Classic! A look at transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world

Ceramic artefacts are some of the most common finds recovered from 19th century Christchurch archaeological sites. Teacups, saucers, plates, dishes, bottles, jars, jugs, chamber pots, wash basins…heaps of objects related to food and drink preparation, consumption and storage as well as hygiene or personal grooming habits. However, today, we’re not talking about forms and functions. We’ll go further…travelling through transfer printed decorations inspired by Neoclassical and Romantic designs.

Once upon a time, until the invention of transfer printing, the coloured decorations on ceramics were applied by hand. The technique of transfer printing, which originated in England in the mid-18th century, allowed potters, for the first time, to mass-produce identical detailed images on ceramic vessels. Blue and white designs dominated the wide world of transferwares, although black, brown, green, grey, purple and red colours were also used in the second half of the 19th century as we’ll see.

A perfect explanation of the invention of transfer printing. Press 10/07/1935

Potteries offered a variety of patterns that reflected social and decorative trends of the time. It was well-known by everybody that the finest ceramic was imported from China. It is not a surprise, then, that Chinese designs were copied or adapted and used as inspiration. In fact, patterns like Asiatic Pheasants and Willow became very popular and they are found on Christchurch sites quite often.

Asiatic Pheasants (left) and Willow (right) plates. These designs are still in use on modern ceramics, confirming their success among consumers. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

However, the search for more interesting and original decorations began quickly. European scenes based on neoclassical and romantic themes became inspiration for decorative designs in the mid-19th century and were sold as an exotic counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscape and architecture.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries neoclassicism had infiltrated the arts and historical tradition. Ancient Greece and Rome were the inspiration. Transfer prints and stylistic trends were influenced by archaeological discoveries at ancient cities such as Pompeii, Herculaneum or Athens. Designs were dominated by horizontal and vertical lines and symmetrical proportions reflected the virtues of  antiquity, like harmony, clarity and universality. Ceramic patterns displayed temples, columns, urns, sculptures, draped figures, acanthus leaves and Greek or Roman ruins in an effort to emulate these glorious past civilizations. Neoclassical patterns are relatively common finds on archaeological sites in Christchurch, some more frequently than others.

To be honest, it was difficult to choose just a few patterns to show you today. But, finally, here we are with a selection of some of my favourite neoclassical inspired patterns uncovered on Christchurch sites!

ANTIQUE (left) and ITALIAN (right). Both patterns featured a bunch of antique vases in a central scene. The Greek vases sold to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton attracted considerable attention over the years and were probably the inspiration for these decorations. Image: J. Garland.

ETRUSCAN was a popular name used for transferware designs showing classical vases and ewers. We know if was popular as several variations have been found in Christchurch, all of which featured a border with the repeating Greek key motif and/or an arrangement of vases in the centre of the scene. Image: J. Garland.

From the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries romanticism arose in Europe as a reaction to modernity, increasing industrialisation and rationality in general, and as a rejection of the neoclassical virtues of order, calm and harmony in particular. This artistic, cultural and intellectual movement played on the emotions, individualism and the glorification of the past and nature. Given the interest in nature, these designs often contained landscape scenes. Romantic imagery is easily identifiable on transferwares because it always follows this formula: water source as a central feature (river, lake), stylised buildings in the distance and small human figures and/or animals to provide sense of scale. Nature is also present through trees, mountains and valleys.

A wide variety of romantic patterns are commonly found on Christchurch sites, but again (sorry for my obsession today!), I chose those inspired by classical themes, which completed the romantic formula that we know with classical buildings, fountains, urns or pillared balconies. Some of these patterns, as you’ll see, were named after historical places or influential figures in the past. Designs were sometimes associated with the name or place, but were sometimes not…

MOREA was the then name of the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in Southern Greece, so-named because it is said to look like a mulberry leaf in shape. The pattern depicted classical ruins with columns close to a river. The scene is framed by flowers and trees. A distant building with towers are visible on the distance. Two people on a path were also represented, one of them walking and the other one riding a horse. Image: J. Garland.

MYCENAE was the center of Mycenaean civilization, the culture which dominated Greece, Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age in the II millennium BC and one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. This example of Mycenae pattern featured an urn with two handles in the centre of the scene decorated with a variety of sculptures and musicians in separated vignettes along with floral and geometric designs. Water, buildings and mountains completed the landscape surrounded by trees. J. Garland.

RAVENNA is an Italian city, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The pattern combined a classical garden with a woman’s statue on a pedestal, a balustrade, a vase, a river and again, distant classical buildings and mountains among a cloudy sky. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As I mentioned, pattern names occasionally don’t match with the subject portrayed and for me, Sappho is a perfect example. I chose it because of who it refers to…

SAPPHO is a geometric pattern consisting of repeating elements on the border and a medallion in the centre of the vessel. On top right, among the earthenwares offered to consumers, Sappho dinner services were listed as an available pattern in 1863 (Press 5/08/1863: 2). On bottom right, there is a picture of Sappho, who inspired this ceramic decoration. She was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, particularly famous for her love poems. Image: J. Garland and Wikimedia Commons.

Given the topic for the blog today and taking advantage of that, I would like to show you other Romantic patterns based on real or imaginary European themes, referring to Spain and its medieval past. Yes! Here in Christchurch we have found these beautiful vessels…

ANDALUSIA is a region in the South of Spain. This Andalusia patterned plate features Spanish friars or monks, praying in front of a monument. The border has vignettes with alternating sprays, floral and foliage elements. Image: J. Garland.

Sometimes, we find ourselves unable to trace the name of a specific design, although many of the elements may be known and/or resemble other ceramics decorations. For example, although it was impossible to figure out the name of this ceramic pattern, I can’t resist the temptation to suggest an idea…

The pretty chamber pot on top uncovered on Tuam Street features an architecture quite familiar to me. It reminds me of the Alhambra in Granada. And I promise you that it is not a crazy idea! Look the image on right! The name Alhambra means “the red fortress”. Alhambra is one of the most emblematic examples of Islamic architecture in Spain, later completed as a fortress and palace. The place in which the fortress is located has plenty of running water, fountains, cascades and gardens. It was the last bastion of the Moors, who were forced to leave Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Image: J. Garland and The Telegraph.

While Romantic transfer prints based on classical inspirations are relatively popular on 19th century Christchurch sites, those inspired by the Middle Age in Spain are uncommon finds so far. It is likely that Spain was more exotic and unusual for the New Zealand consumers, rather than Greek and Rome revivals.

The presence of these fashionable items within the home, displaying exotic scenes of faraway places, conveyed messages and knowledge of culture and history. Certainly, potters made wares decorated with certain patterns to supply the consumer’s demand. But beyond that, ceramics were a vehicle by which the myths and ideas from these places could travel across the world wherever the vessels were sold. These neoclassic and romantic transfer prints could make people believe that they were intrepid explorers travelling to ancient Europe, through their vessels. The scenes on their plates would become their image of Greece or Rome and Spain, whether or not it was realistic. The symbolic power of transfer prints was also important in the formation of new identities and the emergence of new national ideologies throughout the 19th century, as we discussed in a recent post talking about commemorative designs.

Neoclassical and romantic decorative styles, which inspired both my post today and ceramic makers during the 19th century, had decreased in popularity by the late Victorian era, while the standard Willow and Asiatic Pheasants remained in production for some time. After the decline of neoclassical and romantic designs, patterns with repeating and floral borders became more popular. However, that’s a story for another day!

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & La Trobe University, Australia.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 17801880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ [Accessed 23 June 2017]

Lucas, G., 2003. Literature and Transfer-Printed Pottery in the Early Nineteenth Century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 7 (2): 127-143.

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

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. [online] Available at:  http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/ [Accessed 23 June 2017].

 

 

An archaeological treasure trove!

As explained at length in the past, archaeologists don’t much like the use of the word ‘treasure‘. But this really is an archaeological treasure trove – lots and lots of artefacts, from which we shall learn lots and lots of fantastic information. Angel is responsible for this beautifully excavated feature, which we think was probably associated with the London and Paris House, a fancy goods store on Colombo Street in the 1860s and early 1870s. Enjoy!

The beginning… Image: A. Trendafilov.

This brick-lined feature was, as you can see, chock-full of artefacts, most of which were concentrated at the top of the feature, indicating that there were at least two deposition events. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A slightly different view of the feature. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A fabulous water filter, from London (it’s the second one of these we’ve found, but this one’s far more complete). Image: A. Trendafilov.

The base of that fabulous water filter. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Barry’s Tricopherous… Image: A. Trendafilov.

Ceramics, waiting to be excavated. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A cup, possibly bearing a message for a child? Image: A. Trendafilov.

All done! Well, nearly. Next up: analysis and research and more great stories! Image: A. Trendafilov.

A happy archaeologist! Image: H. Williams.

The Trooper

Ceramics have been decorated to commemorate a range of events, people and places since long before the 19th century. The practice is particularly tied to British royalty, with some rather intense results. While tankards, jugs, plaques, mugs and miniature wares are most commonly decorated for commemorative purposes, a number of different ceramic types could be used in this manner (Perry 2011). The subject of the blog today is inspired by two mustard jars from Christchurch that commemorate events from the Crimean War. The Crimean War occurred from 1853 to 1856. Caused by the failing Ottoman Empire and power struggles between countries over religious rights of access to the Holy Land, two key parts of the war are depicted on these household artefacts, the Siege of Sevastopol (also known as Sebastopol) and the Battle of Balaklava (or Balaclava; Goldi Productions Ltd 1996 & 2000Wikipedia 2017).

Source caption: “Episode of the Siege of Sebastopol During the Crimean War in 1855”, dated 19th century and credited to Adolphe Yvon. Image: Wikipedia 2015.

The first of these came from the large Justice Precinct site in the city centre. It was decorated with polychrome transfer print in a style often identified as ‘prattware’. Prattware refers to polychrome underglaze transfer printed scenes that were associated with the manufacturers F. & R. Pratt & Co. Ltd (Perry 2010). This particular jar featured a scene known as the ‘The Fall of Sebastopol 8th Sept. 1855’ (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). This scene refers to one of the classic sieges of the Crimean War, which aimed to capture the significant Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol, on the Black Sea (Bunting 2017).

Mustard jar decorated with the Fall of Sevastopol.

The print depicts and names Sir Harry Jones, the famous British military man who served in the Crimean War as commander of the British forces at the battle of Bomarsund and of the Royal Engineer forces at the Siege of Sevastopol (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). Most descriptions of this pattern presume that Sir Harry Jones is the figure on the stretcher in the scene, although there is no record of his being wounded during the battle. The full title of the pattern includes the date 8th September 1855, when the Battle of Malakoff occurred and the Russian forces began to withdraw (Atkinson 1911: 451-453; Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017).

The second mustard jar base was found on a residential site just outside the city centre. The whiteware jar had a polychrome transfer printed design depicting a battle and the words “The/…OON/CHAR…” around the base. This would have formed the full phrase: “THE DRAGOON CHARGE” (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). This print depicts the Battle of Balaklava fought on 25 October 1854 as a part of the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The Battle of Balaklava was a Russian assault on the British allied supply base that involved the famous Thin Red Line military tactic and the infamously deadly Charge of the Light Brigade (Wikipedia 2017).

‘The Dragoon Charge’ underglaze print on the Prattware mustard jar.

 

Source caption: “The Russian camp at the Genoese Castle, Balaklava.” Image: Roger Fenton/Getty Images, The Telegraph.

Although no maker’s marks were evident on the base of either jar, examples of the same printed Prattware are attributed to the manufacturers John Thomas and Joseph Mayer. Thomas and Mayer manufactured pottery in Longport, Burslem, Staffordshire between 1842 and 1855 (Kowalsky & Kowalsky 1999: 274). The date range for the operation of the Thomas and Mayer company and the commemorative nature of the prints suggests a manufacturing date in the 1850s, possibly as early as late 1854 to 1855. This would have taken place while the Crimean war was still ongoing.

Although little remembered today, the Crimean War is often described as the “first truly modern war” (Groll and Frankel 2014). With the advent of new technology, industry and weaponry, the resulting high casualty rate marked this event as a significant moment in the mid-19th century. In addition to this, the perceptions of the war were shaped by real-time journalistic coverage and photographic documentation by Roger Fenton. Due to the process involved in setting up and taking photography at the time, Fenton was limited to producing images of still (sometimes staged) moments in between the carnage. Depictions of the fighting seem to be limited to paintings and prints made during the war by artist-correspondents or after the war.

Source caption: “Roger Fenton himself dressed in a Zouave uniform holding rifle. Zouaves were crack infantry units, originally composed of Algerians. During the Crimean War, Zouaves served with the French Army, allies of the British. Fenton’s self-portrait in the costume indicates the high regard the British felt for the Zouaves.” Image: Roger Fenton/Getty Images, The Telegraph.

Source caption: “Two versions of the widely-acknowledged ‘first iconic war photograph’ entitled The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The lower one shows cannonballs on the road whereas above shows the road clear of ammunition. Historians have concluded that Fenton may have moved the cannonballs into the road to enhance the image. An alternative view is that soldiers were gathering the missiles for re-use and had thrown them onto the road to make them easier to collect.” Image: Roger Fenton/Getty Images, The Telegraph.

Source caption: “British soldiers pose for a photographs during a break.” Image: Roger Fenton/Getty Images, The Telegraph.

Polychrome transfer printed scenes like this were used on ceramic food containers throughout the latter half of the 19th century, although they are not common on Christchurch archaeological sites. The jars are an example of commemorative objects available for consumption in the wake of significant events. The participation of British soldiers in the Battle of Balaklava in particular was seen as an example of some of the finest heroic fighting of the war and many depictions of this heroism were created in art and literature (Bunting 2017). These kinds of physical reminders of formative events in national identity have been noted elsewhere in discussions of commemorative products depicting the 1899 South African War, particularly with regards to the connections between colonial and national ideologies (Lucas 2004). Although New Zealand was not directly involved in this conflict, British soldiers who fought in the war later emigrated to New Zealand (New Zealand Crimean War Veterans 2017). Such an event was part of the collective memory of 19th century British national identity, as evident in other depictions of the battle such as paintings and in the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As such, the presence of objects commemorating the Crimean War in 19th century New Zealand archaeological sites demonstrate these links to important historical events.

The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb, 1881. Image: Wikipedia 2017.

The remembrance of aspects of the Crimean War continued through to the modern era. Lord Tennyson’s poem in particular formed the platform for later adaptations of and references to the event. The Charge of the Light Brigade was immortalised on screen in 1912, 1936 and 1968. Each version varies greatly in how it depicts the events of the war, in line with the time period and popular movie styles of the period. The poem has echoes in modern pop culture as Lord Tennyson’s poem formed the basis of the 1983 Iron Maiden song ‘The Trooper’ and references in movies and TV shows from Saving Private Ryan to Top Gear to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Megan Hickey

References

Atkinson, C. F., 1911. Crimean War. In Chisholm, H. (Ed). Encyopaedia Brittanica 7 (11th Edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kowalsky, A and Kowalsky, D. 1999. Encyclopaedia of Marks On American, and European Earthernware, Ironstone and Stoneware 1780-1980. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. Atglen.

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. The Dragoon Charge – Balaklava [online] Available at: http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/tcc2/data/patterns/d/the-dragoon-charge-balaklava/ [Accessed 05 May 2017].

So far, yet so close…

As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…

As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…

Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.

To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.

So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!

The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.

Evening Star 12/06/1883.

Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!

Recreation of a prehistoric settlement. Image: M. A. Salvatierra.

I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.

Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!

A range of food related material, comparing prehistoric (black background) and 19th century (white background) from Spain and Christchurch sites respectively: bone spoon/silver spoon, bowl with incised decoration/green transfer printed bowl, polished jug/Bristol glazed jug and serving dish with geometric decoration/moulded serving dish. Images: Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia, Museo Arqueologico Regional de Madrid, J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?

Children’s artefacts. On the right, an articulated doll made of ivory recovered from a children’s burial from Paleocristian site of Tarragona (Spain) dating to 3rd or 4th century AD. Remnants of fabric were also visible on it, indicating that these dolls wore clothes, as 19th century porcelain dolls recovered from Christchurch sites do. On the left, there are some miniature ceramic vessels from el Cerro de la Encina (Monachil, Granada, Spain) dating to the Bronze Age between 3rd and 1st millennium BC. They were recovered from a children’s burial as well. Below those, there is a toy tea set and a children’s cup found in Christchurch. Images: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona, Underground Overground Archaeology, J. Garland, M.A. Blanco and G. Jackson.

So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!

What a curious scene that’s shown in these images! Do you notice the similarities and difference between them? Domestic activities are shown as awful tasks in both pictures. As a difference, the re-creation on top depicts a relaxed man, who is smoking and reading a race car magazine, while his stressed woman is cooking and holding the baby, with the other children surrounding her. It might be the traditional atmosphere in a 19th century household context. However, the female and masculine roles are reversed in the bottom picture. Here, the domestic activities are presented as the apocalypse for men, and they cannot manage the situation. Top image: The Observer 14/03/1891. Bottom image: New Zealand Mail 29/09/1893.

So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!

Images: Underground Overground Archaeology and El Periodico Villena.

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

GEA. Cultura Material e identidad social en la Prehistoria Reciente en el Sur de la Peninsula Iberica. [online] Available at: http://www.webgea.es/ [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Gonzalez Marcen, P., Monton-Subias, M. and Picazo, M., 2008. ‘Towards an archaeology of maintenance activities’. In Monton-Subias, S. and Sanchez-Romero, S., 2008 (ed.) Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. BAR International Series 1862.

Museo Arqueologico Regional. Comunidad de Madrid. [online] Available at: http://www.museoarqueologicoregional.org [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia. [online] Available at: http://www.museuprehistoriavalencia.es [Accessed 8/05/2017].

Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona [online] Available at: http://www.mnat.cat/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Past Women. Material Culture of Women. [online] Available at: http://www.pastwomen.net/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Sanchez Romero, M., 2008. ‘Childhood and the Construction of Gender Identities through Material Culture’. Childhood in the Past 1, 17-37.

Symonds, J., 2007. Table Settings. The Material Culture and Social Context of Dinning, AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, United Kingdom.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

 

And when I get that feeling…

In the lyrics to his hit 1982 song, Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye cries out (in smooth and sultry tones, really) for a remedy that will relieve his mind, restore his emotional stability, stop the “blue teardrops” falling and calm the sea “stormin’ inside of me.” It may surprise you to discover that, amazingly and with only a tiny bit of artistic license (well, sort of), this song works rather well as an allegory for Victorian attitudes to sex. Yep, you heard me. Particularly if you listen to them the day after reading an 1840s-1860s treatise on sexual health, impotence and general quackery (do not recommend for the squeamish…). It’s the last lines, usually faded out past the point of hearing in recorded versions, that really clinch it: “please don’t procrastinate,” he sings softly, “it’s not good to masturbate.”

Bet you didn’t know about that line did you.

I realise that this foray into 1980s R & B and/or the (surprisingly very graphic) world of Victorian sexual health is somewhat out of character for this blog, but do bear with us, dear reader. Let us take you on a journey down the rabbit hole to a side of 19th century life not often talked about, and definitely not often found archaeologically.

It all began a few weeks ago, with the discovery of a relatively unassuming pharmaceutical bottle in an assemblage from the 1870s-1880s. Plain in form and resembling the many tinctures of cough medicine, pain killers, oils and blood purifiers we commonly find on Victorian sites, the bottle was also embossed with an unusual product name: Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. The name references Syria, which at the time had both exotic and biblical connotations that were exploited by medical entrepreneurs, as well as an earlier well-known remedy called Solomon’s Balm of Gilead (which itself references biblical healing…; Helfand 1989). The product, as it turns out, was a patent medicine primarily advertised as a remedy for three things: syphilis, gonorrhea and sexual impotence. Specifically:

THE CORDIAL BALM OF SYRIACUM is a gentle stimulant and renovator of the impaired functions of life, and is exclusively directed to the cure of such complaints as arise from the disorganization of the Generative System, whether constitutional or acquired, loss of sexual power, and debility arising from syphilis; and is calculated to afford decided relief to those who by early indulgence in solitary habits have weakened the powers of their system, and fallen into a state of chronic debility, by which the constitution is left in a deplorable state…The consequences arising from this dangerous practice are not confined to its pure physical result, but branch to moral ones; leading the excited, deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error – into a gradual and total degradation of manhood…How many at eighteen receive the impression of the seeds of syphilitic disease itself? The consequences of which travel out of the ordinary tract of bodily ailment, covering the frame with disgusting evidences of its ruthless nature, and impregnating the wholesome stream of life with mortal poison; conveying into families the seeds of disunion and unhappiness; undermining domestic harmony; and striking at the very soul of human intercourse.”

-The Cambrian, 9/09/1843, p. 1

Yikes. Various advertisements for the balm in the 1850s and 1860s claimed that it was a “never-failing remedy for Spermatorrhoea”, “loss of manly power”, “obstinate gleet[1]”, “tic-dolereaux” and “the prostration and languor produced by sojourning in the colonies or hot climates” (New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6). It, apparently, also “favoured the reproduction of the semen and strengthened at the same time the secretory vessels and the resevoirs” and “removed radically all the affections of the genital parts in both sexes; substituting vigour for impotence, and fecundity in place of barrenness” (Perry and Perry 1841). All of which is a lot for one little remedy to do. Although it was apparently “adapted for both sexes”, it is worth noting that most of the advertisements targeted men. When female complaints were discussed, the most attention was paid to the illnesses and dangers of menopause (or, as described at the time, “the turn of life”) and the “safe conduct” promised by the use of the Balm of Syriacum (Perry and Perry 1841: 62).

Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum bottle, found in Christchurch. Image: Chelsea Dickson.

The actual contents of the balm are unknown, although it may have contained origanum syriacum, which was believed to have blood purifying abilities (Watson 2013: 90). Other similar products, such as the Balm of Gilead, are believed to have contained nothing more than “a few spices and herbs dissolved in a substantial percentage of fine old French brandy” (Helfand 1989: 155). As such, while they may have made the patient feel better for a little while – or  as one person puts it, mistake “the frenzy of inebriation for the natural glow of renovated health” – they are unlikely to have achieved any of the lofty goals outlined in their advertisements (Wilson 2008).

Advertisement for Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. Note the long litany of ailments it will allegedly relieve. Image: New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6.

The balm was made and sold by R. & L. Perry, London ‘surgeons’ who made quite a name for themselves as specialists in sexual health, specifically the treatment of impotence and the clap. They were self-described consulting surgeons and medical men who “feel that we are not exceeding the limits of truth, or transgressing the bounds of professional etiquette, in asserting that our mode of practice…has been productive of the happiest and most successful results in the treatment of sexual debility in both sexes” (Perry and Perry 1841: vi). In this statement, they were supported by a multitude of (somewhat similar) testimonials from patients who listed, in sometimes excruciating detail, the symptoms and maladies of which they had been cured. In truth, however, they were quacks.

Quackery – animal magnetism, as it happens – in action, c. 1780. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A good part of what we know about the Perrys and their medical beliefs comes from their book The Silent Friend[2], a treatise on onanism (masturbation) and its consequences, such as impotence, as well as venereal and syphilitic diseases. The Silent Friend contained in its many pages of flowery language, a 65 page long diatribe against “solitary indulgence”, constant advertisements for the Balm of Syriacum and other medicines, numerous descriptions of the symptoms and manifestations of gonorrhea and syphilis, and several disturbing recommendations for the treatment of said venereal diseases. I think my favourite might be the injection of a mixture of lead sulphate (toxic), zinc sulphate, rose water (inexplicably) and opium into sensitive areas. Kids, do not try this at home…

Although the graphic detail of both disease and treatment is morbidly fascinating, it’s the fixation of the authors on the dangers of onanism that I find particularly curious.The Perrys were of the opinion that masturbation not only destroyed the health and mind of the individual, it was a danger to “the welfare of the empire” due to the ways it destroyed man’s emotional, moral and procreative abilities and passed those same debilities on to any children such a sufferer might manage to have. Interestingly, this was a fear that was shared among many in Victorian society: it had become more and more widespread in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century, quack doctors like R. & L. Perry were perpetuating and exploiting the fear and shame associated with masturbation, including the notion that it was responsible for impotence. The list of things caused by such self-indulgence is long and contains a wide range of physical, mental and moral symptoms, to the point where almost any failing of a man or his character could be blamed on his own weakness (oddly enough, no reference is made by the Perrys to women suffering from this particular problem…)

This man is apparently suffering from too much solitary indulgence. “He less resembled a living creature than a corpse; lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench, almost incapable of motion, a watery palish blood issued from the nose, his tongue was frightfully swelled, and saliva constantly flowed from his mouth.” Image: The Silent Friend, p. 32.

Sufferers of this terrible malady reported, among other things too graphic to include, that (and do keep in mind those Marvin Gaye lyrics…):

  • “the powers of the mind were much weakened, my judgment had lost its solidity, my head was confused and subject to frequent swimmings”
  • “he often shed tears involuntarily, and a quantity of corrosive pus continually issued from the corners of his eyes”
  • “my spirits greatly depressed, so that at times I could scarcely refrain from sighing and involuntary weeping”
  • “a disordered stomach, dry consumptive cough, weakness in the voice, hoarseness, shortness of breath on the least exercise”

In general, the various treatments for onanism, as well as the ubiquitously suggested Balm of Syriacum, of course, are just as horrifying as those suggested for venereal diseases. Potential cures ranged from cauterizations and blisterings of the penis (yikes, again) to the application of camphor to the genitals, the use of a ‘curative belt’ which sent shocks of electricity through one’s groin, and that old favourite, arsenic (McLaren 2007: 134). Also, specifically in the case of onanism and impotence, matrimony was recommended. The Perrys were strong advocates, surprisingly given our usual impression of Victorians, for a healthy sex life, but only within the confines of marriage. Marriage, and procreation, were after all, the purpose of human existence.

On marriage. Image: The Silent Friend, p. 129.

There’s something of a curious juxtaposition here, I think, between the repressed sexuality and morals of Victorian society and the quackery that very much played on the fears and habits exacerbated by social silence on the subject of sex. It’s visible in the lack of discussion around such matters in daily life and the utter relish with which books like The Silent Friend describe, in extraordinarily graphic terms, the consequences of ‘bad’ sexual habits. I started this post with Marvin Gaye and a tongue in cheek reading of a beloved song (sorry, everyone), but as I’ve written it, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how much the social censorship, shame and plain old lack of information encouraged the spread of venereal disease and general ill health in the Victorian era (and our own, as it happens, don’t think we’re past this yet). Society created a vacuum into which so-called doctors like R. & L. Perry could step with alacrity and success, virtually unchallenged[3], to both exploit those unspoken fears and spread their own misinformation, in horrendous and alarming detail. Some things are better talked about, as it turns out, than hidden under the bed.

In the words of another (maybe less beloved song), let’s talk about sex, people. And always avoid treatments and doctors that recommend injecting lead sulphate into your genitals. If you’ve learned anything from this blog, let it be that.

Jessie Garland

[1] One anecdote recounted the curing of an obstinate gleet “by the injection of punch, a remedy suggested in a convivial moment; another time by green tea” (Perry and Perry 1841).

[2] The full title is, in fact, The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Which is really quite a mouthful. I definitely do not recommend looking up gleets, strictures or whites unless you’re sure you want to know. And gonorrhoea, for that matter.

[3] There were some who did challenge these ideas and practices, I just haven’t had a chance to really talk about them.

References

Helfand, W. H., 1989. President’s Address: Samuel Solomon and The Cordial Balm of Gilead. In Pharmacy in History, Vol. 31(4), pp. 151-159.

McLaren, A., 2007. Impotence: A Cultural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Perry, R. and Perry, L., 1841. The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Self published. [online] Available at: https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=i1t1p2YRahcC&dq=the+silent+friend&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Ritz, D., 2010. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Omnibus Press, London.

Watson, L., 2013. Tom Tiddler’s Ground: Irregular Medical Practitioners and Male Sexual Problems in New Zealand, 1858-1908. In Medical History, Vol. 57(4), p. 537-558. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3865952/#fnr16 

Wilson, B., 2008. Decency and Disorder: the Age of Cant 1789-1837. Faber and Faber.