A Spot of Tea: Material Culture and Social Status in 19th Century Society

2178.01_1Archaeology isn’t all about discovering lost cities and digging up long-buried trinkets of a valuable nature – in fact, ordinary household items can prove to be far more valuable in terms of what they can tell us about life in the past.  The everyday objects that we take for granted in our mass-consumerist society are not merely passive reflectors of our customs and beliefs; rather, the material goods that we produce and consume as a society actively lend significance and structure to the world around us.

As an example of this, let’s have a look at afternoon tea as a 19th Century custom.  Like the porcelain dolls featured last week, teaware from this era provides a window into the growing importance of domestic life,  and also demonstrates how taste in teaware affirmed social status among middle class families in New York City.

At this time in New York City, we find that most families possessed a set of ironstone cups and saucers.  These would have been used for serving tea when only the family was present, probably along with regular meals.

Ironstone bowl

Ironstone bowl

Ironstone saucer

Ironstone saucer

Some families, however, also had a set of more elaborate teaware that was probably used for entertaining guests.  These sets tend to correlate with families belonging to the upper middle class.

Porcelain cup

Porcelain cup

Porcelain cup

Porcelain cup

These differences reflect not only a contrast in the amount of money people were willing to spend, but also in their social practices.  It was the difference between inviting to tea people who you regard as family, or making afternoon tea into an event designed to impress professional and business acquaintances, and the teaware marked this distinction.

Earthenware teapot

Earthenware teapot

Based on what we know about tea time and social class in the 19th Century and the photos shown, what levels of the social ladder do you think resided in the neighbourhood at Riverside?

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3 thoughts on “A Spot of Tea: Material Culture and Social Status in 19th Century Society

  1. Great post – I worked on some material from a colonial plantation on the island of Montserrat, and we dealt with a lot of both lead-glazed and tin-glazed ceramics. By looking through auction booklets, catalogues, and advertisements from the time period we were able to infer quite a lot about the gendered identities of the plantation owners, their relative social status (obviously upper class, but more specifically), more precise dating of occupation, etc. And, the material is beautiful!

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  3. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology #BlogArch – All of the Responses to the best and worst posts | Doug's Archaeology

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