Odds and ends

A selection of the most interesting bits and pieces we’ve been working with recently here in Christchurch.

This gorgeous ceramic vessel is an 1850s-1860s chamber pot, found on a site just outside the central city. It’s decorated with the imaginatively named “Cattle Scenery” pattern, featuring, …well, cows. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

What’s known as a ‘bent’ clay smoking pipe (referring to the curve, or ‘bend’ of the stem, with the mark ‘SQUATTER’S / OWN’ impressed on the side. The other side of stem has the mark ‘SYDNEY’. Squatter’s own pipes are a little bit of a mystery – identical pipes to this one have been found on other sites here in Christchurch and in Auckland, while variations (Squatter’s Own Budgeree) have been found in several locations in Australia. The budgeree pipes are often decorated with scenes featuring Aboriginal and European figures, while the ones found in New Zealand (so far) appear to be plain. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Another beautiful ceramic vessel. This time, it’s a saucer decorated with the pattern ‘Dresden Vignette’ and made by William Smith and Co. between 1825 and 1855. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Marbles! So many marbles! Several of the sites we’ve been working on lately have had different marbles in the assemblages. We’ve got German glass swirl marbles (top row and third from the left in the second row), ‘commie’ marbles (far right of third and fourth rows), onionskin marbles (far right of second row), Bennington, or glazed ceramic marbles (second from left in third row), pipe clay marbles (second from left in fourth row), and porcelain marbles with fine banded decoration (far left in third row). Phew. Did you get all of that? Some of them have been heavily used (might have been a child’s favourite marble, who knows!), while others are in pretty good condition. I think my favourite is probably the onionskin: it’s got a great name, and the colours are fantastic. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, M. L. Bernabeu.

A serving dish or tureen lid decorated with the Wild Rose pattern, a decorative motif that depicts the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay (near Oxford, England) and was extremely popular in the 1830s-1850s period. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

This is easily the coolest thing we’ve found in a while. These stemware drinking glasses were coloured using uranium diuranate, which creates the distinctive yellow colour seen in the image to the right. But (wait for it), when you put them under a blacklight, they glow green with the light of a thousand superhero origin stories. Or alien colour schemes. Take your pick. Image: J. Garland.

It’s Friday afternoon, how about a wee tipple of gin? This fragment is from a labelled bottle of Nolet’s finest Dutch geneva. Nolet’s was established in Holland in the late 17th century by Johannes Nolet and is still in operation today. It’s the first label of its kind that we’ve found in Christchurch. Image: C. Dickson.

The ‘Grecian’ pattern, with the potter’s initials J. T. There are several different pattern variations known as ‘Grecian’ or that incorporate Greek and/or neo-classical themes into their motifs. Image: C. Dickson.

Another elaborately decorated saucer, this time displaying the Neva pattern. Confusingly for us, this is not the only 19th century ceramic pattern found under the name of ‘Neva’. This example was made by Thomas Bevington (1877 until 1891). Image: J. Garland.

How’s your reading comprehension? Up to 1870s standards? We found these pages from ‘The Royal Readers’, first published in the early 1870s, inside the walls of a schoolhouse in Governors Bay. Image: J. Garland.

The expressions on the faces of Victorian dolls never fail to amuse me. Image: C. Dickson.

Also found in the walls of the Governors Bay school house, this excerpt from ‘The School Journal.’ If you look closely you can see the typewritten words “Governors Bay, Lyttelton” in the bottom right of the fragment. Image: J. Garland.

And last, but not least, this wonderfully labelled wine bottle was identified as Champagne Vineyard Cognac, ‘Boutelleau Manager’. It appears to have been a well regarded product, if that extract from 1877 is to be believed. The bottle was found on the same Lyttelton site as the gin bottle shown above – someone had good taste! Image: C. Dickson.

Jessie Garland

Whisky, that philosophic wine, that liquid sunshine

It is a well-known truth, in this office at least, that archaeology and whisky go well together. Or, perhaps more accurately, that archaeologists and whisky go well together. With a few exceptions (you know who you are, gin drinkers), it is not at all uncommon to find yourself in the company of an archaeologist with a fine appreciation for a single malt (or two, or three). With that in mind, it’s a bit of a wonder that we haven’t thought to write a blog post combining the two before now (honestly, archaeology and whisky are two of my favourite things, what were we thinking).

It won’t surprise any of our readers, I think, to hear that alcohol bottles are one of the most common artefacts we find on 19th century sites (here in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand). Despite the temperance movement in the late 19th century and the many discussions and testimonies about the evils of the demon drink, alcohol remained a popular product. As with the gin bottles we discussed a while back, however, it can be difficult to know exactly which types of alcohol were originally contained in these bottles – unless we have a label or embossing (and even then, these bottles were reused over and over again for a variety of products). Fortunately for this post, as it happens, we’ve been lucky enough to find a few examples that do have labels, each with their own story to tell about whisky consumption in Christchurch.

dsc_7168ed1

“Black  beer” bottles of various sizes found in Christchurch. While a large number of these were probably used for beer, the larger quart sizes in particular would also have been commonly used for spirits like whisky and gin. Image: J. Garland.

Johnnie Walker.

Old Johnnie Walker. Established in Kilmarnock in the mid-19th century, John Walker (and then John Walker and Sons) has making whisky for far longer than some of you might be aware. It’s advertised in New Zealand newspapers throughout the latter decades of the 19th century. This particular bottle, found on a site in Rangiora, has been cut with a hot wire around the shoulder of the bottle to create a preserving jar out of the base (the jar like shape of the cut base would be used to store fruit or preserves and sealed with wax). Image: C. Dickson (left), Southland Times 16/04/1887: 4 (right).

Genuine pure whisky will never injure the system.

Advertisements for whisky in the 19th century were many and varied. This one, for Teacher and Sons, makes the oft-used claim that “Genuine pure whisky will never injure the system; it is the common inferior stuff which is the curse of the world.” Image: Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 3/06/1904: 2.

removing the drunk from whisky

In which an enterprising chemist with only the best of intentions claims to have removed the “drunk” from whisky, but not the exhilarating powers. Amazingly, his discovery doesn’t seem to have taken off. Image: Dunstan Times 30/08/1909: 2.

saucel-paisley

This label has a bit of a story behind it. We sent it off to the good folks at Whisky Galore, who managed to trace it to the Saucel distillery in Paisley, Scotland – one of the biggest distilleries of the late 19th century (apparently producing over a million gallons a year in the 1890s), but one that has now been completely erased from the landscape. The distillery was established c. the 1790s and continued through into at least the early 20th century (it was taken over by the Distiller’s Company in the early 1900s). It was bought by James Stewart and Co. in 1825 and, although it was resold in 1830 to Graham Menzies, continued to carry the Stewart name for quite some time. There are several advertisements to be found in New Zealand newspapers in the 1860s and 1870s for Saucel or ‘Stewart’s’ whisky from Paisley. Image: J. Garland (left), Taranaki Herald 05/03/1864: 4 (right).

squirrel whisky

Squirrel whisky! We do not recommend. Image: Tuapeka Times 8/07/1908: 1.

Kirkliston

Another old establishment, the Kirkliston distillery was established in 1795 in West Lothian, Scotland. It had a series of owners during the 19th century, including Andrew Stein, who installed a Stein continuous triple still, John Buchanan and Co. and, eventually, John Stewart and Co., who bought it in 1855. Stewart and Co. installed a Coffey still, taking the distillery back to large scale grain distilling rather than using pot-stills. John Stewart and Co., and the Kirkliston distillery, were one of the six Scottish whisky manufacturers who formed the Distillers Company in 1877 (see below!). The Kirkliston distillery was apparently also a large producer, with estimates of 700 000 gallons a year in the 1880s. It’s quite often mentioned in New Zealand newspapers, especially in the 1860s and 1870s. Image: (from top right down) C. Dickson, Press 4/01/1865: 2Otago Daily Times 1/09/1865: 1Press 16/11/1864: 5 and Dickson, C. (right).

doctor's special

See? Whisky is totally medicinal. Image: New Zealand Herald 29/07/1925: 12. 

thom-and-cameron-for-blog

Thom and Cameron may be the most common whisky manufacturer we’ve come across in the archaeological record (this is not to say that they were the most commonly consumed, just that their bottles may survive better in the ground that most). They were established in 1850 and had premises in Glasgow, although I’m not sure if this is where the distillery was or not. They made a variety of whiskies, including Glenroy, Rob Roy, Hawthorn, Old Highland Whisky, Special Reserve Whisky and, my personal favourite, Long John Whiskey (named after Ben Nevis whisky distiller John Macdonald, who was apparently quite tall). A description of their distillery in 1888 mentions “immense vats of American oak’, including some that held 10 000 gallons. Image: J. Garland (left), Press 03/10/1895: 1. 

Thom and Cameron

We also found the fragments of a Thom and Cameron jubilee whisky jug on a site on St Asaph Street last year. The jug, which depicts a particularly sour faced looking Victoria (she has definitely got her eye on you), would have been made in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne. Image: C. Dickson (left) and The Sale Room (right).

idle men need duff's whisky

Idle men need Duff’s whisky. Now you know. Image: Auckland Star 9/09/1933: 8.

Distiller's Company

This flask has a metal capsule seal with the mark of the Distillers Company Ltd, or D. C. L. These guys were formed in 1877 by six Scottish distilleries. By the early to mid-20th century, they had become one of the leading whisky (and pharmaceuticals) companies in Scotland. Image: J. Garland (left), Press 22/04/1916: 5. 

heddle leith

We don’t know much about this one, unfortunately. James Heddle was a whisky, gin and cordial manufacturer or distributor based in Leith, Scotland during the latter half of the 19th century. We have advertisements for his products in New Zealand during the 1870s, including for lime cordial, old tom gin and scotch whisky. Image: C. Dickson (left),  Wanganui Herald 16/05/1879: 4Press 22/03/1871: 4Press 13/01/1925: 10.

Occidental

As well as importing bottles of whisky, people imported casks and bottled the spirits here. This bottle label says “SCOTCH WHISKY, bottled in New Zealand by B. Perry, OCCIDENTAL HOTEL.” The Occidental was a well-known and well-loved establishment on Hereford Street in Christchurch that was still running until just before the earthquakes. Benjamin Perry, who was proprietor of the hotel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, holds the distinction of being one of the only licensed victuallers in the city to never be in breach of his liquor license. We couldn’t find any specific reference to whisky being bottled at the hotel (although we did find other references to whisky at the hotel…), but we did find a notice in the paper in the 1910s advertising for washed whisky bottles, presumably for that very same purpose. Image: J. Garland (left), Sun 27/07/1918: 11 (top right), Press 17/01/1903: 8.

ruining the whisky punch

And, last but not least, whatever you do, don’t ruin the whisky punch with water. Image: Evening Star 23/01/1884: 2.

Jessie Garland

References

Papers Past. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Townsend, B., 2015. Scotch Missed: The Original Guide to the Lost Distilleries of Scotland. Neil Wilson Publishing, England.

Spirits, skittles and a stolen goose: the life and times of the Caversham Hotel

John Bent leaned over and grabbed the goose. There was a whole flock of them in the street—surely one wouldn’t be missed? It was 11pm, and he had been drinking heavily all night. In his muddled state it seemed like a good idea. “Leave it alone,” his mate Edward Banks warned him. He too was drunk. But Bent ignored him, and the two men walked off with the bird. From his seat in the Caversham Hotel, Robert Hallam saw all this happen, and he told Smith, the hotel’s proprietor, that one of his geese was being nicked. This was not the first time the hotel had lost one of its flock. They were worth 8 shillings each, and Smith was determined not to lose another one. He rushed outside and called to Bent to drop the goose, who, in his panic, threw it over a fence. The next day, Constable Jeffreys paid Bent a visit. Bent said that he knew nothing about the matter but, so that no further bother had to be made, offered to pay for the goose. The constable was not interested in Bent’s simple solution and instead charged him with theft. He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment (Lyttelton Times 6/5/1868: 2).

During the nineteenth century, hotels were gathering places for the community and sites for a variety of events, and the Caversham Hotel was no exception. As expected, the local newspapers were filled with stories of drunken and disorderly behaviour and the occasional petty theft, but the hotel was also a recreational place for many people to enjoy a meal and some entertainment, as well as a home for others. Its walls witnessed the everyday life of its visitors and residents. The theft of Smith’s goose in 1868 is just one of an infinite number of small stories that make up the history of the Caversham Hotel.

When John Franklin Smart opened Caversham House (as it was then called) on the corner of Madras and St Asaph streets in 1852, that part of Christchurch was the edge of the struggling new settlement, but by the time the hotel closed in 1910, it had been engulfed by the growing city. Smart’s choice of that area was strategic, and he was able to take advantage of traffic passing in and out of Christchurch. As soon as the hotel opened, he advertised in the Lyttelton Times:

Lyttelton Times 21/2/1852: 1.

Lyttelton Times 21/2/1852: 1.

In 1862 John Townsend Parkinson, the new proprietor of the hotel, remodelled and enlarged the building, renaming his premises the Caversham Hotel (Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1). It seemed to have been a good year for Parkinson. On Anniversary Day (originally held in December), he was “feeling desirous of giving his friends and the public an opportunity of enjoying themselves” and set up games of quoits, greasy pole (climbing a greased pole), jumping in sacks and donkey racing in the paddocks adjoining the hotel (Lyttelton Times 13/12/1862: 5).

Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1.

Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1.

In February 1863, Parkinson’s good feelings had changed, and he poisoned himself with strychnine. Poor business decisions as well as the recent hotel work had put him deeply into debt. Several days before his death, the hotel’s barman noticed that Parkinson seemed to be inattentive and disordered. To Parkinson’s wife, who knew nothing about his financial difficulties, he appeared to be in a cheerful mood. When he heard that news of his debt had been published in a report, he sent an advertisement to the Standard offering a reward of £20 for delivery of the “scoundrel” who had written it. The next morning, he decided to take his own life. Soon after swallowing the strychnine, the barman found him on his bed in a seizure. The doctor was called, but the poison had taken its effect and Parkinson died (Lyttelton Times 7/2/1863: 4).

After Parkinson’s death, John Franklin Smart took over the hotel again, and by the end of 1863, Thomas Howes had taken up its management (Press 23/7/1863: 5; Lyttelton Times 14/3/1863: 6). The next year, the hotel was put up for sale:

The main amusement of the Caversham Hotel, like other licensed hotels, was the bar. Over nearly 60 years, the hotel sold a range of wines, ales and spirits. As luck would have it, a few artefacts were found at this site which reflected this drinking culture. These were commonly found bottle types which would have contained beer, wine and gin. As is typical of hotel sites (where patrons dined as well as drank), a serving tureen, salad oil bottles and wide mouth jars which may have contained other condiments or food were also uncovered. The most exciting find was a large flagon that may have once provided cider, beer or water to the hotel guests (Oswald et al. 1982: 74). The flagon was largely intact, and was made by Stephen Green Imperial Pottery Factory, in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858 (Godden 1991: 289). What was unusual about this vessel was the maker’s mark – it contained the phrase “glass lined inside.” Now lining the inside of a hefty ceramic beverage container with fragile glass didn’t seem like a smart idea to me – but luckily it mustn’t have to Stephen Green either – the phrase actually refers to the glaze of the vessel. Specifically, when the outer vessel was salt-glazed, the inside was glazed with liquid prior to firing (Wood 2014: 102).

A selection of the artefacts found – from left: black beer bottle, salad oil bottle, wide mouth jar and tureen. Image: C. Dickson.

A selection of the artefacts found – from left: black beer bottle, salad oil bottle, wide mouth jar and tureen. Image: C. Dickson.

Stephen Green flagon with maker's mark. Image: C. Dickson.

Stephen Green flagon with maker’s mark. Image: C. Dickson.

This flagon was extra cool because its manufacturing date supported our idea that these artefacts were likely to have been thrown away into an open roadside drain, and accumulated over time. This accumulation would have happened between the formation of St Asaph Street in the 1850s and the laying of the adjacent lateral wastewater pipeline in 1882 – this pipeline forms part of a broader network of waste water pipes dating to the 1880s in central Christchurch. Much of this network is still present and in use today. In fact, last year we uncovered another section of this earthenware pipeline which had a manufacturer’s mark revealing that the Christchurch Drainage Board imported the city’s sewage pipes from Scotland, rather than being locally sourced (ArchSite 2015).

In addition to being an accommodation house and pub, the Caversham Hotel provided games such as billiards and skittles, an early form of bowling that dates back to ancient times and is the forerunner of today’s 10-pin bowling. Its association with pubs and good times is summed up in the expression ‘Life isn’t all beer and skittles’. The game could be played outside on a lawn or inside in an alley and was seen as a working-class amusement that often included gambling (Lyttelton Times 20/6/1865: 6). The Caversham Hotel was one of a handful of establishments that had an indoor alley, and it was the scene of several petty crimes in the 1870s. In 1874 Joseph Hannan stole a purse, pipe and about £5 from Charles Oliver, who had fallen asleep on a bench in the alley, and in 1877 Richard Coleman was found guilty of taking a coat from a table (Star 19/6/1874: 2 and 12/3/1877: 2). During the 1880s the hotel also had an outdoor skittle ground, which was the site of several competitive matches during the decade (Star 31/1/1885: 2).

“A New Game for Ladies: A ‘Skittles’ Competition in Berlin”. Image: The Graphic, 18/8/1900.

“A New Game for Ladies: A ‘Skittles’ Competition in Berlin”. Image: The Graphic, 18/8/1900.

 In 1882, owner Edward Ravenhill had the ageing hotel rebuilt in brick (Press 16/5/1882: 4). Fifteen years later, in 1897, the hotel was again in need of repairs, and Ravenhill had the building pulled down and rebuilt on the site with “all modern conveniences” and “every comfort” (Press 11/11/1897: 8). The furniture and effects from the old hotel were sold at auction, and they included, among other things, a billiard table, two pianos, bedsteads, washstands, mats and carpets, 50 Australian chairs, Japanese chairs, kitchen utensils, 50 pictures and even “stuffed birds in cases” (Star 7/8/1897: 5).

The new Caversham Hotel in 1898. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 13, IMG0021.

The new Caversham Hotel in 1898. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 13, IMG0021.

During the demolition work, an 1815 copy of Volume VI of A Select British Theatre was found, reportedly in excellent condition and “quite as good as when it was first issued” (Press 7/6/1897: 5). It contained five plays adapted for the theatre by John Philip Kemble. Who owned this volume? A theatre lover who stayed at the hotel? A university student who stopped in for a drink one night? A thief who hid the book to avoid the constable? The history of the book will remain a mystery, but it shows how diverse life at the hotel was.

Title page for A Select British Theatre from a copy held in the Princeton University Library.

Title page for A Select British Theatre from a copy held in the Princeton University Library.

Ravenhill’s new hotel did not last long.  In 1910 the building was sold at auction in sections for removal, ending its 58-year history. The auction lots included a two-roomed cottage measuring 22 by 16 feet, 35 doors with frames, iron of all sizes, tiled grates, mantelpieces, pipes, boilers, shelving, gates, signposts and timber of every description (Press 7/2/1910: 12).

Jill Haley and Chelsea Dickson

References:

ArchSite, 2015. M35/1353. New Zealand Archaeological Association.

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

Lyttelton Times [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

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

Press [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

Wood, F., L., 2014. The World of British Stoneware: It’s History, Manufacture and Wares. Troubador Publishing Ltd.

Odds and ends

A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!

cool plate thing

This rather dramatic pattern is called Andalusia and, as the name might suggest, features a Spanish scene with figures praying in the foreground and vignettes around the border. Someone has even helpfully coloured in the highlights with paint (a technique known as ‘clobbering’, an excellent term) to add to the drama of the whole thing. Image: C. Dickson.

lamp

The glass reservoir from an oil lamp, we think, made from bright cobalt blue glass. Quite the unusual artefact, this one. Image: G. Jackson.

dancing people

There are many possible captions to this image decorating the inside of a teacup. I’d like to think that they’re dancing, two people flitting their way across the room without a care in the world. Then again, she could also be about to faint (there is a slight sense of imbalance to her body language), as he prepares to catch her (there is also a sense of concern in his body language). You be the judge. Image: G. Jackson.

majolica

A majolica decorated dinner plate, a style that needs dark wood panelling and candle-lit interiors to properly appreciate the aesthetic, I think. Think great dark Gothic rooms with taxidermied decoration, high ceilings and undercurrents of tragedy. Image: G. Jackson.

floating temple

This pattern, known as ‘Grecian’, depicts what seems to be a floating building in the background and a temple precariously perched on a rocky precipice. European scenes like this one (and the Andalusia one above) were particularly popular during the mid-19th century, playing a ‘slightly exotic’ European counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscapes and architecture. Image: C. Dickson.

fell over

In which a person in a hat seems to have fallen over. Image: J. Garland.

water filter

This seemingly dull and utilitarian bit of ceramic is, in fact, the filter from a ceramic water filter, made by the firm of J. Lipscombe and Co., London. Ceramic water filters were an ingenious invention created in the 1830s in England to combat the water contamination problem they were facing. It worked by filtering water through a porous ceramic disc or filter, which removed the worst of the dirt and contaminants contained within. Incredibly, such filters are still used in some parts of the world today. Image: G. Jackson.

cool stoneware jar thing

Just a cool stoneware jar made by Hill and Jones, of Jewry Street, London. Image: J. Garland.

Curtis and co.

Curtis and Co. were Lyttelton based soda water manufacturers, in business from the mid-1890s until the early 20th century. We excavated the site of their aerated water factory recently, and found a number of their bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes. Image: J. Garland.

chamber pot

A chamber pot decorated with interesting architecture. Check out those crenellations. Image: J. Garland.

belt buckle

A brass belt buckle found in the central city. We’re unsure whether or not the 1866 impressed on the top line is an indication of date or simply a batch or manufacturer’s number. It would be great if it was the former. Image: C. Dickson.

tubes

And, lastly, tubes and pipettes and ampules and other instruments of scientific discovery. These are pretty cool and very rare, part of a much larger assemblage of similar objects that we’re looking forward to investigating. Image: J. Garland.

 

 

The world is your oyster – a tale of talking molluscs, bar brawls and Victorian vice…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like oysters – they’re slimy, they look weird and they taste like the sea. So perhaps I was affected more than your average person when I recently had the task of analysing an assemblage of artefacts that provided an abundance of similarly decorated stoneware jars. These jars were all the same form, one which I had never come across before. A quick internet search determined that some collectors refer to these as ‘oyster jars’ – this was an unfamiliar term for me, and it piqued my curiosity. Further research revealed that the canning and pickling of oysters was a common enterprise in 19th century Canterbury and around the world!

DSC_5339 ed2

The stone ware jars. Image: C. Dickson.

Now, not being a fan of them, the idea of other people not only eating oysters, but eating old oysters, wasn’t appetising. But I looked at a few recipes online and, actually, the concept didn’t seem so bad – vinegar and cayenne pepper form a part of my regular diet…

Pickled Oysters recipe from 1884 – Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook.

Pickled Oysters recipe from 1884 – Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook.

Normally, it is difficult to determine the original contents of a vessel without manufacturer labels. In fact, jars and bottles with wide mouths like the ones from my assemblage may have been used to store or pickle any number of food or condiment varieties, or even viscous household items like glue or shoe polish. This being said, the large number of oyster shells that were found in the rubbish pit alongside the jars did suggest that these two items were related in this instance – and it is possible that the 19th century family that lived in the associated Rangiora house pickled their own oysters.

 A more common 19th century oyster jar shape.

A more common 19th century oyster jar shape.

The canning and preserving of oysters has taken place since 1850 (Hunt 2010), and oysters have been a commonly consumed fresh food resource here and around the world since ancient times – their consumption can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and they are commonly found in early Māori rubbish deposits (referred to by Māori as tio). European industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries made these slippery morsels readily available to everyone and saw them become the great unifier – enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. It was during this period that New York became the oyster capital of the world and it is said that in any day during this late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the New York harbour waterfront (Happillion 2016). The catch was sold to New Yorkers everywhere from street corners to high class restaurants and in every way imaginable – in the half shell, roasted and in stews.

So ingrained were oysters in 19th century popular culture they can be seen everywhere – we witness the lure of an oyster meal for both the working class and the upper class alike in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 The Walrus and the Carpenter poem, from Through the Looking Glass. In this classic children’s story, we see the overweight and well-dressed walrus swindle the hardworking carpenter out of his oyster meal, while tricking the unlucky and naïve oysters into taking part in a buffet where they’re on the menu. Perhaps not all of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were based on nonsense?

An oyster buffet - before and after.

An oyster buffet – before and after. Image: Wikia and Classics Illustrated.

From the 1860s oysters were increasingly popular among European settlers in the colonies, and by the 1880s New Zealand joined the oyster craze with the emergence of the oyster saloon – otherwise known as the ‘oyster bar’, the ‘oyster house’ or the ‘raw bar’. Such establishments sought to offer the freshest and tastiest oysters available – generally claiming to provide fresh stock daily (New Zealand Tablet 7/8/1896: 14). Now this may not always have been the case – oysters were available locally in Christchurch and Lyttelton, but the ever popular Stewart Island beds were also supplying to Canterbury during this period (Star 17/4/1875: 1). It was during this time that Christchurch saw the emergence of several fine dining oyster options – Cashel Street’s Café De Paris provided not only the finest oysters night or day, but also quality beverages, operatic entertainment and a separate section for ladies. The establishment claimed to be ‘the best in the colony’ and its success lasted well into the 20th century.

Fresh! Press 10/3/1896: 1.

Fresh! Press 10/3/1896: 1.

At the opposite end of the etiquette scale, the more typical oyster saloon quickly became synonymous with drinking – being one of the only places to purchase cheap food late at night, as an accompaniment to beer. The phrase ‘red light’ district’ was derived from New York oyster bars, which put up red balloons to indicate that the oysters had arrived, and in London, the lighthouse building at King’s Cross flashed a beam from its turret (Smith 2015). Unsurprisingly, these establishments also developed a reputation as houses of vice – news reports from this era are frequently linked to crime –anything from publicans supplying liquor without licences (Press 2/11/1901: 7) and the use of obscene language (Star 27/7/1885: 3) to violent encounters between patrons – male and female (Press 15/7/1881: 2). There are even reports of violence between patrons and establishment owners – take this report for example: three individuals named Maloney, Larsen and Creasey (these names reminded us of some sort of gangster pantomime), got into an altercation with an oyster bar proprietor, who stabbed Maloney in the side and wounded his side-kick (Grey River Argus 26/5/1898: 4). Such reports are accompanied by letters from concerned Cantabrians, who write into the paper questioning the appropriateness of such establishments being located “under the shadow of the cathedral spire” (Star 14/3/1882: 2).

Oyster bar associated with gluttony? (New Zealand Herald 1/4/1939: 5).

Oyster bar associated with gluttony? (New Zealand Herald 1/4/1939: 5).

Further connections were made between the oyster’s aphrodisiac qualities and Victorian vice in the popular 19th century erotic magazine The Oyster, which was printed and distributed privately in London from 1883. This publication and its predecessor, The Pearl, were banned, and its author was prosecuted for the risqué content – which you can see for yourself did not consist of mere pictures of ladies’ ankles (reproductions of the issues are still available on Amazon. This is interesting stuff from before the times when science made the link between oysters being a food source high in zinc (which raises testosterone levels), as well as a source of rare amino acids that increase levels of sex hormones in men and women. Such nutritional values were also possibly known to 18th century Casanova – who reputedly consumed 50 oysters for breakfast daily, and claimed to have seduced 122 women. Or perhaps he was part of the tradition that saw oysters as an aphrodisiac due to their visual similarities with their form and that of the female anatomy…? (Schulman 2008).

Looking back further – Aphrodite (goddess of love and sex) was born from a mollusc shell and the ancient Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon, described oysters as aphrodisiacs because they were a food that was moist and warm… This being said, Galen said the same for all ‘windy’ foods (those which produce gas – if that’s what you’re into), and going even further back, Babylonians looking to increase sexual appetites bit the heads off partridges, ate their hearts and drank their blood, while the ancient Greeks dined on sparrow brains to produce a similar effect (Thring 2011; Camphausen 1999; Hoppe 2015). But I digress…

Aphrodite and her mollusk shell. Attic Red Figure, ca 370 - 360 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Salonica, Italy.

Aphrodite and her mollusc shell. Attic Red Figure, ca 370 – 360 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Salonica, Italy.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the reign of the humble yet hazardous oyster saloon was not to last. One can still frequent bars that specialise exclusively in oyster delicacies in cities larger than Christchurch, but over-consumption and the subsequent depletion of our local marine resources saw the end of the oyster as an abundant, ‘cheap and cheerful’ food source.  Our government began to intervene as early as 1866, with the Oyster Fisheries Act, which introduced licencing, a fishing season and the creation of artificial beds (New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18/8/1865).

As a result, oysters eventually claimed their modern status as a luxury item, to be afforded and consumed by the wealthy, or saved for special occasions. The basic idea of the oyster saloon itself evolved into what we now think of as the fish and chip shop, where we are provided with a bevy of convenient and inexpensive (and fried) seafood options. So the tradition isn’t completely dead… But maybe don’t start a bar fight on your next visit your local fish n’ chippy.

Chelsea Dickson

References

Anonymous 2016. The Oyster Vol. 1: The Victorian Underground Magazine of Erotica (online) Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Oyster-Vol-Victorian-Underground-Magazine-ebook/dp/B000MAH5H4.

Camphausen, R. C. 1999. The Encyclopaedia of Sacred Sexuality. Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Grey River Argus. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016].

Happillion, C. 2016. The History of Oysters. [online] available at: http://theoystergourmet.com/the-story-of-oysters.

Hoppe, D. Aphrodisiacs in History. Diana Hope, M.D., INCS. [online] Available at: http://www.drdianahoppe.com/aphrodisiacs-in-history-part-1/

Hunt A., L. 2010. Fruits and Vegetables, Fish, and Oysters, Canning and Preserving. Nabu Press, Charleston.

Lincoln, M., J., B. 1884. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Roberts Brothers. [online] Available at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/books/mrslincoln/linc.pdf

New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18 August 1865 P326

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

New Zealand Tablet. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Shulman M., 2008. The Science of Aphrodisiacs In U.S News & World Report 19/05/2008. [online] available at: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/sexual-and-reproductive-health/articles/2008/08/19/the-science-of-aphrodisiacs [Accessed May 2016]

Smith, D. 2015. Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes). Abrams, New York.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Thring, O., 2011. Aphrodisiacs: the food of love? In The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/11/aphrodisiacs-food-of-love. [Accessed May 2016]