Early Americans in Their Cups: A Survey of Drinking Glasses—and Habits

Arlene Palmer Schwind, Victoria Mansion

Tuesday, May 11, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Clear blown glass rummer

Clear blown glass rummer, Bohemian or German, ca. 1795, Winterthur Museum

Clear blown glass and etched “Madeira” decanter with stopper

Clear blown glass and etched “Madeira” decanter with stopper, English, 1765-775, Winterthur Museum

A French count staying in Philadelphia in the 1790s reported to his wife that his health was excellent “despite the quantity of tea one must drink with the ladies out of gallantry and of Madeira all day long with the men out of politeness.” As the foreign observer suggested, drinking alcoholic beverages was a significant part of early American life. Indeed, it has been estimated that more alcohol was consumed per capita in the U.S. between 1790 and 1830 than at any time before or since. Quantities of wine, beer and “spirits” were happily consumed by all levels of society, on nearly every occasion.

Storing and serving these alcoholic beverages required millions of vessels. Bowls, jugs and cups made of ceramic and metal were popular. Glass, however, was particularly favored because it did not affect the taste or appearance of the liquor, and also because its thinness and transparency enhanced the drinking experience.

Arlene Palmer Schwind will draw upon archaeological evidence as well as objects with known provenance, in order to discuss the range of beverages consumed by our forebears and illustrate the kinds of bottles, decanters and drinking vessels they used, from the earliest settlements of the 17th century through the Civil War. Before 1800, English and Continental glass and ceramic objects dominated the American market. During the first half of the 19th century, however, America’s own glasshouses supplied a significant part of the demand and developed novel forms and designs. Mold-blown pocket bottles, for example, became the favorite means “to carry the comfort of life.” Decorated with images of American heroes and symbols, these flasks serve as a fascinating index to popular taste in that period. Ms Schwind’s history of drinking habits and vessels will be enlivened with images of humorous drinking prints and pertinent quotes from diaries and travelers’ journals.

Arlene Palmer Schwind is a graduate of Goucher College, with a bachelor’s degree in history, and the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. After obtaining her master’s degree, she then taught in the Winterthur program at the University of Delaware and worked as a curator at the Winterthur Museum in charge of the glass and ceramics collection. Her longstanding association with Winterthur produced numerous publications on early American ceramics and glass: A Winterthur Guide to Chinese Export Porcelain (1976); “Pennsylvania German Earthenware” and “Pennsylvania German Glass” in Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans (1983); Glass in Early America: Selections from the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (1993). Ms Palmer’s contributions to Winterthur Conference Reports have also been published, “Through the Glass Case: The Curator and the Object” in Material Culture and the Study of American Life (1975, 1978) and “The Glassmakers of Early America,” in The Craftsman in Early America (1978, 1984). Winterthur Portfolio also published her “Glass Production in Eighteenth-Century America: The Wistarburgh Enterprise” (1976) and “The Ceramic Imports of Frederick Rhinelander, New York Loyalist Merchant” (1984).

Ms Schwind moved to Maine in 1980 and, since then, she has worked as an independent museum consultant in the glass and ceramics field. In this capacity, she has served as guest curator for several museum exhibitions and installations, published numerous books and articles, and lectured widely. Ms Palmer has consulted with the museums around the country to analyze their glass and/or ceramics collections, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Bayou Bend Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chrysler Museum, Connecticut Historical Society, High Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New-York Historical Society, Peabody-Essex Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Wadsworth Atheneum and Yale University Art Gallery.

Arlene Palmer Schwind curated an exhibition about the Bakewell glassworks for the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh and wrote the accompanying catalogue, Artistry and Innovation in Pittsburgh Glass: 1808-1882: From Bakewell & Encell to Bakewell, Pears & Co. (2005). She contributed to the Toledo Museum of Art’s publication, The Art of Glass (2006). Among her other books are The Wistars and their Glass, 1739-1777 (1989) and John Frederick Amelung: Early American Glassmaker (1990).

The scope of Ms Schwind’s scholarly interests is more expansive than ceramics and glass. She is the curator of Victoria Mansion, a mid-19th century historic house museum in Portland, Maine, which is noted for its original Gustave Herter interiors and furnishings. Last year she published “Douglas Volk and the Arts and Crafts in Maine” in Antiques Magazine, and she is currently working on a book about Benjamin Paul Akers, a 19th century sculptor. In between these various projects she helps her husband, Bill Schwind, in his antiques and fine arts business. Ms Shwind last spoke to the Forum about early American glass—-and drinking habits—-in 1986.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

If it can hold (or transfer) liquid, it’s part of the mini-exhibit: bottles, decanters, flasks, funnels, glasses and cups whether silver, tin, ceramic or glass.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.