Long-drops from long ago

It’s something so mundane that it forms a part of our everyday lives and it’s as inescapable as death and taxes. Even though we spoke of it last week on the blog, it’s something people don’t often speak about and it’s something we all have a very private and personal relationship with. In fact, this topic harbors so much taboo that it’s widely considered impolite to discuss one’s poo. I’m sorry!

Our evasion of our natural bodily processes was probably not always the norm. The Romans gifted us the first predecessor of a plumbed “toilet” – which consisted of a flowing water channel over which a series of hollow seats were sometimes built. But the Romans didn’t break down any of the aforementioned taboo walls… (in a sense, because they never built any walls in their latrines anyway). Instead, their public toilets were a communal affair, where a one handled their daily task sitting alongside his neighbor. They shared not only their sounds, smells and over all experience, but they even shared the cleaning sponge stick – the ancestor of our disposable toilet paper (side note – this is where the phrase ‘don’t get the wrong end of the stick’ derives).

However, when considering the attitudes of our conservative Victorian ancestors, it’s not hard to imagine the air of confidentiality that surrounded their ‘bathroom’ visits. The emergence of this modern western concept of privacy and secrecy during these practices is probably largely due to the evolution of the latrine structure itself, which eventually developed from a hole dug in a field to an enclosed, single occupancy arrangement. In this secluded situation, outsiders don’t specifically know what is taking place during these intimate moments and society sort of lost the concept of what was considered normal bodily functions. As result, secrecy, euphemisms and comical deflection ensued. [Insert toilet humour here].

We’re going to dive into these messy issues today as we discuss this less than glamorous topic of the Victorian privies/long-drops we have found. Before the days of flushing toilets and hand sanitiser, the citizens of 19th century Christchurch usually took care of their “business” in outhouses in their backyards. These tended to be situated at the rear of their property, within convenient stumbling distance of the house for ease of night-time visits (Butcher & Smith 2010).

An archaeologist sitting in a cesspit. Image: H. Williams.

We’ve found quite a few of these features on Christchurch archaeological sites, and it appears that it wasn’t just private human waste that was being deposited down the loo. The plethora of rubbish we find in them is very similar to the refuse found in domestic rubbish pits, an indication that privies were also used as a place to discard normal household items like table ware dishes and broken glass bottles. What is not always immediately apparent is why privies were used as a garbage disposal shoot in every case. Our data seems to show that the Christchurch Victorians often filled in their long-drops with household refuse when they ceased to be used. It also seems very logical that in the possible haste that one can sometimes be under to relieve oneself, or while fumbling about with way too many layers of intricate Victorian clothing, something might accidentally drop from a pocket down the hatch. If this had happened to me, I personally wouldn’t have gone reaching into a long-drop to fish out any lost possessions. But as well as that, it’s possible that this dark (and conveniently open), hole in the ground offered an opportune receptacle to throw out the odd plate fragment that someone may have accidentally broken… perhaps wanting to hide the evidence from a mother or wife?

… But the evidence doesn’t always stay hidden. Us nosy archaeologists come snooping 150-odd years later and we don’t tend to mind getting our hands a little dirty (once this ‘matter’ has decomposed). We will find the things that have been dropped in deliberately, accidentally or sneakily, although we may not always be able to tell the difference.

A typical privy showing how these features look when first found, half sectioned and then fully removed. This one had timber at the base. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a typical example of an excavated long-drop. In this case, no structural features such as building foundations or post holes were found surrounding the privy, but it was almost certainly originally covered. The feature itself was roughly square in shape, and relatively deep when compared with the (much shallower) features that were found elsewhere on the section. This suggested that it was dug for a purpose (at this point we need not mention this purpose) other than rubbish disposal, a great example of a dis-used latrine that was filled in with refuse at a later date.

A collection of some of the unfortunate ceramic forms that had been dropped off down this loo. Image: J. Garland.

An archaeological deposit of toilet rubbish… or deposit of rubbish toilets? The image on the left shows an in situ deposit that was almost exclusively broken up sanitary ware (wash basins and toilet pans etc). The picture on the right is one of these fragments up close, which was made by Doulton and Co. ca. 1882-1891. This feature was found on the site inhabited by the Taylor and Oakley firm, who exhibited “toilet seats and other articles, painted and artistically decorated” at the Christchurch exhibition in 1884 (Star 12/1/1884: 4). It is likely that this assemblage represents broken or wasted stock from the commercial enterprise which had been deliberately smashed for easier disposal. Image: H.Williams and J. Garland.

Even if any of these forms represented broken items that had been hidden down the toilet, our finds aren’t getting anyone in trouble 150 years later. Where these clumsy individuals may have gotten caught out is when these privies were cleaned and emptied. Previous research on domestic archaeological sites the in U.S.A indicates that the typical life cycle of a privy included episodes of deposition and cleaning. The regularity of cleaning would depend on the rapidity of filling and this would naturally be related to the size of the privy, the number of users, and the kinds of deposition (Lee Decker 1994: 356). This research also suggests that some privies may have been filled in as short a time as six months, while other studies have suggested that the filling process extended over a period of several decades (Lee Decker 1994: 356). Such clean outs of privies may have been performed by a member of the household rather than a licensed ‘night soil man’ (Lee Decker 1994:356). Hamish Williams has discussed the night soil man on the blog before, – he told us that “the cargo of this fantastic public servant was collected from one’s property in the wee hours, carted away then dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch, a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood (Alexander 1985:11). This service cost a household seven pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).”

Recently, I had the privilege (?) of analysing an artefact assemblage that came from a very special (probable) privy in Central Christchurch. Shown below, this latrine was located on the property of Cyrus Davie and his family. Davie was an early European settler to Christchurch and was employed as the town surveyor in Christchurch’s infancy. The first family home on his section was constructed by 1855, and the long-drop or cesspit feature in question was conveniently located near the site of this dwelling. This likely privy feature was identified as such because privies/long-drops are generally narrow and deep, while cesspits are generally wider then they are deep (this one had properties of the latter but due to the extent of the earthworks planed on this site, it was not able to be excavated completely).

The stratigraphic profiles of the privy feature. Image: S. Dooley.

What’s extra exciting about this site is that we found two additional, irregularly shaped deposits of dark soil, containing artefacts that were ‘scat-tered’ everywhere. These deposits were located elsewhere on the section and were identified as probable deposits of night soil (human waste). The archaeological contexts and artefact similarities identified between these deposits and the privy feature suggested that they were temporally related and it’s likely that the two night soil deposits represented clean out waste from the long drop. We also found a Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token in one of these deposits. This may represent one of those items that were accidentally dropped down the throne, never to be seen again. After all, who actually wants to throw their money down the toilet?

One of the probable night soil deposits. The cross-section of the feature is shown on the left, and the feature after excavation is shown on the right. Image: P. Mitchell.

Wasted money… This Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token was found in one of the night soil deposit features. It would have been used in lieu of normal currency (across the ditch), for this Melbourne Based grocery, wine and spirit merchants between 1857 and 1861 (Museums Victoria 2017). Image: J. Garland.

As mentioned, privy features are a type of deposit that can accumulate over a long period of time, but the artefacts from this example appeared to have been recovered from the same stratigraphic layer. The two night soil deposits were found in a relatively secure context – underneath another building on the property that were known to have been constructed by 1862. If these features do relate to a privy and the associated clean out deposits, the privy would have been conveniently located to the east of the main Davie house, while the privy clean out deposits would be located much further away from main house. This would have been preferable for smell and hygiene reasons.

So, while it seems most likely that this wealth of human excrement once belonged to the Davie family, they were not the only 19th century inhabitants of this section. For one short year, in 1881, the Davies leased their home to none other than Sir Julius Von Haast (the German explorer, geologist and the founder of Canterbury Museum). So maybe, just maybe, the archaeologists who excavated these features were privy to the private fecal matter of one of New Zealand’s most famous European settlers.

Chelsea Dickson

 

 

References

Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs [Online] Available at: http://canterbury.royalcommission.govt.nz/documents-by-key/20110929.36

Garland, J., Webb, K. J., Haley, J. and Bone, K., 2015. The Music Centre, 150, 154 and 156 Armagh Street: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for The Music Centre.

LeeDecker, C. H. 1994. Discard Behaviour on Domestic Historic Sites: Evaluation of Contexts for the Interpretation of Household Consumption Patterns. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 1(4): 345-375.

Museums Victoria Collections 2017. [online] Available at: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/55261 [Accessed 09 October 2017].

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2016. Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct archaeological report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.

Toilet humour

This week on the blog, a selection of chamber pots for your perusal, ranked according to my entirely objective, and not at all arbitrary, assessment of how fancy they are. This is accompanied by my very best attempt at using as many euphemisms for talking to God on the porcelain telephone as I can bring myself to type. Starting right now.

(Fair warning, I got most of the euphemisms from the internet. I’m not entirely convinced that they’re all actually things that people say. I also struggled to say most of them out loud, let along type them up in a blog post, so these are some of the more innocuous ones…)

Fancy rating: fairly fancy. Who doesn’t want a lovely flared rim chamber pot decorated with cows in which to see a man about a horse (how confusing).  This one, which we’ve featured here on the blog before, is decorated with the pattern “Cattle Scenery” and dates to the 1850s-1860s. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Fancy rating: understated fancy. This porcelain throne is literally porcelain, unlike the others in this post, which are all refined earthenware. It may not have the charming farm animals or gaudy colours of its compatriots, but this is the kind of commode used by somebody who actually says commode and refuses to refer to doing one’s business at any time, by any kind of phrase. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: boring but perfectly serviceable vessel for going where even the emperor must go on foot. I don’t really have anything to say about this one. It’s…respectable? Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: middling fancy, with aspirations of grandeur.  A person could check the plumbing using this and remain secure in the knowledge that while they may not own a castle, they can at least squat over the towers of one when they want to. This particular potty was found on the site of a china shop, so, unlike most of the chamber pots we find, it might not have actually been used. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: classical overtones, with points for the purple. This pattern is known as the ‘Alma’ pattern, or rather, is one of several 19th century patterns known by that name. It may refer to a small river in the Crimea that was home to a significant battle between the armies of Britain, France, Turkey and Russia during the Crimean war. I very much doubt that the Crimea, its rivers and the war, were on anybody’s mind while using this to change the water on the goldfish (seriously, who says this!?), but you never do know. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: stately. A slightly different shape to some of the others, this chamber pot is both tall and sturdy, with an imposing cold marble look to it and a spacious interior. The sort of porcelain – or marble – throne from which one reigns over one’s bodily functions, as one should. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: as fancy as those “paintings” we used to make as kids with some paint and half a potato carved to act as a stamp. I kind of like this one, though. It’s somehow cheerful. If you had to visit kermit (apparently it’s Cockney rhyming slang, see if you can work it out), it’s not a bad option. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: very. Decorated with the pattern ‘May Morn’, this glossy, beautifully shaped chamber pot is possibly the most elegant vessel for answering the call of nature that I think we’ve found to date. Maybe we should all decorate our toilets with scenes of springtime in the country. It (like most of the chamber pots in this post) would likely have been part of a bedroom set that included a wash basin and pitcher. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: not at all. Plain, serviceable and child-sized, this is the most basic of vessels in which to sprinkle the tinkle. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: relatively elegant, entirely inoffensive repository with which to refresh the body. Late Spode, made by W. T. Copeland in the latter half of the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I could bring myself to use it, but points to “humping the cats loin” for the strangest euphemism I came across.

Jessie Garland

Gin! That aromatic schnapps, that bright moon beam, the Mother’s Ruin…

Archaeologists and whisky go well together. I agree with that universal truth. However, I fit in the gin lovers team at the office. So, as Jessie did one year ago, I’m writing a post combining two of my favourite things: archaeology and gin.

To be honest, the blog today is also inspired by two recent personal and professional experiences. On the one hand, I’ve been on holidays in Spain and I drank a few gin and tonics over there, enjoying the warm and sunny days with family and friends. On the other hand, I’ve been working on Christchurch assemblages dominated by alcohol bottles for the last few months. And, now that I’m back in New Zealand and ready for the summer, well, I have to ask, who is the queen of that season? It is, of course, that most infernal of paradoxes, the drink that is both the fiend and that pure essence and bright spirit…Gin!

Gin and tonics. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

We’ve talked before about gin, its good and bad reputation and the uses and brands found on 19th century Christchurch sites. We even showed you several gin recipes! However, that was a long time ago and we’ve come across even more gin bottles to share with you, along with new discoveries and perspectives on this popular product, which originated in Europe as far back as the Middle Ages.

Do you think that they deserve another drink? I don’t think that I could walk over the Serpentine (my tipsy body balance is not that good)… Despite the many efforts of the Temperance Union, alcohol consumption was a common social practice and problem throughout the 19th century. Image: Auckland Star 02/07/1904: 10.

Those of you who regularly read this blog know well that bottles are the most common artefacts recovered from 19th century historical sites in Christchurch and elsewhere in New Zealand. You will also know from us that labels and embossing are the best clues we can find to guess what a bottle contained. So, here’s a few that we’ve been able to identify as gin…

The most common gin bottle type that we find is the case gin, easily identifiable and so named for the shape that allowed it to be packed and shipped to be exported to the colonies by the case load.

This case gin bottle has the remains of a red label. Unfortunately, it cannot be associated with any manufacturer or product, although it is very likely that the bottle originally contained gin. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As well as the classic case gin bottle, we’ve found a variety of other gin bottle shapes. This appreciated and valued extract of juniper berries was stored in both ceramic and glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. The brands and manufacturers were stamped on the bottles using labels, embossing, blob seals and incised marks.

So, here we go…

OLD TOM GIN. A classic! It’s a sweeter style of gin (also referred to as a cordial) that was popular in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s having something of a renaissance at the moment, especially in cocktails, although to be honest, I prefer the drier styles of gin. The label on this  Old Tom Cordial bottle reads ‘Swaine, Boord and Co.’, referring to a company that used an “Old Tom” cat on a barrel as their trademark. This trademark was registered by Joseph Boord in 1849. There are various stories involving cats and the origin of the name, but the general consensus is that the gin was named after Thomas Chamberlain, an early 19th century distiller (Foundry, 2017). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

HENKES GENEVA. J. H. Henkes was a gin distillery located on the Voorhaven in Delftshaven, Rotterdam and established in 1824. This Dutch region was known for its gin during the 19th century. It is unclear when the distillery ceased operations, although their name continued to be trademarked in the 20th century. Actually, Henkes Schnapps was still being advertised in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. The first advertisement for the J. H. Henkes gin in NZ newspapers is in 1869 and refers to ‘J. H. Henkes Prize Medal Stone Gin’ (Nelson Evening Mail 05/12/1873: 3). Images: J. Garland (left) and New Zealand Herald 17/11/1931: 3 (right).

BLANKENHEYM & NOLET’S GIN. Blankenheym and Nolet was a distillery established in 1714 in Schiedam, a Dutch city well-known for its production of Genever (or Dutch gin). It is believed that they created the ‘Oude Genever’ (Nicks Wine Merchants, 2017). Their aromatic schnapps was advertised in New Zealand from 1877 well into the 20th century and was described as ‘the purest spirit in the market’ (Evening Post 11/09/1901: 2). By the end of the 19th century, the circular impressed marks were being replaced with paper labels and by the early 20th century the stoneware bottles themselves were declining in popularity (Garland et al. 2014: 158-169). Images: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and Evening Post 11/09/1901: 2 (right).

BOOTH’S DRY GIN. Booth’s were established in the 16th century as wine merchants, but by 1740 they had begun operating a distillery in London (Difford’s Guide 2014). Their products remained popular during the 19th and 20th centuries and Booth’s gin was heavily advertised in New Zealand newspapers of the period. Booth’s got the highest award from the Institute of Hygiene (the origin of the Society of Public Health) as the purest and finest Dry Gin, fair enough to taste it! Image: M. L. Bernabeu (left) and Press 13/02/1935: 16 (right).

GILBEY’S GIN. Brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey founded their business in 1857 in London, as wine and spirits merchants and soon began to produce spirits, particularly London dry gin (Difford’s Guide 2017). The third brother, Henry, joined the firm in 1865. They opened branches in Ireland, Scotland and by the 1920s the company also had gin distilleries in Australia and Canada (Difford’s Guide 2017). Gilbey’s gin was widely advertised in New Zealand newspapers from the end of 19th century onwards. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and New Zealand Herald 24/05/1932:15 (right).

Do you like flavoured gin? Have a look at this special Gilbey’s Orange Gin made from the ‘pure juice of the Seville orange’. I still prefer the original sour taste of this marvellous schnapps… Image: Press 1/04/1934: 13.

BOLS GIN. Erven Lucas Bols, Lootsje, Amsterdam was a company formed in the late 16th century in the business of producing, distributing, selling and marketing gin and other liquors. By the 1820s, the distillery introduced a new gin, defined by a better balance of malt wine, neutral grain alcohol and botanicals (Bols Amsterdam 2017). Despite its claim to be the oldest distillery brand in the world, Bols Gin was first mentioned in New Zealand newspapers in the 1920s, described as ‘a tonic 350 years old’ supplied by ‘hotels, clubs or merchants’ (New Zealand Herald 19/10/1925: 13). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and New Zealand Herald 19/10/1925: 13 (right).

Bols Gin is well worth a mention, because it seems to be (supposedly) the perfect pick-me-up…if you are a sports person, a businessman (or woman), if you feel sick, tired or want to sleep well and wake up fresh, that’s it! A shot of gin will work it out! Have you taken yours? I got my one! See below to find yours!

Do you feel sick or a bit weak? Are you a hay fever sufferer? Get into the gin! (New Zealand Herald 14/01/1926: 10).

Do you play cricket, bowling, tennis? After your physical effort, you deserve the gin! (New Zealand Truth 25/07/1925: 6).

If you like playing football, you also need a refreshment after a strenuous match to recover energy! (New Zealand Herald 20/07/1925: 10).

That’s my one! Finally, I’ve found the antidote to keep me awake the whole day, particularly at ‘siesta’ (nap) time. The secret of my happiness and joy… (New Zealand Herald 23/07/1925: 7).

It is also quite common to have trouble sleeping sometimes… (New Zealand Herald 23/11/1925: 7).

At this point, we have everything we need to enjoy a nip of gin: several brands to choose and a range of perfect excuses to drink it! To complete this heavenly sin, the archaeological record also offers us what we need: a glass. Glass table ware is often encountered on Christchurch sites, mostly fragmented and incomplete. While the tumblers were probably used as drinking vessels for either alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, stemmed drinking glasses were exclusively intended for alcoholic drinks such as sherry, port, brandy, cognac, champagne, sparkling wines and why not? Gin or maybe whisky?

Tumblers (top) and stemmed drinking glasses (bottom). The two bright glasses are my favourite! They are decorated with a diamond pattern in an unusual shade of lime green. These were made of glass known as uranium glass, ‘canary’ glass or ‘vaseline’ glass, containing oxide diuranate uranium as a colouring agent (Jones 2000: 147). It became popular during the mid-19th century, in particular from the 1880s until the 1920s (Jones 2000: 147). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As we keep uncovering 19th century artefacts, the information about alcohol consumption in Christchurch is continuously updating. But let me finish as I began, referring to my lovely colleagues. I would like to send a message to the majority of whisky drinkers at the office. Will you be able to resist the charms of the Mother’s Ruin?

Otago Daily Times 28/04/1927: 4.

Perhaps, you will become gin lovers sooner that you might think, keeping in mind that ‘good gin makes and ideal morning refresher…with ginger ale, squash and soda, ginger beer or tonic water’ (heaps of choices, including yummy ice cream!) and the summer is coming… (although I’m aware of your whisky loyalty, my buddies!). I’m not trying to persuade you all to convert, I promise…

New Zealand Herald 7/01/1925.

Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Bols Amsterdam, 2017. [online] Available at https://bols.com/brand-promise [Accessed October 2017]

Difford’s Guide, 2017. History of Gin (1831-1953). [online] Available at https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/1060/bws/history-of-gin-1831-to-1953 [Accessed October 2017]

Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Foundry, G., 2017. An Intro to Old Tom Gin. [online] Available at http://www.ginfoundry.com/insights/introduction-old-tom-gin/ [Accessed October 2017].

Garland, J., Carter, M. and Geary Nichol, R., 2014. The Terrace, M35/1050, Christchurch: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for Hereford Holdings.

Jones, O. R., 2000. A Guide to Dating Glass Tableware: 1800 – 1940. In Karklins, K. (Ed). Studies in Material Culture Research. Society for Historical Archaeology, Pennsylvania.

Nelson Evening Mail. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

New Zealand Trust. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Nicks Wine Merchants, 2017. Blankenheym & Nolet Oude Genever. [online] Available at https://www.nicks.com.au/blankenheym-nolet-oude-genever-jenever-1000ml [Accessed October 2017]

Stichting Vrienden van de Oude, 2011. Pelgrimvaderskerk Rotterdam-Delfshaven [online] Available at http://www.pilgrimfatherschurch.org/en/history-of-delfshaven [Accessed October 2017]

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Van Kessel, I. 2002. Merchants, Missionaries & Migrants: 300 years of Dutch- Ghanian Relations.

 

All things great and small

Here at Underground Overground Archaeology we try not to sweat the small stuff – particularly because the small stuff we find is often super cool and makes us say “aww, that’s cute!”, similar to the way many people react when they see baby humans next to regular sized, adult humans.

For example: one product, in two very different sized pots (it’s John Gosnell’s Cherry Toothpaste – first produced in the 1850s). The image on the left shows the size we commonly find in 19th century Christchurch assemblages. The one on the right was a unique find for us. It’s super cute, but it wouldn’t have held a whole lot of toothpaste. Images: left and right: C. Dickson.

Big things coming in small packages are quite literally the bread and butter of an archaeologist. We have often mentioned the theory of how the smallest or most ordinary of objects can illustrate the histories of people and places in ways we might not expect. This was an idea first brought forward in the 1970s, by – American archaeologist, James Deetz, in his bookIn Small Things Forgotten.’

While many of the artefacts we find are small fragments, or what Deetz would consider small things anyway, there are also those that we would classify as “mini sized.” These tiny versions of some of our commonly found Victorian artefacts don’t appear to be particularly rare among online collectors, but information regarding their functions is rather scarce. When faced with identical artefacts with such extreme size differences, our best guess is that these may represent samples of a product – much like a tester you would find in a pharmacy today. Although humorous to imagine, it seems a little farfetched that a mini-sized champagne bottle would have been found in a 19th century boarding house minibar, or that a mini toothpaste pot was fashioned as travel size to fit in your carry-on baggage. Moreover, the subject of vessel reuse is one that constantly plagues our ability to accurately attribute vessel function to our finds, and intrinsically assigning the normal contents of a ‘regular’ sized vessel to a ‘sample size’ vessel, seems even more problematic than usual. For instance, the volume of the mini ring-seal bottle pictured below suggests that it probably wouldn’t hold more than one serving… So champagne for one anyone?

Less is more? Here are some smaller versions of some larger alcohol bottles. On the right is a tiny version of one of the most common 19th century artefact finds – the black beer bottle. The left image shows the size comparison of a champagne shaped ring seal bottle – these were made in several different volumes, but the mini size is rare. Maybe sometimes people just weren’t overly thirsty. Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Maria and I with two very different sized flagons, wearing two very similar tops…. Coincidence? …Actually yes. These vessels may have once held a number of beverage types, including cider, beer, wine or water. The large vessel was made by Stephen Green’s Imperial Pottery in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858. The small vessel was manufactured by George Skey and Co., Tamworth – a known maker of ginger beer between 1860 and 1936 (Lorenzor 2011). Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

It is a small world after all, and maybe sometimes people only needed small amounts of certain products? The tiny bottles that we occasionally find may have been deliberately sized as such because their original contents were perishable and consumers didn’t use much at once. Cosmetics come to mind in this case.

Our in-house hand model, Jessie, is sporting two very small vessels which come in several different colours to suit every skin tone. We aren’t entirely sure what these tiny bottles originally contained, but the one on the left has black residue on the interior.

If we take a break from beverages and bottles, we can consider the small artefacts that are known as ‘miniatures’ (the type of bric-a-brac one finds on a mantelpiece). These items have been relatively overlooked by archaeological interpreters and theorists in the past, primarily because their origins and meanings are less understood than those of items that were used as part of daily domestic or commercial tasks. Indeed, the way we even sometimes refer to miniatures carries connotations of reduced importance, calling them “trinkets,” “trifles,” or “dainty” (Mullins 2001: 159). Perhaps I’m also guilty of this, having called the toothpaste pot “cute” earlier. It’s been thought that lesser archaeological value has been historically attributed to these ‘knickknacks’ because they are recovered from archaeological sites in comparatively smaller numbers, and have less meaning attached to them than other artefacts (Mills 2015: 250). Even modern-day enthusiasts and collectors of miniatures are often more concerned with the rarity, and thus greater monetary value of their antiques, so the original functions and meanings of these items are further ignored (Mills 2015: 250).

As a result of this gap in the discourse, we don’t know all that much about miniatures. While it’s true that they’re not found as commonly on historical archaeological sites as items that are ‘’utilised’ for everyday functions, we do still come across them. So it begs some questions – how did people acquire them? How did the manufacturers of miniatures decide what to make? And how were they promoted to potential consumers? (Mills 2015: 256). Nineteenth century advertisements for miniatures are scarce, despite the phenomenal increase in marketing that occurred during this century (Mills 2015: 256). But we can guess that many of these ‘luxury?’ items must have been inexpensive and versions of them were probably readily available to most people because miniature forms are found on archaeological sites widely spanning many different socio-economic groups.

Beverage break! Some of the Underground Overground Archaeology staff (including a very fresh-faced Luke), enjoying a cup of afternoon tea. Personally, I require more tea than this during my breaks, but that’s just me…

Despite the small issue of the gap in our knowledge, the idea has been put forward by scholars that “A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance” (Stewart 1993: 43). As miniatures could often be considered more ‘luxury’ items (in this case, luxury refers to something that is not used as a part of everyday living), they offer us a rare opportunity to speculate about values and thoughts, rather than about everyday activities. The latter of these can be seen through household artefacts, and the theory behind their use can get a little mundane when they only show us home maintenance, cooking, cleaning, eating, grooming, child care etc. It’s been theorised that “while many artefacts can reflect the thinking of their owners indirectly (fashionable tea wares, for example), miniatures can depict attitudes and meanings since they were not acquired to be used, but for what they symbolized” (Mills 2015: 254).

But theorising/speculating about the meaning of miniatures is not without risk. Attributing meaning to any object is problematic because an individual’s ownership of an artefact can’t always be assumed, and connecting ‘backstories’ to possessions can reflect the biases modern interpreters (Mills 2015: 255). One of the main ways this happens with miniatures is by assuming that “small” equals “toy” and “toy” equals “child”. This is something we often do when finding miniature items like ceramic dolls, marbles and miniature tea sets on Christchurch archaeological sites – and as with other places in the world, documented evidence of children’s presence on these sites is not always found to back up this presumed ownership. Of course, children are not always recorded in historical sources, but this is beside the point. Meanings behind the creation, initial appropriation and continued possession of artefacts can be acquired, changed, and abandoned over time— for example, what starts as an item of childhood entertainment may be nostalgically kept by an adult, or even sometimes may be first acquired by an adult (Mills 2015: 255). This could explain the presence of things like miniature tea sets in our assemblages when we know that only a bachelor lived on-site historically. To confuse the issue further, the concept of childhood as a distinct from adulthood was not also widely recognised by all parts of Victorian society until the mid-19th century (Mills 2015: 255). Child labour was the norm among the Victorian lower classes at this time, but sentiments of youthful innocents requiring protection and education grew, and as a result, so did childhood leisure time. Prior to this, some children still had opportunities to play, but not in the ways children do today, and we can’t assume that all children played with ‘toys’ in the way that we think of them now.

A tiny dog and some tiny bricks. The bricks represent an artefact that we would typically classify as a ‘toy’ or ‘children’s artefact’. The bricks are called ‘kiddibricks’ – first made in Christchurch 1893, by Percival Adams (who was the son of a brick-maker). He made a miniature model of a brick-making press (which made miniature bricks; Truttman 2011). The name “kiddibricks” probably says it all, but these are essentially a precursor to Lego, and I know a few adults who love a good Lego set.

Regardless of their original contents or meanings, mini-sized artefacts and “miniatures” are always a welcome find on our historic sites. We may not be able to come to many conclusions about their place in the historic world, but it pays to remember, it’s the little things that count.

Chelsea Dickson

References

Lorenzor, M., 2011. Tamworth Time Hikes: George Skey´s Wilnecote Works [online] available at: https://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/george-skey%C2%B4s-wilnecote-works/

Mills, R. 2015. ‘Material Culture in Miniature: The Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Miniature Objects.’ The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century. Alisdair Brooks (eds): 243-273. University of Nebraska Press.

Mullins, P., 2001 Racializing the Parlour: Race and Victorian Bric- a- Brac Consumption. In Race and the Archaeology of Identity. Charles E. Orser, editor, pp. 158– 176. University of Utah Press, Provo

Stewart, S., 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, Durham nc.

Truttman, L., 2011. ‘A Little Brick Story.’ Timespanner [Online] Available at: https://timespanner.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/little-brick-story.html

The spoils of oils

We all know that fish oil is great for our skin and hair but does the use of whale oil tickle your moral compass? It was utilised for many household purposes during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today we will take a look at a couple of men who made a big splash in the whale oil industry.

Not too long ago, a miniature vial was found in one of our artefact assemblages from Christchurch’s Central City. This vessel had “Ezra Kelley” embossed on the base, which we traced to a 19th century watchmaker from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ezra Kelley was a special fellow in the 19th century watchmaking and repairing scene, because he was the first maker to commercially use oil from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish (pilot whales) to lubricate watch mechanisms (Goodwin 2016). Prior to this, olive and vegetable oils were used instead. Oil extracted from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish had been used by carpenters to sharpen their tools without the risk of rust since 1816, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the sailor, Solomon Cook, sent the first batch of blackfish jaw oil to Kelley for testing (Goodwin 2016). Kelley found it superior to all other oils, as it didn’t congeal at low temperatures, nor did it rust brass, and its light and fine properties also gave it a low freezing point. This made it a suitable, year-round lubricant for delicate machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines (at a lower grade, sperm whale oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs; Goodwin 2016). In 1884, Kelley began selling this new oil (supplied by the Cook family), for a whopping US $5-$15 per gallon, which converts to around US $111 – $333 in today’s money (Goodwin 2016). As a comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, contains 42 gallons and sells for $90-$110 (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale oil was so expensive at this time due to supply and demand, but also for one other key reason – it’s lubrication properties were worth it (Cherrybalmz 2017).

Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle found in the Central City. Image: C. Dickson.

Sperm Sewing Oil! Also found in Christchurch Central City, this bottle probably contained a lower grade of whale oil than what Kelley made. Image: C. Dickson.

Just like a fine wine, Kelley’s oil improved with age. The processing of his blackfish oil included a two-year aging stage after the oil had been gently heated to remove excess water. Processors then spread the oil out into thin layers and slowly froze it, causing any solids to precipitate within it, which could be later strained through a cloth. The more competently this process was carried out, and the fresher the oil was, the better the grade of lubricant could be produced – the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F (-45.6 degrees Celsius; Cherrybalmz 2017). So, you could be cold, but you’d always know what time it is.

Ezra Kelley oil advertisement c. 1890. Image.

It seems that Kelley’s major failing was that his oil sold too profitably. All his success didn’t go unnoticed by the rival oil seller, William Foster Nye, who originally dealt in other oil types, like burning oils, castor oil and salad oil. After witnessing Kelley’s success, Nye subsequently developed a method for processing “fish jaw oil” – capitalising on Kelley’s discoveries and managing to secure a British distributor six months after his first advertisement. Having captured the British market, Nye was able to undercut his predecessor’s prices by offering large discounts to his customers and he was so successful at this that he managed to absorb Kelley’s business by 1896 (Zabawski 2017). Within the year, the new company was responsible for nine-tenths of the global supply of fish jaw oil raw materials and it ran a monopoly of the industry that would last until the decline of whaling during the next century (Nye 2017, Zabawski 2017). However, the end of whaling didn’t spell the end for Nye -the fish jaw oil continued to be sold into the 1970s, but the threat of whale extinction and the technological advances of synthetic oils ended the company’s reliance on blackfish/porpoises and the era of synthetic fluids began (Zabawski 2017). Due to their ability to adapt, the Nye oil company remains in operation today (Nye 2017).

Nye advertisement. Date unknown. Image.

‘Watching’ an 1886 whale massacre… Image: Attic Paper.

Massachusetts, where Kelley and Nye were both based, was once a hub for whale oil production. Specifically, New Bedford Massachusetts was such a busy whaling port that it was known as “The City That Lit the World” and, “The Whaling City”, because during the 19th century, it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut (Huntington 2009). This American whaling industry had a strong focus on spermaceti (the waxy oil found in the head of sperm whales), named after an initial misconception that the substance was the coagulated semen of sperm whales… Unfortunate naming aside, this oil type was commonly used in candle manufacture and in oil lamps when distilled – its natural properties produced bright, clear flames when burnt, without excess smoke (McNamara 2017).

As most Kiwis know, New Zealand was not exempt from what we now consider to be a barbaric industry. Eighteenth and 19th century whaling ships visited the waters around the country, and this natural resource began to be exploited off our coasts before New Zealand was even settled by Europeans. The industry began to decline here by the early 1840s, as over exploited whales became scarce and New Zealand’s new government imposed duties and port charges on whaling ships (Phillips 2006). Occasionally, American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, the last of which was probably the Charles W. Morgan, in 1894 (Phillips 2006). However, pilot whales to this day are notorious for stranding on our beaches, and beached whales continued to be used as a resource in the 20th century.

Cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales. New Zealand, 1911? Arthur James Northwood (1881-1949) Image.

Men boiling down blackfish blubber, Tokerau Beach. Taaffe, James Thomas Benjamin, d 1971: Photographs of the Far North district, Northland region. Ref: 1/2-026801-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23070974. Image. Date unknown.

Clearly, 18th and 19th century society didn’t share the modern distaste for the whaling industry. As you’ve seen, Kelley and Nye’s advertisements for their whale oil often pictured the graphic scenes depicting whales being caught and processed, and given how successful these companies were, this violence can’t have been a deterrent for sales. Herman Melville also provides us with insight into how revered whale products were – calling whale oil “as rare as the milk of queens” in his classic, Moby Dick, which was written in this era (Melville 1851). Essentially, the entire industry is a parallel to crude oil in today’s market, given the similarities in costs, peoples dependence on it and its range of applications.

These applications included not only lubrication and illumination, but also the manufacture of soaps, paint, varnish, margarine, and as a treatment for textiles and rope. “Whalebone” which was commonly found in corsets, was not actually what it describes – it was not bone, but baleen from whales (a form of keratin – the same material as human fingernails), and its purpose is to filter plankton into whales mouths. Baleen is strong but flexible (which are similar properties to that of plastic), and it was not only used in other attire like shirt collars and eyeglass frames, but also for buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes and umbrellas (Cherrybalmz 2017). It was also featured as a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs (Cherrybalmz 2017). To continue with the industry comparison, in 1891 a pound of ‘whalebone’ was worth up to US $7 – that’s nearly $200 per pound today! (Cherrybalmz 2017). In 1882, a single whale produced 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth of $11,200 – or roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and this was just from one animal! (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale teeth (or ivory) were also marketable to whalers, but these yielded smaller profits than whale oil. Teeth were regularly carved by whalers in a practice known as scrimshaw, and they often featured intricate designs and nautical themes. Such artefacts are now collectors’ items and museum pieces, providing historians with a glimpse into the whaling industry through the depictions rendered by those who drove it.

A New Zealand example of scrimshaw depicting the whaling ship ‘Pacific’ and compass points, which were formed by intersecting harpoons. The tooth is inscribed with “28th January 1860, Captain Sherburd”. The reverse is inscribed with a poem reading: “Sudden death to our best friends. Success to their killers long life to our Sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers.” This ship was reported in the Otago Daily Times as sinking on the 13th of February 1864 at Patterson’s inlet on Stewart Island in a heavy westerly gale. Image.

Thankfully, since the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century and the development of new technologies, most of the applications of whale oil have been replaced with superior products – margarine is now made with vegetable oil and lamps began to be filled with cleaner, less smelly, and cheaper kerosene. It was a relief to many in the 1920s when fashion moved away from women wearing corsets, but those who still want to add a little ‘boning’ support to a frock, now use plastic instead of baleen. The vocal anti-whaling sentiment is strong among New Zealanders today, and since 1978, whales within New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile (370 km) zone have been protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. A short time later, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. Cheers Greenpeace!

Chelsea Dickson

 

References

Cherrybalmz 2017. Gun lubricant history: Sperm whale oil. [online] available at: http://www.cherrybalmz.com/history-sperm-whale-oil

Goodwin, P. 2016. Ezra Kelley Watch Oil [online] Available at: http://educators.mysticseaport.org/artifacts/ezra_kelley_watch_oil/

Huntington, T. 2009. “Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town,” American Heritage.

McNamara, R. 2017. Whaling industry produced oil, candles, and household tools: whales were the raw materials for many useful objects In the 1800s. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/products-produced-from-whales-1774070

Nye 2017. A History of Nye: The Beginning of Cilliam F. Nye Inc. [online] Available at: https://www.nyelubricants.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/0/582d6e5844567263cbd951ebdb44f573/en/nye_history_overview.pdf

Phillips, J. 2006. ‘Whaling – Ship-based whaling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/whaling/page-1 (Accessed 14 September 2017)

Zabawski. E. 2017. Purposeful porpoise oil. [online] available at: http://www.stle.org/files/TLTArchives/2017/01_January/From_the_Editor.aspx