By Vicky Crewe, Project Co-Investigator, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University
In my last blog post I discussed some of the reasons why adults give toys and games to children by focusing on the research I’ve done on working-class families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this post I want to pick up on some of those points again, but with a slightly different type of object in mind – not ‘toys’ or ‘games’ exactly, but decorated bowls, cups and plates made especially for children in this period. These were mass-produced, transfer-printed[i] ceramic objects, and because they could be bought cheaply they were found on the tables of households at virtually every level of the social scale.
Like the toys and games I discussed last time, these items of crockery are found remarkably consistently on on 19th-century domestic sites across the western world, from North America to Australia to the UK and further afield. Many examples also survive as intact pieces, often in museum or private collections. The same designs and shapes appear repeatedly across these disparate areas, due to Britain’s booming pottery export market. These objects are often called ‘moralizing ceramics’ by archaeologists because many were decorated with moral or religious messages, either in the form of text – for instance a maxim or rhyme inciting ‘correct’ moral behaviour – or in visual form with a scene depicting a moral message. Many items had both, to be doubly sure the message was received loud and clear!
In this post, I want to consider how these ceramic objects made especially for children transmitted messages about social and political movements, and expectations about children’s behaviour. To do this, I’m going to focus on a number of vessels excavated at the 19th-century mining village of Manor Lodge in Sheffield (Yorkshire, England), which I’ve studied alongside my colleague at the University of Sheffield, Professor Dawn Hadley.
Our excavations at Manor Lodge revealed a varied collection of children’s ceramics. Some had mottoes and words encouraging good behaviour, hard work and obedience, such as ‘Diligent’ and ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’. Another example depicted an illustration from the poem My Daughter, published in 1812 by Richard Gregory, which shows a mother and daughter and focuses on the duty of a daughter to learn from her mother. One plate depicts a scene from the story of Joseph, a popular Bible story for children at the time, which emphasised the value of hard work through Joseph’s rise from a slave to a prominent position in the Pharaoh’s court.
There are various reasons why parents might have wanted to give these items to children. They encouraged literacy through the combination of text and image, and some also had the alphabet around the rim of a plate or the body of a cup. It is possible that the messages of self-improvement and hard work were important for encouraging children to become productive members of the household, as mentioned in my last post, or that parents wanted children to experience owning and caring for an object that was their own in households where material goods might have been few. In an era when many middle-class commentators freely criticised the parenting skills of lower-status individuals (especially mothers), giving children moralizing ceramics might also have been an effort by parents to prove that they had their children’s best interests at heart.
But it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t just parents and other family members who gave these items to children – moralizing ceramics were also given out as gifts by organisations and political groups, especially Methodist Sunday schools and temperance groups. There are several examples from Manor Lodge which may well have made their way into houses in this way. One plate shows a popular scene which was known at the time as ‘What Little Girls Can Do’. It appeared in children’s temperance books and on many ceramics and it shows three young girls offering charity to an adult male vagrant. The scene emphasises the role that young children could play in bettering the lives of those around them (especially adults who had ‘lost their way’) through practicing charity and piety. This idea was key to the temperance movement and we can see it in other formats too. One pamphlet by the UK Band of Hope, a temperance organisation for working-class children, said:
Was it not likely that a little girl singing a verse of some sweet melody in the hearing of her poor drunken father would melt his heart?[ii]
Another interesting vessel which may have made its way into Manor Lodge via the village’s Methodist Sunday school is a plate showing a scene from the American anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in the US in 1852, but it very quickly became a hugely popular story in Britain as well. The story was adapted – sometimes very loosely indeed – into plays, while a huge range of objects went on sale on both sides of the Atlantic depicting scenes and characters from the story. This included games, jigsaws, spoons, handkerchiefs and figurines. As the Methodist church was involved with of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, it seems likely that this small plate depicting a scene from the novel was a gift to a child from the chapel or Sunday school.
For religious and political groups, the advantage of giving these items to children was that they carried messages about temperance, slavery, morality and other ideological issues straight to the heart of the home. Children became agents of change by spreading the message to the rest of their households. This is especially notable if we think about what many working-class houses were like in the 19th century – often small, cramped, and housing many people (including family members, but also lodgers). A plate or cup carrying a religious or moral message would be seen by most, if not all, inhabitants. By reaching out to the child, political and religious groups hoped that their message would be seen by other members of the household too, including adults. This didn’t necessarily mean that adults unquestioningly accepted the messages of course. For parents these cups, bowls and plates could have been useful for instructing children in ‘correct’ behaviour, but they might also have been handy additions to the household crockery collection. But these objects give us a glimpse into the ways in which family members, as well as other adults with social and political agendas, tried to influence children through the objects they gave them. In doing so, they were also trying to influence the adults around them and the future of their society.
[i] A way of decorating ceramics using a piece of tissue paper printed with a pattern. The pattern is transferred from a metal engraving onto the partially fired clay and then the glaze is applied. The paper burns off during the firing, leaving the pattern on the clay.
[ii] United Kingdom Band of Hope Union Conference in Bradford. 1869. Extending the borders. Bradford Tract. See Bailey, A., Harvey, D. and Brace, C. 2007. Disciplining youthful Methodist bodies in nineteenth-century Cornwall. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, 142–57.