"The Quilting Frolic" is a work of art that is used frequently as a window into the material culture of the middle class of the Early Republic. It was painted in 1813 by John Lewis Krimmel, a German-born American genre painter best known for his paintings of middle-class families in Pennsylvania. Because of his interest in depicting the quotidian pleasures of middle class life in that time, his paintings of interiors are richly detailed, and illustrate well the booming consumer culture of the post-Revolutionary period. As Krill and Eversman explain:
Pictures provide intriguing glimpses into the material life of Americans of a more modest means than the federal elite… [This painting] depicted the interior of a Pennsylvania German home, a scene fairly bursting with consumer goods: silhouettes and paintings hang above the fireplace while the cupboards are filled with ceramics. Although sparse, the furniture includes a Windsor chair and a tall-case clock (a favorite status symbol of the Pennsylvania Germans.)
Even picking a single item in the picture can, with a little research, yield a great deal of historical information about the time. Let’s look at the china cabinet.
I haven’t, in the last few days’ digging-around, been able to find much information about china cabinets per se. They, and other kitchen furniture like the Hoosier cabinet and the pie safe, don’t seem to get quite as much attention in histories of material culture as do, say, chests, desks, or beds. They do tend to be somewhat less ornate, as they were intended for the kitchen, which was not a place for guests, so this may be the reason. Alternatively, one might argue that these objects are culturally gendered items, furniture that is associated with women’s work, and this might bring down their cultural capital.
Whatever the case, a few things can be said about the china cabinet. From its rectilinear lines and simplicity of design, it can be identified as belonging to the federal style of furniture– also known as early classical revival, Louis XVI, Adam, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite. This style avoided the curved lines and ornate designs of the earlier Chippendale and rococo styles, or the the empire style of furniture that came after it. It lacks, however, some of the characteristic ornament of that style: it has no gilt, no intricate carvings, no paintings or wood inlays. I initially thought that perhaps this meant that it’s a cheaper piece of furniture. However, when I started thinking about its sliding glass doors, I reconsidered.
If you’ve ever taken a stroll around Beacon Hill in Boston, you likely noticed the purple window panes. These panes were originally created by accident– the glass maker in England added too much magnesium to the glass, which resulted in the purple tint. Most of Beacon Hill was developed in the period between 1800 and 1830 by a group of Boston Brahmins that included the celebrated architect, statesman, and real-estate speculator Charles Bulfinch, and the purple panes date back to the Bulfinch Era. Or at least the originals do. It has been a long-standing statute in Boston that if you have one of the famed purple panes on your house, and it breaks for any reason, you’re required to replace it with purple glass.
…At any rate, the point of this little digression into Boston History is that in 1813, flat glass panes were an expensive import item. They were fragile– more fragile structurally than other glasswares, like bottles, and costs were driven up by the risk of damage while making their transatlantic journey. Panes of glass were also smaller– the glass at the front of this china cabinet is much larger than any single pane on Beacon Hill. Such large panes of glass would have gone for a pretty penny indeed. For this reason, I would guess that this china cabinet must be at least a middle-price-point item, if not a relatively expensive one. It could well be one of the most expensive items in the painting.
The other reason the glass front of the cabinet is interesting is that it reveals the piece of furniture’s dual purpose: the cabinet was not just a storage device, but it was also intended for displaying the china.
The china. Here’s where the sources I was able to track down get a little more helpful. Apparently, the early republic was a time of great change for porcelain, both in America and internationally. In the colonial era, most ceramics were imported to America by the British, the Dutch, and from China by the British and the Dutch. American-made tableware had been produced throughout the colonial era as well– in fact, the first soft-pour porcelain (proper porcelain, of the type that had previously only been produced in China) to be produced in America was made in 1770, only twenty years after the British first figured the process out.
The British considered the American colonies as something of a dumping ground for old and unpopular designs. However, by 1800, tariffs on British ceramics had become prohibitively high on the continent, and the US had become the primary target of British china exports. Porcelain exports from China shifted dramatically in this period as well. In the seventeenth century, European export from China was dominated by the Dutch East India company, but this near-monopoly was lost at the end of the 1600s with civil war in China. In the next century, the British would come to dominate the shipping of goods from China. This period of dominance came to an end soon after the American Revolution, when the US became the main supplier of Chinese goods to Europe, aided by their status as a halfway-point. (In fact, one of the oldest museums in the country, the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, was founded in 1799 by the elite import/export men of that city– which was at that time one of the largest trading hubs in America. It has an amazing collection of East Asian art from that time period.)
Styles in china patterns shifted quickly and radically in the early republic, enough so that we can glean a little bit about the pieces in the painting that one might not expect. Look again at the porcelain in the china cabinet and on the table.
The dinnerware and the teaware patterns don’t seem to match. This would be in keeping with Miller et al.‘s assertion that it was likely more common for families to have mismatched tea- and dinner- wares, as they were manufactured by different processes and marketed differently. Moreover, when one compares the patterns, as best they can be discerned from the painting, to a chart of popular china patterns from 1750-1840, something surprising emerges.
The china in the cabinet most resemble the the feather-edged bisque, which was popular between 1760 and 1790. The tableware in the painting would probably be seen at the time as quite old-fashioned, and was most likely actually fairly old. The teaware, seen most clearly on the table, looks more like a combination of the blue shell edge pearlware and the brown-line creamware– having the lined and rounded edges of the latter and the white and blue coloration of the former. The teaware was likely newer, and more stylish.
It seems logical that the teaware might be newer than the tableware: teaware was used in entertaining guests (as we see here in the painting,) and as such can be seen as occupying a nominal position between domestic and public, where the plateware was much more firmly part of the domestic sphere. However, as Diana diZerega Wall has noted, the domestic sphere was a rapidly morphing beast itself at this time, and this affected china and table service.
As the economy shifted away from households and more men began to work outside the house, dinner took on a whole new cultural meaning in America. The meal hadn’t been thought of as particularly important in the days when most production was done within the house– the family saw each other all day long, and dinner was merely the largest meal that happened around midday. As men began working outside the house, dinner was held after the end of the work-day, and took on a whole new set of rituals. It became a symbol of the values embodied in the new "cult of domesticity." Around this time, plateware fashions shifted to the more and more ornate, embodied in the complex patterns of chinoiserie.
…This is all getting quite long-winded, but I think I’ve definitely proved that with sufficient deep digging, (which this blog entry is not pretending to represent) there is a lot you can dig out of this painting. Honestly, you could probably put together an edited volume, thematically linked by items in this book– it would probably be more interesting reading than one might initially think.
"Changing Cunsumption Paterns: English Ceramics and the American Market from 1770 to 1840" by George Miller et al. and "Family Dinners and Social Teas: Ceramics and Domestic Rituals" by Diana diZerega Wall, both from Everyday Life in the Early Republic, edited by Catherine E. Hutchins