Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Take on Ancestor Worship and Celebrating 17th Century Conviviality

      This particular post explores a recent interest of mine to learn a little more about the lives of my colonial ancestors. It also combines my curiosity about tobacco history, early American material culture and even Dutch "still life" paintings of the 17th century. Which by the way, are incredible documents of past life.

     My earliest American ancestor was Robert Ellyson ( my 10th great grandfather). Sometimes listed as Dr. or Capt. Ellyson. He was a Scot who came to the Colonies in 1643 and did quite well for himself. It's recorded that he was a barber / surgeon, militia captain, high-sheriff of James City County and later a Burgess through the 1650's. I have no doubt he was a Virginia Tidewater planter too, as history records that he paid his debts in tobacco. I began to wonder what it would have been like to sit at a table with my predecessor and discuss colonial politics over a glass of German wine and a pipe of fine Virginia tabac? Hmmmm.

A Classic Toebackje Painting by Pieter Claesz circa 1636
Many of the Objects Depicted are Discussed Below

    I thought it would be challenging to create a three-dimensional version of a Dutch golden age vanitas style painting as an exploration of 17th century material culture.  With the focus of my creation being "conviviality", the type of painting know as Toebackje was a perfect choice. Generally, Toebackje paintings depict contemporary smoking and drinking related objects. They were very popular in their time and I think some of the best were painted by Pieter Claesz ( 1597-1660).

Another Claesz Masterpiece
Showing Brazier, Fidibus, Tobacco Box,
 Berkemeyer Style Glass and of Course, Clay Pipes

     The first order of business was to identify the objects in the paintings and decide whether I should attempt to replicate them or find authentic reproductions that already exist. Mid-to-late 17th century style clay pipes are readily available today as reproductions, so I purchased one from Columbia Booksellers and Stationers.

     During this time period, there were many styles of clay vessels used to ship and serve liquid refreshment. Since I wasn't trying to copy any one painting exactly but still wanted to make good choices, I began to research some of my possible options. With the Dutch paintings as a basis for my selections, I learned about the world wide trade in this type of stoneware and discovered it was produced in different regions of Europe. One of the styles that caught my eye, were the Bartmann jugs from the Rhineland. Many of these 17the century stoneware jugs have been found by archaelogists in early American colonial settlement sites so they seemed like a good choice for my project.

Bartmann Jug from Jamestown Virginia
image courtesy historicjamestowne.org

      Lucky for me, Bartmann Jugs have been reproduced by several people for a number of years. I discovered a modern potter named J.Henderson Artifacts who replicates many early period styles. My timing was perfect as he had a fine, salt glazed example of the classic jug, bearded man and all, in stock. It turned out to be a very nice replica indeed and at a good price.

My Replica Bartmann Jug from J. Henderson
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Next in line was an appropriate piece of glassware to hold that spirit. As I surveyed a number of paintings, it seemed a toss-up between the Berkemeyer Style with its flared form and spikey prunts or the more rounded Roemer Style. These are being reproduced today but aren't easily found. Lady luck smiled on me again when I visited Goose Bay Workshops  and found a beautiful Roemer style glass ( maker unknown)  in their "sale" section.

My Roemer Replica
Courtesy of Goose Bay Workshops

    One of the objects in these paintings that was unfamiliar to me, were the small, unglazed and footed bowls that appear to be holding coals or embers. It turned out that these "Braziers" were the source of fire to light your pipe and were in common use by smokers. Remember, matches are 170 years in the future, so one way to transfer the fire to the pipe was by igniting a tightly rolled piece of paper known as a Fidibus. Another choice was to use a Spall, which was a sulphur tipped splint. Both are seen in bundles in many of the paintings. As this great drawing by Adriaen van Ostade shows, sometimes smokers just tipped their pipes into the braziers to catch the fire.

image courtesy wikimedia

      I decided that the brazier was something I could reproduce although I have never thrown a pot in my life. Truth is, no one is currently reproducing period stoneware braziers, so I really had no choice.

Original 17th Century Stoneware Brazier
Collection of the National Pipe Museum
in the Netherlands

     Don Duco, curator of the National Pipe Museum, in the Netherlands, was very helpful to send me the dimensions of an original 17th century brazier in their collection. After the purchase of some clay and with access to a borrowed potter's wheel, I bravely jumped into a new craft. Their is no substitute for patience or experience and my first attempts at this little crude bowl were horrible. After struggling along for a couple of hours at the wheel, (centering the clay is the hardest)  I finally threw four passable examples. After air curing for 2 weeks, I fired the best two in my wife's kiln. To my great surprise, I was rewarded for my efforts with two fairly decent braziers. What Luck !

My Replica 17th Century Braziers
I liked the one on the left best
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Moving right along the list of neccessities for this project, I started looking into tobacco boxes. My research discovered that in general, most were small ( 3"-4") during this time period. Historians feel this was likely due to the cost of tobacco in the 1600's. It makes sense when you consider that the contemporary pipe bowls were equally tiny. A popular shape for the boxes was oval but I also discovered octagon forms and no doubt there were others. Materials for these boxes could be metals like silver, brass, copper, pewter or even lead. Wooden varieties are rarer but it's most likely due to their frailty that few survived to the present. I'm sure that there were horn and even papier mache versions but I didn't find any that were dated to my period.

  Original  Brass Tobacco Box with Engraved Sentiment from 1672
Image Courtesy independent.co.uk

 Late 17th Century Tobacco Box and Pipes
Image Courtesy history.org

     At first I thought I might luck-out and turn up a good replica box but I couldn't find exactly what I wanted. I decided to go ahead and create my own interpretation in brass. Using the information I collected from existing boxes, I chose my pattern and made a cardstock mock-up. Once I was satisfied with the shape, I transfered the pattern to the sheet brass and cut out the parts. I free-formed the domed shape of the top and bottom first and then rolled their edges down to form a lip. By first annealing (heating and quenching) the cut-out pieces to a workable state, it's easy to hammer-raise the domed shape. I use a rawhide mallet and a solid, rounded form for a backing. After the form work was completed, I hard-soldered the joints that would be stressed (hinge parts and band joint) and soft-soldered the rest (top and bottom). I think it turned out pretty sweet. I just wish I knew how to engrave, as many of the originals are embellished with sayings, scenes etc.

My Interpretation of a Tobacco Box
Rear View
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

Front View

     So when all was said and done, I assembled my version of a classic 17th century scene that hopefully reflects the same "frozen in time" feeling of those incredible Dutch masterpieces. I think my Virginia ancestor would find it quite familiar, maybe even inviting. What do you think?



  1. Thanks for the "plug", I can use any help I can get. However, I wish to comment on your delightful new blog addition to make reference to the older images plural appeal as to your singular appeal. The old images bestow a sense of sharing with another like minded individual. I think you need to buy another pipe to "balance" your image out properly. GRIN
    Well done!

  2. This is wonderful stuff!
    I stumbled upon this looking for more info for my site www.amelia-parker.com
    Keep up the good work!

  3. That's really interesting, and your attention to detail is wonderful. One tiny point that might be of interest was your reference to a 'spall'. As a child in the 1950s in the north of England I would be given the job of making 'spills' for lighting pipes. Carefully folded lengths of newspaper that stood in a jar on the hearth. There has to be a connection!