‘The broken pitcher’

Today, art is my inspiration, at least as a starting point. The title of this blog post may seem whimsical, but it is both a practical description of our subject today and a reference to the art of centuries past. Some musicians, painters, writers named their masterpieces ‘the broken pitcher throughout the 18th and 19th centuries such as Henri Pontet, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, William Adolphe Bouguereau or Heinrich von Kleist. Artists may have been seduced by the curved shape of the vessel similar to a feminine body, or maybe inspired by earthlier meanings associated with the everydayness. Even the fragility of ceramics as easily breakable might suggest a deeper meaning…

We’ve previously written about ceramics on the blog (a lot), from transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world to toilet humour and all the way through to cuppas. Now, it’s turn of “the broken pitcher”. Not just as the inspiration for art, but also as something that can tell us about people, our topic. Broken ceramics in general, and jugs and pitchers in particular, were common parts of daily life during the Victorian Era – whether they were broken by accident, dropped from clumsy hands or smashed in a fit of rage, it’s hard to tell…

Auckland Star (17/02/1934: 4). I’m not sure if I’m understanding the illustration properly at all. It seems to me that the big man holding the teapot is blaming his wife for breaking the last jug. The man looks worried. How can he fill the jug with beer! I would say: that’s your big problem, mate!

South Canterbury Times (14/09/1889: 4). The mystery of the broken pitcher inflicted uncertainty on this woman. It seems bizarre. Splitting into pieces at a touch. Undoubtedly, I would be also wondering why that happened…

As archaeologists, we are used to dealing with broken ceramics. As we are not artists using the romantic topic of ‘the broken pitcher’ or Victorians in the 19th century struggling with their day-to-day issues, we deal with broken ceramics from a distinct perspective. During the artefact analysis we follow several steps. First, we try to put the pieces together. It’s like a game, figuring out a puzzle – as entertaining as it is handy for us. Refitting gives us the chance to determine how much of the vessel is present, and to further identify the forms and functions. Also, when you are holding the complete reassembled vessel, there’s a moment of joy and happiness. A real sense of satisfaction.

Left: The office is chocka! It’s a sea-ramic, even. Image: J. Garland. Right: After an amazing refitting job, I promise, Jessie was the authentic expression of delight. Unfortunately, we cannot check it out because she preferred to hide her face behind a pretty plate. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Technically, a jug is a vessel with a handle and spout used for storing or pouring liquids. This definition also applies to pitcher and ewer, terms that are often used interchangeably (although there are some distinct differences) for larger vessels. As it’s a bit confusing, we have our own typology here at Underground Overground, for the sake of consistency. We usually use jug to refer to milk jugs or smaller vessels, while both pitchers and ewers are large jugs. Particularly, ewer is used for those vessels that are found with matching wash basins, in relation to personal hygiene. Sadly, to find jugs, ewers or pitchers in a complete condition is as unusual as delightful. We often find them broken instead, largely just the pouring lip or part of the handle.

In defence of these fragmentary jugs, let’s say both have been identify thanks to the presence of the diagnostic elements mentioned above. Left: Gilt banded pitcher. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu. Right: Holly patterned pitcher. Yes, the name makes sense. The Holly pattern features holly leaves across the vessel. Also, the pattern name is printed on the base. Unfortunately, the mark is incomplete, making impossible to trace it to a specific manufacturer. Image: J. Garland.

Otherwise, a broken jug occasionally becomes an almost complete one after being carefully refitted. From tiny to large examples, here’s selection of the jugs, pitchers and ewers we’ve found in 19th century Christchurch.

Miniature porcelain jug. So cute and tiny. Both now and in the past, children learn through play and toys, which teaches them about roles that will be important during their adult life. Girls, in particular, were educated in the Victorian era with dolls and tea sets, enforcing their role in relation to motherhood and domesticity (Prangnell and Quirk 2009: 42). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Dark and light. Both of these are milk jugs, likely used with a matching tea set. Left: a red refined earthenware jug with a tulip shaped body and a footed base. It stands out for its metallic brown glaze. Image: J. Garland. Right: a bone china jug decorated with gilt banding in combination with the ‘tea leaf’ motif. The ‘tea leaf’ design was first introduced in the mid-1850s by Antony Shaw and its popularity increased quickly, being produced by a number of manufacturers (Kowalsky and Kowalsky 1999: 15). Image: C. Dickson.

These milk jugs are as similar as they are different. The former (left) is decorated with blue sponging, while the latter (right) displays a romantic scene with towered buildings in the foreground and a man or woman ridden a horse. Despite the lost fragment, the scene is lovely. Unfortunately, there is no manufacturer’s mark and we don’t know the name of the pattern. Image: J. Garland.

Another pair of jugs, one of which is my favourite. Left: a yellow-ware vessel decorated with a blue and white dendritic mocha design. Such decoration originated in the late 18th century was formed by allowing a drop of a chemical solution known as ‘mocha tea’ to fall onto the still wet slip of the vessel. The ensuing reaction was carefully managed in order to create the fronds characteristic of the pattern (Rickard 2006). Right: a buff-bodied Bristol glazed jug. The relief moulding displayed a pastoral scene in which people are drinking surrounded by trees. This type of relief moulded jugs, depicting sentimental, floral, gothic, biblical or patriotic themes, gained popularity in the early Victorian period, from the 1830s until the 1870s (Oswald et al. 1982). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

This is an elegant semi-vitrified pitcher or ewer, decorated with stylised foliage in relief. The pitcher had the mark ‘DUDSON’ impressed into the base of the vessel, referring to the Hanley pottery company of James Dudson, operating from 1838 – 1888. Dudson was known for producing “moulded jugs” like this one, as well as Wedgwood style Jasper wares (Godden 1991: 223). Image: J. Garland.

With appearance of the noble marble and with a faceted body, this little jug is just adorable! This style of transfer print is colloquially known as ‘marble’ based on its similarity with marble stone and the veins on its surface. This decoration is usually found in black, blue, blue or purple colours and typically used for jugs and toilet sets for many years (Kelly 2006: 122). This particular jug was found in a rubbish pit with several other near complete ceramic vessels dating from the late 1840s to the late 1850s. Image: J. Garland.

This huge black transfer printed pitcher features an aesthetic pattern, combining asymmetric floral and foliage motifs, including fruits and elements in clusters with geometric shaped vignettes. Aesthetic styles like this are fairly common on Christchurch sites during the 1880-1890s period. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

I’m sure that you remember this one. It’s an imitation of a Mason’s Imari jug, looking like those made by G. M. and C. J. Mason in their Fenton factory in the 1820s. This colourfully design is inspired by Japanese motifs and the handle is in the shape of a dragon. Image: J. Garland.

Gorgeous shape, attractive curved lip, and flowered body, plenty of roses. So far, we cannot figure out the name of the pattern. Overall, scenic or scenic or sheet floral decorative styles like this, which cover most, or all the vessel are characteristic of mid-19th century (Samford 1997). This particular vessel, which is an excellent example of an ‘ewer’ shape, was found with fragments of a matching wash basin. Image: J. Garland.

Regarding to their function throughout the 19th century, jugs, pitchers and ewers were widely used to contain and serve a variety of liquids, including water, milk, beer or wine as well as being used in relation to personal grooming and hygiene. Unquestionably, a versatile artefact. Just saying…

Anything to add. ‘A terrible, yet amazing pun’ (Jessie’s quote). Colonist (21/05/1858: 3).

New Zealand Herald (20/08/1931: 11). I wouldn’t underestimate the multipurpose nature of a jug. This could be a good revenge against that ironic husband who jokes with pitchers, water and women, by the way. If a little drastic…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Colonist. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Godden, G., 1991. Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. Crown Publishers, New York.

Kelly, H.E., 2006. The Glasgow Pottery of John and Matthew Perston Bell China and Earthenware Manufacturers in Glasgow. Glasgow.

Kowalsky, A. A. and Kowalsky, D. E., 1999. Encyclopedia of Marks on American, English and European Earthenware, Ironstone, and Stoneware 1780-1980. Makers, Marks and Patterns in Blue and White, Historic Blue, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Romantic Transferware, Tea Leaf, and White Ironstone. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, Atglen, U.S.A.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Oswald, A., Hildyard, R. J. C. and Hughes, R. G., 1982. English Brown Stoneware, 1670-1900. Faber and Faber, London.

Prangnell, J. and Quirk, K., 2009. Children in Paradise: Growing up on the Australian Goldfields. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 38-49.

Rickard, J., 2006. Mocha and Related Dipped Wares 1770-1939. New Hampshire University Press of New England, Lebanon.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

South Canterbury Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

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