve mentioned before) is based on several – sometimes erroneous – assumptions. We have, however, been lucky enough to find several condiment bottles here in Christchurch with surviving labels or embossed glass, letting us know exactly what they originally contained. These labels have included everything from J. T. Morton’s vinegar, the ever present Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and its not-quite-so-famous relative, Mellor’s Worcester Sauce to Champion’s Vinegar, Olson’s Tomato Sauce, Weston and Westall’s Table Salt, George Whybrow’s ‘sublime’ salad oil and Crosse and Blackwell’s Mushroom Catsup.

Several vinegar bottles with surviving J. T. Morton labels. Some of them even still have corks and stoppers. Image: J. Garland.

Several vinegar bottles with surviving J. T. Morton labels. Some of them even still have corks and stoppers. Image: J. Garland.

Some of these are familiar to us. Lea and Perrins is still in business today, as is Crosse and Blackwell (as a side note, Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce began life as the ‘disgusting’ result of an attempt to make a spicy sauce – it wasn’t until after it had been forgotten for several years that it evolved into the sauce known today). Others are less familiar. Olson’s Tomato Sauce, which faded from mention in newspapers during the 1890s, seems to have been something of a forerunner to Watties, with “the red substance” produced in a factory in Auckland from the 1870s onwards. Mushroom Catsup (or ketchup, as it is now known), while still around today, is far more unusual now than it was in the 19th century.

Selection of labelled condiment bottles found in Christchurch. Left to right: George Whybrow's 'Sublime' Salad Oil, Olson's Tomato Sauce, Mellor's Worcestershire Sauce (this one has more than one label on it, suggesting re-use) and Crosse and Blackwell's Mushroom Catsup. Image: J. Garland.

Selection of labelled condiment bottles found in Christchurch. Left to right: George Whybrow’s ‘Sublime’ Salad Oil, Olson’s Tomato Sauce, Mellor’s Worcester Sauce (this one has more than one label on it, suggesting re-use) and Crosse and Blackwell’s Mushroom Catsup. Image: J. Garland.

It’s not all savoury, however. Sweeter accompaniments such as the fantastic calves feet jelly and Kirkpatrick’s jam have also been found in the city. Kirkpatrick’s, another New Zealand product (manufactured in sunny Nelson from the 1880s onwards), was famous throughout the country and overseas – with the ‘K’ brand winning awards in various exhibitions and expositions in the 1880s and 1890s. Calves feet jelly, despite the rather off-putting name (we do like to disguise where our food comes from now, don’t we?), was apparently a fairly mild tasting jelly marketed largely to invalids.

Bottle of Calves Feet Jelly found in central Christchurch on site dating to c. the 1870s. Image: J. Garland.

Bottle of calves feet jelly found in central Christchurch on site dating to c. the 1870s. Image: J. Garland.

Jams and jellies aside, most of the condiments we find would have been used to spice up savoury dishes and many of the advertisements we find for them in contemporary newspapers list foods like roasts, cheese, fish, mutton, gravies and soups as the things most likely to benefit from the addition of condiments. Interestingly, the word of choice to describe the flavour of the condiments themselves seems to have been ‘piquant.’ With ‘relish’ coming in a close second. Whether ‘piquancy’ was actually a flavour sought after by Victorian consumers or a buzz-word imposed by advertisers on those consumers, I don’t know. Possibly a little bit of both?

Advertisements for different types of condiment from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Note the frequent use of the word 'piquant.' Image (clockwise from top left):

Advertisements for different types of condiment from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Note the frequent use of the word ‘piquant.’ Image (clockwise from top left): Auckland Star 20/01/1871, p. 2; Wanganui Herald 9/03/1918, p. 7Press 31/05/1924, p. 6Taranaki Daily News 13/12/1917, p. 5; Nelson Evening Mail 16/09/1914 p. 2.

Advertisements for condiments are actually really interesting, not just because of the fascinating insights you get into Victorian and Edwardian food (and there were some amazing recipes, seriously) and other things (I stumbled across an amazing rant about puns, for example) but because of the ways those advertisements reflect the world around them. For example, 19th century adverts emphasise the tastelessness of foods, the tried and trusted nature of the products, the familiarity of the tastes, but by the early 20th century and the advent of World War I, there’s a notable shift to an emphasis on the economic advantages of using condiments.


Advertisements for Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce that emphasise the economic advantages of using the condiment. Even the advertisement on the left, which leads with the “quality” of the product, still makes reference to how “a little of this sauce [can] go a long way.” Images (left to right); Press 2/09/1916, p. 5; New Zealand Herald 31/10/1918 p. 8.

This is particularly relevant to archaeology, since condiments have been considered signifiers of wealth – or at least economic status – in archaeological assemblages before, because they are inessential items. You don’t need condiments to survive, but they make the foods you do need to survive more palatable (although it could be said that a lot of material culture is inessential, if you wanted to be technical about it). The logic follows, therefore, that the presence of condiments indicates the ability to afford extra ‘luxury’ items. Yet, as those advertisements from the early 20th century indicate, we have to consider the theory that condiments actually reflected a lower economic status household or, at least, the practice of economy within a household. People could easily have bought simpler and cheaper foods, because they knew they could spice it up with condiments, rather than more expensive food that required no such additions of flavour.

It’s something to think about in our own culinary habits now, I think. Especially in a culture and an era in which so much emphasis is placed on the health benefits (and social status, to a degree) of fresh ingredients and ‘good quality’ non-processed foods, despite the plethora of processed foods and sauces that surround us every day. What would our condiment consumption say about our society now, I wonder? What does yours say about you? Is it a flavour issue, a preference of taste? Is there an economic benefit to our consumption of condiments? How much do our tastes reflect the changing culture, influences and social context in which we live our daily lives? How much do they reflect our past? The remnants of our colonial heritage are evident in more than just our buildings or our flag (ooh, topical!) – they’re present in our food as well. Even more than that, they’re present in our tastes.

Think about it. Honestly, what does your taste in food say about you, and your history?

Jessie Garland


Pieces of the Past

This week on the blog we’re sending you over to Pieces of the Past, an online exhibition we’ve curated as part of Beca Heritage Week here in Christchurch. The exhibition features the staff of Underground Overground Archaeology and their favourite artefacts. There’s a wealth of different objects and stories there (and a suspicious number of caffeine related biographies for our archaeologists), from a sheep hoof on a stick to pocket watches, spinning tops and poems about cowboys.

In fact, we may have been so excited about it that we modified (or butchered, depends on your point of view) a famous song in our excitement.

Glass eyes on skulls and sheep hooves on sticks,
Old broken watches and bright orange bricks,
Upright pianos, still with their strings,
These are a few of our favourite things.

Lost spinning tops and pointy bone hooks,
Cheese jars and Marmite and Rantin’s old books,
Cowboys and boats and small figurines,
These are a few of our favourite things.

When the trowel scrapes,
When the glass breaks,
When we’re feeling bored,
We simply remember our favourite things,
And then we don’t feel so bad.

Check it out here. 

A poetic reflection on heritage buildings

As building archaeologists we record and analyse the form, structure and ornamentation of 19th century dwellings to learn about the lives led by past occupants.

The Victorian era was a time of invention and achievement. Society was dominated by middle-class morality as they relentlessly pursued comfort and material wealth. Their houses expressed the energy and exuberance of this time, as they presented their best face to the public.

These efforts can be directly observed through the choice of internal linings used in 19th century dwellings. Wealthy homes were commonly lined with timber laths and lime plaster, while poorer houses used roughly sawn butted sarking boards. When we recorded a modest workman’s cottage in the Avon Loop we uncovered some of these roughly sawn butted sarking boards in the parlour, a room purposely decorated for public display.

Roughly sawn butted sarking boards used in parlour of workman's cottage. Image: F. Bradley.

Roughly sawn butted sarking boards used in parlour of workman’s cottage. Image: F. Bradley.

Over time, however, seven layers of wallpaper had been applied to this room to disguise the poor lining material.

Original layer 1

The first layer of wallpaper applied was a mid-Victorian pattern design of purple and light brown diamond shapes dating to between the 1860s and 1870s. Image: F. Bradley.

Layer 2

Applied on top of the original layer was a brown wallpaper with a blue flowers and leaves pattern design, dating to the 1880s. Image: F. Bradley.

Layer 4

The fourth layer of wallpaper dated to the 1850s and had design elements of the Edwardian period, with green diamond shapes and pink roses. Image: F. Bradley.

top layer 7

The last layer was a pearlescent wallpaper with a design pattern of white, pink and yellow flowers, dating to between the 1920s and 1930s. Image: F. Bradley.

When we record these historic dwellings, we try decipher the social conventions at play during the Victorian era and how they influenced the way in which their dwellings were decorated. But when it came to recording this workman’s cottage in the Avon Loop, we were confronted with the juxtaposition of how 19th century society decorated their houses and a very unique way one 21st century occupant had decided to decorate her humble abode.


Street-facing elevation of workman’s cottage in the Avon Loop. Image: F. Bradley.

In its irreparable state the creative owner of this house took to it with a fine paint brush and turned its rough-cast plastered walls into a mural of poetry.

The street-facing south elevation bore the words of Percy Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’.


Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ painted on the street-facing south elevation. Image: F. Bradley.

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

(Source: Wikipedia, 2001).

‘Ozymandias’ was one of English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous works, first published in 1818. Shelley’s works often attracted controversy as they spoke out against oppression, convention and religion (Source: Wikipedia, 2001).

His poem ‘Ozymandias’ acts as a a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of political power. Its central theme explores the indiscriminate and destructive power of history, by contrasting all leaders’ pretentions to greatness and their inevitable decline. It is a powerful statement about the insignificance of human beings to the passage of time (Wikipedia, 2001).

Along the north elevation of the cottage were the words of Denis Glover’s iconic New Zealand poem ‘The Magpies’.


Denis Glover’s poem ‘The Magpies’ painted along the north elevation of the cottage. Image: F. Bradley.


First section of ‘The Magpies’. Image: F. Bradley.


Second section of ‘The Magpies’. Image: F. Bradley.

The Magpies – Denis Glover

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
Elizabeth’s lips were red,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Year in year out they worked
While the pines grew overhead,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

But all the beautiful crops soon went
To the mortgage-man instead,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Elizabeth is dead now (it’s years ago)
Old Tom went light in the head;
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations
Couldn’t give it away.
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

(Source: Xyphir, 2011).

‘The Magpies’ by Denis Glover is one of New Zealand’s most famous poems, first published in 1941. This poem relates to the passage of time as it laments the fate of farmers in hard economic times (Wikipedia, 2006). The hard-working farming couple become victims of an oppressive social system that exploits the working man. In this poem, the cruel and impartial nature of time is personified by the distinctive caw of the magpies, as they watched the farmers struggle away (Shieff, 2008).

As architectural styles and their decorative features can help us understand the conditions of bygone generations, the choice of poetry used here to decorate this workman’s cottage may be a reflection on the current post-quake social condition of Canterbury. Or perhaps the owner was merely commenting on the passage of time and its indiscriminate treatment of her home. Who knows, as archaeologists we can only speculate…


Words of wisdom painted next to the dwelling’s front door. Image: F. Bradley.

Francesca Bradley.


Wikipedia, 2001. Ozymandias. [online] (22 September 2015) Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2015].

Xyphir, 2011. The Magpies – Denis Glover. A poem a day, [online] 26 April 2011. Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2015].

Wikipedia, 2006. The Magpies. [online] (2 May 2015) Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2015].

Shieff, Sarah, 2008. Denis Glover, 1912 – 1980. [online] Wellington: Victoria University. Available at: file:///Users/Shebitch/Downloads/716-622-1-PB%20(1).pdf [Accessed 1 October 2015].