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]
Last week, Jessie’s post mentioned MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, an early 20th century foodstuff we found in Christchurch. This cheese pot, which looked so insignificant and sounded so odd, represents one of the steps en route to our modern culinary world. Even finding it on a site in Christchurch is representative of much that was changing in the 19th century. Today we think nothing of eating food from all over the world, some of which arrives on boats and some on planes. In fact, for many of us, much of what we eat probably isn’t produced in New Zealand, in spite of the importance of farming and horticulture in our current economy – and historically.
What was this MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese? Modern descriptions – yep, you can still buy it – describe it as grated cheddar, but it looks like anything but. Sure, the cheddar might have been grated, but then a few other things are no doubt mixed in. Today, a range of preservatives have probably been added. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who knows what it was. But even then, it’s unlikely just to have been grated cheese, as that probably wouldn’t have survived the journey from Canada to New Zealand in good condition.
There are a range of things that are interesting about MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese turning up in early 20th century Christchurch. Firstly, it’s an ‘added value’ product, and those weren’t nearly so common in the 19th century as they are now. It represents a divergence from the sale of plain old ordinary cheese (or not so ordinary in some cases ) to something that has led to the plastic cheese slices that many of us probably had in our school lunches – or, if you’re American, to Kraft cheese, which was possibly quite closely related to MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese.
Secondly, even in the late 19th and early 20th century, New Zealand was producing a lot of dairy products. Not quite on the scale we do now, and we couldn’t export it then. So why on earth would we need to import Canadian cheese? (No offence to Canadians.) And how could it compete on the New Zealand market when it had been shipped that distance? And what on earth had been added to it to make it last that long? These aren’t questions we necessarily think about much these days – the speed of travel often means that nothing needs to be added to a food product to make it last the journey half way around the globe. And then there are other products with a shelf life of five years. Five years. Unimaginable in 19th century Christchurch.
Which brings me to the third point that makes MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese in turn of the century Christchurch so interesting. People mostly bought fresh produce in the 19th century. There was no such thing as a supermarket, although grocers did sell a range of products. You might have kept a dairy cow, pigs and/or chooks to supply some products (yes, even in the city); meat would have come from the butcher (or maybe from one of those pigs); and you might have grown your own vegetables, or bought them from the greengrocer, who probably only sold locally grown vegetables. Now, let’s not get too rose-tinted spectacles about this: it would’ve meant no – or very few or very expensive – bananas, oranges, blueberries, aubergines or any of those other things we love so much.
As mentioned last week, Kraft now own and produce MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese. And MacLaren’s may not have been that dissimilar to the original Kraft cheese, which was first manufactured in 1915, by one James Kraft. James was a cheese seller, peddling his cheddar from his cart around the city of Chicago. His business wasn’t doing too badly but the problem was that his cheese went off pretty quickly in the Chicago heat. But then he discovered that if he melted his cheese, while stirring it constantly, the fats didn’t ‘bleed out’ and he could pour the resulting mixture into a can and sell it. And it didn’t spoil in the heat (Moss 2013: 162-163). Voila! A revolution that changed the world. Think I’m overstating the case? Maybe. But look at Kraft’s position in the world today. And think about our current obesity epidemic, and all the causes that have been cited for that.
That seemingly innocuous jar of MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, then, represents change. Change from a relatively local diet – and yes, to use modern parlance, a relatively low impact diet – to one where, in theory at least, anything in the world can be eaten anywhere at anytime, processed food can have a shelf life of five years, and all the change that has wrought.
Clockwork Lemon, 2012. Savory cheddar chive shortbread. [online] Available at: http://www.clockworklemon.com/2012/12/cheddar-chive-shortbread.html.
Evening Post. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Moss, M., 2013. Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us. W. H. Allen, London.
Poverty Bay Herald. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Food, in all its myriad forms, can be one of the most intrinsic and expressive aspects of culture and society – throughout time and across the world. From the customs surrounding the preparation and consumption of food to the ingredients themselves, we are, as they say, what (and how) we eat. Looking at the nature of food in past societies and cultures can be a rewarding exercise in finding both the strange and the familiar in the lives of those who’ve gone before us. After all, what is more universal yet more varied than food?
From a purely archaeological perspective, our impressions of past meals and culinary traditions are limited by what survives in the archaeological record. In the case of 19th European century sites, this usually consists of animal remains and glass, metal or ceramic food containers: the only physical remnants of a much broader, much more varied array of food and drink. Ceramic or glass serving dishes and table wares can also provide information, usually on the how, rather than the what, of food consumption, but often prove difficult to interpret. Animal remains – the butchered bones of cattle, sheep, pig and poultry – are the most common evidence of food itself that we find, but I’m going to leave them for another post and focus here on what we can learn from the food containers we’ve found in Christchurch.
Unfortunately, because we’re limited to food containers, as the durable remnants of 19th century culinary habits, our understanding of food types is skewed towards long-life items (i.e. preserves), condiments, and packaged foods rather than fresh ingredients. As a result, we see a lot of foods that are additives to meals (like condiments) rather than meals or major ingredients themselves. Even more than that, we’re restricted by what we can identify: distinctive containers used for specific food types or those labelled with the identity of their contents.
Many of these are products that wouldn’t be unusual to find in the modern pantry and, in fact, some of them are still made today. Commonly found items like salad oil, table salt, pickles, sauces or flavoured essences are all familiar additions to modern cuisine, albeit in slightly different packaging than their Victorian counterparts. Other products, like Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce have persisted in popularity under the same brand for over a century: in the case of Lea and Perrins, it’s been over 170 years since its introduction. Similarly, foodstuffs like anchovy paste continue to appeal to the same subset of people who like really salty fish puree as they did in the 1800s. As a side note, my favourite 19th century use for anchovy paste involves spreading it on fried bread and topping with a generous helping of whipped cream (Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67). Takers, anyone?
As well as the more ordinary foods, however, we do come across a few weird and wonderful items during our investigations. Some of these only seem unusual at first glance, but wow, is it a strange first glance. Crosse & Blackwell’s calves’ foot jelly, for example, sounds less than appetising until you remember that gelatine (even modern gelatine) is derived from the bones, tendons and skin of various animals. Unlike modern gelatine products, though, calves’ foot jelly has no compunctions about promoting its ingredients: recipes for the jelly involved boiling calves feet in a stewing pan, removing the fat and straining before flavouring the mixture, usually with citrus (Auckland Star 26/10/1929: 4). In this sense, the jelly is an interesting reminder of how our attitudes towards the consumption of animal products have changed since the 19th century. We now produce and consume animal products on a colossal scale, yet are, thanks to the packaged nature of the food industry, more removed from the origins and preparation of those products than we’ve ever been. As the calves foot jelly reminds us, this was far less true of the 19th century.
In contrast to the honest marketing of the calves’ foot jelly, products like Virol bone marrow paste elicit our revulsion (well, for me they do) thanks to the use of ingredients that have long since been replaced with more palatable alternatives. Virol contained a mixture of bone marrow, malt extract, eggs, lemon syrup, lime salts and iron salts. Bone marrow is still eaten today (it’s something of a delicacy in some places), but it’s the combination of the fatty, spongy marrow with the lemon syrup and malt extract that makes my taste buds shrivel in horror. It was advertised as a health food for infants and invalids, in order to “build sturdy limbs, good teeth and a strong constitution”, so maybe it wasn’t really about the taste (Auckland Star 25/06/1925: 9). Nowadays, of course, such results would more often be obtained from calcium rich, often dairy-based, foods rather than bone marrow.
Other unusual foodstuffs stand out as much for their innovation and unexpectedly early existence as for their probable bad taste. We tend to think of processed foods as being something of a recent invention, yet the 19th century had its fair-share of such products (Wood 1974: 20). One such example found in Christchurch was Maclaren’s Imperial Cheese, a Canadian-manufactured ‘spreadable cheese’ from the early 1900s (next week’s post is going to look at this product in more detail; Badgely 1998). Maclaren’s, which is still produced by the Kraft Foods Group, was initially made from ground cheddar, and enjoyed immense popularity. It’s described in turn of the century advertisements as the “cheese of the hour” (Hawera & Normanby Star 16/12/1904: 3) and “one of the most appetising luxuries [that] the world produces” (Press 5/01/1907: 10). That last one may have been a slight exaggeration…
Although they provide an incomplete picture of Victorian tastes, the types of food-related artefacts I’ve mentioned here can still offer us fascinating insights into the lives of 19th century people and the relevance of those lives – and eating habits – to the modern world. Despite their ability to make us (well, me) recoil in disgust, these products can still challenge our preconceptions of food in society and culture, our own included. Most of all, though, these artefacts offer us an almost tangible taste connection between our own experiences and those of our forebears in this city, and the rest of the world. It may be a foul tasting connection, but it’s a connection nonetheless.
Auckand Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Badgely, K. 1998. Maclaren, Alexander Ferguson. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [online] Available at www.biographi.ca
Feilding Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Hawera and Normanby Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Wood, J. A. 1974. Victorian New Zealanders. A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd, Wellington.
It came as a bit of a surprise when over 1000 fragments of broken stoneware jars were unearthed at an otherwise ordinary Christchurch archaeological site.
But there, sitting under some old petrol tanks, was Christchurch history waiting to be found.What made this very large assemblage more interesting was the clear warning emblazoned along the base of some of the examples: “PERSONS DETAINING, MISAPPROPRIATING OR TRADING WITH THIS JAR ARE LIABLE TO BE PROSECUTED”.
Initial research for this address, located along Worcester Street, had not returned much information. An 1877 map showed the section was empty but there were buildings on the surrounding land. We know that in the early 20th century the lot was owned by Henry Thomas Joynt Thacker, a “colourful”
mayor of Christchurch (LINZ 1911; Rice 2012). A resident for the street number used today, however, could not be found, with only the adjacent street numbers mentioned. Enter archaeology. After the ceramics had been thoroughly cleaned, the name ‘Sharpe Bros’ appeared, printed or impressed in different fonts and of varying quality. This narrowed research down from any time in Christchurch’s historical record to the time between 1908 and 1914, when the Sharpe brothers, cordial manufacturers, had a factory one number down from the site in question.
The Sharpe brothers hailed from England, with the eldest brother John Sharpe moving to warmer climes to improve his health in 1900. After joining his brother Percy, who had immigrated to New Zealand earlier, the two opened the first Sharpe Brothers cordial factory in Dunedin in 1903. Apparently not ones to waste time, by the end of 1905 Sharpe Brothers manufacturers could be found in Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Sydney (Sharpe 1992). The two brothers were prohibitionists and prided themselves on their non-intoxicating drink. The Sharpe Brothers operated in New Zealand until the final branch in New Plymouth closed its doors in 1981 (Wellington Antique Bottle & Collectables Club 2003).
The rather intimidating warning found on some of the fragments made sense now, too. The Sharpe Brothers, like most manufacturers of one-gallon stoneware jars, saw the large vessels as loans and these were not purchased when you bought the drink that the jar contained. A look at old newspapers from around New Zealand showed that the Sharpe Brothers just as frequently advertised their goods as they printed warnings that asked for their one-gallon bottles to be returned. The jars were a key component of the early Sharpe Brothers company. These jars were not only what they sold their product in (until the 1930s) but the names impressed on the front showed ownership and were a form of advertising (Sharpe 1992). But were jars returned? And if they were, were they re-used? How long were the jars used for? And what did they do with all the old jars?
Well, there are at least five different types of Sharpe Brothers one-gallon jars recovered from the site. Some were made by Doulton and Co. from London and another was made by P. Hutson and Co. from Wellington. Some had handles pre-dating John Sharpe’s patented wire handle in 1904 (Sharpe 1992), and some were decorated with taps and displayed the medals Sharpe Brothers were awarded at the 1906-1907 New Zealand International Exhibition.
Even though the company had been operating in Christchurch since 1905 the section wasn’t used by the brothers until 1908, therefore the presence of the handled jar forms from before the 1904 wire handle patent indicate that jars could be in rotation for a number of years. This is further evidenced by the presence of the jars made by Doulton & Co., which could have been the jars ordered from England in 1905 (Press 20/4/1905). The two manufacturers and different styles present means that rather than discarding an old design when a new one was introduced, Sharpe Brothers probably used the old jars until they broke. The mass grave of these old ceramic vessels suggests that when the jars broke, they were tossed into a hole out the back of the property. Though the density of the deposit could indicate that the old jars were used as foundations. In the Sydney branch the old unwanted Sharpe Brothers jars were broken and used in foundations when the focus shifted to crown seal bottles (Sharpe 1992). It could also be that in Christchurch the old bottles were kept to the side to be repurposed later and in 1914, when the factory moved to Armagh Street, they decided to dispose of all old stock instead of moving it to the new premises.
Amongst all the Sharpe Brothers jars was a single example of a Ballin Brothers ginger beer bottle. Was it accidentally returned to the wrong place? Or was it a rebellious act of drinking the competition at work?
We never know what artefacts, if any, lie beneath the ground. But that’s the point. Archaeology can not only point us in the right direction to research a site’s history but can add depth, insights and evidence about the day-to-day workings of an influential New Zealand business. It may not always seem like it but it’s important to remember that fragments of broken, dirty, petrol-covered jars from a company whose motto read “Cleanliness and Quality combined” are as much a part of Christchurch’s history as carefully preserved papers.
Cyclopedia Company Limited, 1905. Otago and Southland Provincial Districts: Cordial Manufacturers. [online] Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d2-d30-d11.html#n329.
LINZ, 1911. CB211/72, Canterbury. Landonline.
Press. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.
Rice, G. W., 2012. Thacker, Henry Thomas Joynt – Thacker, Henry Thomas Joynt. [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3t28/thacker-henry-thomas-joynt.
Sharpe, D., 1992. Remember That Heavenly Ginger Beer? A History of Sharpe Bros. Impact Printing: Melbourne.
Thames Star. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.
Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directories. [microfiche] Held at Christchurch City Libraries.
Wellington Antique Bottle & Collectables Club., 2003. Sharpe Bros. [online] Available at http://www.wellingtonantiquebottles.org.nz/companies/sharpe.shtml.