A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!
A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!
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!
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…
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.
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?
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.
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).
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…
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.
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]
Presenting a selection of children’s ceramic plates and cups excavated in Christchurch for your perusal, with commentary.
Riley, Noel., 1991. Gifts for Good Children: The History of Children’s China, Part 1, 1790-1890. Richard Dennis, Somerset.
This week on the blog, we delve – or dive, even (sorry, I can already tell you that this post will be filled with water puns) – into the bitter waters of the 19th century, by which I mean mineral and healing waters, not some kind of allegorical reference to a difficult period of the past. This watery submersion (sorry, can’t help myself) came about following the discovery of an unusual bottle in a recent assemblage that turned out to have originally contained German mineral water, exported from a small town called Friedrichshall to New Zealand from the 1870s onwards. It’s not the first example of German mineral water we’ve come across here in Christchurch and well, it got me thinking. And researching. Basically, I fell down the well (see what I did there?) into the world of healing waters and haven’t quite surfaced since.
The concept of water, specifically mineral water, as an elixir of health has been around for centuries – millennia, even. We’ve all heard stories of springs and pools that could miraculously cure the sick and restore the health of the ailing, in both the historical and fictional worlds. The notion of water – or rather, the ‘waters’ of certain places – as more than just a necessity of survival, as a life-giving (or life preserving) force is so prevalent in our collective psyche that it trickles through our pop culture, past (Jane Austen springs to mind) and present (Pirates of the Caribbean’s fountain of youth, for example).
During our period of study – the 19th and early 20th centuries – there are numerous references to springs, wells, pools, aquifers and other bodies of water with healing properties, sometimes bordering on the magical. The healing waters of Bath were, thanks to the Romans and Miss Austen, among many others, well-known for their alleged ability to cure anything from leprosy to rheumatism. There were several locations on the continent, including Royat in France, Pistyan in ‘Czecho-Slovakia’, Marienbad in Bohemia, Vichy in France, and Salsomaggiore in Lombardy. In California, the town of Carlsbad (not quite Carlsberg, as I thought for a while) was named after a famous Bohemian spa following the discovery of mineral water there in the 1880s. In Scotland, the well of St Maelrubha in Loch Maree, Ross-shire, “was credited with the wonderful powers of curing the insane” and, in possibly my favourite example, there was a pub in London that offered eye lotion made from the healing water in the cellar along with the normal beers and spirits. Apparently, the water contained high levels of zinc, which may have been “soothing to the eye.”
New Zealand has its own tradition of healing waters, of course, the most famous of which is the thermal springs and waters at Rotorua. Other places in the country home to the miraculous springs of good health included Te Aroha, Puriri, and Waiwera. Dunedin soda water manufacturers the Thomson brothers also took advantage of the country’s natural resources and sold Wai-Rongoa (healing water), “the celebrated mineral water from the famed North Taeri Springs” during the early 20th century. Christchurch apparently tried to have healing waters, but the so-called mineral waters of Heathcote turned out just to be water. Nice try, Heathcote.
Archaeologically, here in Christchurch, the use of and belief in healing waters is represented through the bottled ‘bitter waters’ and ‘seltzer waters’ imported from Europe – like the Friedrichshall bottle – that survive in the archaeological record. To date, interestingly, all of the examples we’ve found have been German or Hungarian. We’ve mentioned the Nassau selter water bottles before on the blog, stoneware bottles that contained the waters of the Ober and Nieder Selters of Nassau, a Duchy (prior to 1866) and town in Imperial Prussia (after annexation in 1866). As well as these, and the aforementioned Friedrichshall bottle, we’ve also found examples of Hunyadi Janos, a Hungarian export which contained the waters of a spring in Ofen and was advertised as a medicinal remedy. Interestingly, both the Friedrichshall and Hunyadi products are referred to as ‘bitter waters’, marketed primarily as relief for constipation, obstruction of the bowels and congestions. Even more interestingly, Friedrichshall bitter waters also claimed that by “banishing lassitude and melancholy, [it] renders occupation a pleasure instead of labour”, while Hunyadi Janos was apparently “especially efficacious” in the treatment of obesity. So, you know, good to know.
As a side note, searching for ‘bitter waters’ in old newspapers certainly brought home the melodrama of the 19th century. In addition to the actual products I was searching for, the phrase seems to have been something of a favourite among Victorian writers. Just a few of the examples I found included the bitter waters of sectarian intolerance, adversity, defeat, controversy, science (the bitter waters of science! Oh, science), national humiliation, penury, existence (existentialism was alive and well in the 1800s, apparently), class prejudices, tyranny and “the bitter waters of the cup of sorrow”, which seems excessively depressing.
Anyway, moving on. Back to the bitter waters of health. There’s two main things I find interesting about these Victorian healing waters. One is that, unlike so many of the other ‘medicinal’ remedies we’ve talked about here on the blog, the alleged health benefits of these mineral waters were not – and are not – wholly unfounded. They’re unlikely to have immediately cured rheumatism or leprosy through bathing (although there may have been other benefits, like the invigoration of muscles in warm water, relaxation etc.), but the ingestion of mineral waters may in fact have had some merit. I can’t speak for the specifics – presumably, mineral water didn’t really cure obesity or ‘render occupation a pleasure’ all by itself – but it’s fairly well established that certain minerals are an important part of human health and nutrition. Certainly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t just quacks advocating for their use (I’m not a health professional and am leery of saying anything wrong here, can you tell?).
The second thing is the apparent scepticism with which these claims of healing waters were treated which, again, runs contrary to so many of the weird and wonderful products we’ve talked about here before. There’s numerous instances of waters being tested to determine the levels of minerals present and compared to various sources around the world. If they didn’t contain the acceptable levels of minerals, they were publicly outed as ‘just water’ (Heathcote, definitely looking at you). It’s telling that the truly reputable mineral waters of the 19th century are all derived from springs and wells in areas where the geological characteristics of the surrounding land have made possible the absorption of minerals and salts into the very waters of the earth, so to speak. Like little old geothermal New Zealand or Hungary and Germany, apparently, if we’re looking just at Christchurch’s archaeological record.
There’s so many things about this whole notion of healing waters that is fascinating to me and I can’t quite articulate all of them (I guess I still haven’t really surfaced from that well I mentioned at the beginning). Not just the physical properties of the waters themselves, but the things they tell us about our view of ‘health’ – I’m thinking here about emphasis placed on characteristics like ‘purity’ and descriptors like ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ ‘cool’ and ‘clean’ – and the ways that view of health has changed and endured over the centuries. Even here and now, we might scoff at the notion of ‘healing waters’, and I imagine very few of you would go and buy a bottle of mineral water to stave off constipation, but water is still intrinsically associated with health and some waters are still considered better – healthier – than others. New Zealand spring water, for example, is marketed in part through its connection to the idea of this country as clean, green, pure and natural: in other words, healthy. In that regard, at least, we’re just following in the footsteps of our ancestors.
Early photographs are the best. They encompass everything from the utterly absurd to the momentous to the mundane. They provide us with a window into the past that is rare and wonderful (especially from an archaeological perspective), putting faces to names and shapes to cities. We are indebted to those who took them, the pioneers and innovators who experimented with chemicals and light and hid under big black sheets in an attempt to freeze time into a single frame. Yet, most of the time, they’re no more than a name scribbled on the back of a photograph, if that. We so very rarely get to meet these photographers, to look behind the images in front of us to the people through whose lens we are now viewing the past.
A wee while ago now, we excavated a site on Oxford Terrace with several phases of occupation and activity, including the 1870s-1880s use of the section by a commercial bonded warehouse. We excavated rather a lot of artefacts from the site, some of them associated with the bonded warehouse and some of them associated with the occupation of a cottage on the section from its construction in 1851 until the mid-1870s. Over the decades, this cottage was occupied by a range of people, including a butcher and tailor (but not a candlestick maker). Just one of these occupants, however, was responsible for most of the material culture we found in association with this phase of activity on the site. Through a combination of product types and manufacturing dates (and historical records), we were able to trace the assemblage back to Mr Samuel Charles Louis Lawrence, photographer extraordinaire and resident of Oxford Terrace from the mid-1860s until the early 1870s.
Mr Charles Lawrence, as he was known professionally, arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s and promptly set himself up as a photographer on Oxford Terrace West, next to Walton and Warner’s bonded store. We know that he offered a variety of photographic styles such as carte de visite, cabinet, miniature and “every description of picture taken in the most artistic style” (Southern Provinces Almanac, cited by Canterbury Photography). He appears to have become quite successful: he was advertised as “photographer by especial appointment to his excellency Sir James Fergusson” in 1873 and moved into larger premises, known as the Central Photographic Rooms, on High Street in 1874.
He was something of an innovator as well, as evident from a legal dispute described in the newspapers in 1888. Lawrence took F. H. von Schoeneberg to court for the sum of £25 over patent claims to a new camera front that they had developed together. As one account of the court case stated, “they had drunk laager beer over it, and talked religion over it, and the existence of God or a hereafter had been denied over it” (Press 18/05/1888: 6). As a side note, he appears to have been involved in another unrelated court case in 1871 regarding a group of photographers breaching the Distillation Act through the home use of stills to distill water for their photographic enterprises. They were let off with “the understanding that they were to memorialise the Commissioner of Customs for licenses” (Star 18/08/1871: 3).
The artefacts we found at the site of Lawrence’s cottage included many of the types of artefacts that we find on domestic sites all over the city – such as tea and table wares, food containers (condiments!), alcohol bottles, personal hygiene items, pharmaceutical bottles, smoking pipes and shoes, as well as slightly more unusual artefacts, like decanters and toothbrushes. Some of the material reflects the 1860s-early 1870s date of use and discard, with manufacturing dates ranging from the late 1850s through into the late 1860s. Some of it provides evidence for the presence of children at the site: we found several pairs of children’s size gaitor boots (ankle boots with elastic sides), which could easily have belonged to Charles Lawrence’s children (although, being difficult to date, they may have belonged to earlier residents of the site).
Unfortunately, what the assemblage didn’t really provide was material culture related to Charles’ photography business, with one exception. The only evidence we found of his photographic pursuits took the form of bottle from London based firm R. W. Thomas, who made all manner of chemicals and other sundries used in the practice of photography. We could speculate about the rest of the artefacts found – perhaps some of them could have been used to serve refreshments to or entertain clients who came to the Oxford Terrace house to have their photographs taken. We don’t know. Maybe some of the artefacts could have been used as props in his images, everyday objects used to make the studio staged photographs seem more real.
Fortunately for us, several of Charles Lawrence’s photographs have survived. Some of them are accessible through the Alexander Turnbull Library collections, others through the Canterbury Photography blog. They show a range of figures from a long since lost Christchurch, some of them known to history, some of them now just faces without names. They capture men, women and children looking off into the distance, staring inquisitively, uncertainly, decisively at the viewer, posing artfully against plinths, armchairs and walls. They do not, however, include any of the artefacts that we found on the site, in a turn of events that is disappointing but not surprising.
The photographs themselves are interesting artefacts of life in 19th century Christchurch, though, when you look at them closely. The people in them are fascinating, from their clothes – spanning fashions from the 1860s into the 1870s – to their hairstyles, their expressions, their poses. There’s even one example of the classic ‘Victorian ghost mother’, in which a mother sits, covered in a rug for the sake of (ineffective) camouflage, holding on to a child in order to, presumably, stop it running away.
If you look closely enough, you can even see behind the scenes of the image, to the parts that make up the sum. Maybe because I’ve been looking at them with the photographer in mind more than the subject, thinking about his premises on Oxford Terrace and the process behind these images that he’s taken, it’s easy to see the pieces that make up the image. You can see the same props popping up in different images, the same plinth, the same balustrade, the same armchair. You can imagine the studio – perhaps not the carefully framed room visible in the images, but a collection of separate elements, artfully arranged to create the illusion of a whole when viewed from just the right angle. You can even imagine Mr Lawrence with his camera set up, directing his subjects to stand or sit just so, before capturing their likenesses with glass and chemicals and light.
Charles Lawrence continued to work as a photographer in Christchurch until the 1880s, when he went bankrupt and moved to Ashburton. He died there in 1891. He is survived by the footprint he left behind him in the archaeological record and the faces of the past that look back at us through his lens. One man and his camera, connecting present to past and past to present with the click of a shutter.
Our thanks to Natasha Wells, for pointing us in the direction of the Canterbury Photography blog, and our thanks to the author of that blog, who kindly allowed us to use some of Charles Lawrence’s photographs in this post.