For our assignment this week, our professor asked the entire class to each examine a different object or related groups of objects in the 1813 John Lewis Krimmel painting "The Quilting Frolic", seen here. My specific assignment was for the china cabinet (sometimes known as a china closet) for storing--and displaying--chinaware, as well as the china within it. The china/crockery themselves were, of course, for serving and eating food. My task was to determine not only some facts about these objects, but also what knowing more about them could tell the viewer about American history in the early national period.
First, I believe that when you are dealing with a piece of visual art as historical evidence, it is still helpful to first consider it as an artisitic work. While it may be problematic to set aside cultural and historical context, it is important to remember that this painting was intended as an artistic statement and so therefore the aesthetic considerations cannot be ignored.
My first impression of this picture is that it is impressively crowded; there are people and objects filling the entire height and width of the frame, and both pictured surfaces (the walls and the floor--there is just enough ceiling shown to illustrate the height of the room) mostly covered up. The scene is framed in order to intensify this effect, as it is clear that the room extends to the left outside the view. The effect is further amplified by the lateral row of various items pushed towards the front of the picture paralleling the bottom. The obvious narrative reason for this is either to make room for the large number of guests, or for the work of quilting. From an artistic standpoint, having a nearly solid line of 'stuff' along the bottom--where the footlights would be on the stage of a theater, accentuates the 'stage-like' feeling of the scene. Also, nearly all the people in the scene are either turned towards the viewer or partially so; and the two figures who have their backs turned both have their heads turned so that their profiles are plain to see. The effect is a scene which is crowded and full of energy, but also carefully staged.
Clearly, Krimmel intended to convey some information about the state of American society during the War of 1812; there is obviously a great deal of material abundance and comfort on display in this modest middle-class household; there is also a great deal of inter-generational and gender-mixing going on (although the unrealistic way in which he has portrayed the two African-Americans in the picture hint both at standardized racist iconography to come, and at the fissure in Republican society which would become more pronounced, rather than more blurred, over time). But what about the meanings he didn't mean to convey; what about the meanings inherent in the everyday materials and objects he cluttered his canvas with?
Our reading for this week is "Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture" by Kenneth L. Ames. Although the book covers the later Victorian period and therefore is not specifically relevent here, this quote from the forward applies to anybody examining the material culture of any period:
"Culture is not necessarily understandable. It surely is not rational. Nor is it coherent. My argument here is that culture is both insistent and muddled. Culture pervades life in the form of things, behaviors, ideas, laws, morals, and opinions. At its most effective, it is stealthy, lurking where we do not expect it. But culture is not monolithic, consistent, or integrated. It is often deeply contradictory and self-subverting." (Ames, p. 1)
These words are not meant to discourage the reader, and certainly not to undermine the usefulness of considering material culture. Rather, Ames wants the reader to be aware that interpreting culture requires the historian must trust her or his interpretive instincts while at the same time being comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and a certain 'unfinished' quality.
As for the china cabinet and the chinaware it stored/displayed; I can make several statements regarding them simply based on my own existing knowledge of the period. The china cabinet itself is a piece of furniture which is still quite common today, although far from universal. The piece became common in the 18th century in the United States, and It's function is ostensibly to store chinaware and crockery, but from a strictly functional view it is hardly practical--it is not the more efficient method of storing dishes (as can be seen in the picture, dishes were spaced out leaning against the back, rather than stacked in utilitarian fashion), nor is it particularly affordable. It is not only larger than necessary, it also has a great deal of glass pane, an expensive and not-yet common good in early 19th century America.
We cannot see the bottom half/two-thirds of this particulary cabinet, but it is clear that it is plain in design, but not ugly. There is balance and symmatry to its design, and the woodwork around the top, while hardly elaborate or ornate, is clearly decorative rather than crudely functional. This is a piece which is meant to be seen, even while it displays middling economic status and plain Republican style.
And it would be seen, because china cabinets are meant for dining rooms and living rooms--places where guests and people from outside the household would be eating and being entertained. There is some practical reason for this--you would want the dishes, glasses, cups, saucers, bowls, and other chinaware/crockery at hand for setting the table. But the use of impractical glass and tall shelves for upright display makes it clear that there is a visual element at play; a declaration or confirmation of social status. Note that the china hutch in this picture is much taller than any adult, and yet children are helping set the table. The dishes are stored in away which is not convenient, as many of them are high up.
This is not merely to give the impression of abundance, however--a china hutch is not 'necessary' (or, perhaps, socially justified) unless one has a suitable amount and variety of chinaware/crockery to display/store. That means having not only a good number of any one type of piece (plate, saucer, teacupt, etc.), but also many different and rather specialized pieces. You can see even in this picture that the family has differnt-sized plates, cups, and glasses, and that even after the table has been set and the servant girl has a full tray of matching cups and at least two similar pots, the visible part of the hutch is still fairly full; and yet the door has been slid open, indicating that at least some of the dishes in front were retrieved from it.
It's worth noting that while the china cabinet itself was almost certainly manufactured domestically, the reason they became popular in the first place was to display imported chinaware from Britain. I suspect that some of the "nicer" dishes in this picture are older pieces, family heirlooms and still prized possessions. But it is the humbler, domestically-produced crockery which is actually being used to serve drinks in the picture. War with Great Britain means that it is time to finally put the last vestiges of our colonial heritage behind us and embrace the Republican present.
Also, it should be noted that the mere fact that this family has a "dining area" to begin with suggests a certain level of material comfort and success, even as the "need" for varied and food-specific dishes hint at a variety and high quanity of foods. This is a family which is used to eating well, and has the leisure to do so in comfort and to some degree of formality. It also suggests that the household either does, or aspires to, host guests and extended family on a fairly regular basis. The casual mix of genders and generations (and even, to a less egalitarian degree, of races) evident in the picture are clearly no suprise, as indicated by the calm, unruffled demeaner of the old man in the center, calmly smoking his pipe (he's not the one trying to hurridly finish a quilt after all!). The home, then, is a center for larger social and familial gatherings, a rather plain space in which cameraderie and sheer abundance are more important than superfluous decoration or adornmant.
This last observation is further justified when you note that while the chinaware is impressive in quantity, from what we can see, these dishes are as plain and simple in style and manufacture as the hutch they are stored in. They are simply colored in plain, monochromatic shades without design, and clearly are heavy, sturdy crockery, rather than delicate china or glass. The plates appear to be rather plain as well, although it is possible that the ones on the table have some simple designs. Still it is telling that the large, not-inexpensive or entirely practical china hutch is seemingly used to store--and display--crockery and china which is largely plain, and quite suitable for frequent use and sharing. The displayed goods are not being kept from guests, merely put up for their admiration and approval. It is probably important, from Krimmel's point of view, that the hutch is slid open--the family expects to share their proudly displayed chinaware with whoever comes in through the door. A true expression of Republican fraternity and egalitarianism.
For further research, an excellent place to start would actually be collector/antique guides; many of these resources have brief but definitive historical information, as the provenance and dating of these pieces is crucial. Furthermore, many of them are illustrated, which is a big plus.
Ames, Kenneth L. Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Ketchum Jr., William C. American Pottery & Porcelain. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000.
Obbard, John W. Early American Furniture. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2006.