PART 2 of From Mugs to Solo Cups: Understanding Capacity in the Archaeological Record

By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online

In my previous post, I offered a way to access mug capacity in the archaeological record.  Turns out that simply calculating volume is only part of the story.  We did some background research to see if others had encountered similar discrepancies between the purported colonial British system of liquid measure and the actual size of the vessel.

One of John Dwight’s Fulham mugs dating to the mid-eighteenth century at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In fact, in the only systematic study of vessel capacity that’s been done to date, the archaeologist discovered just what Wondrich was referring to – discrepancies between what sizes the pottery factory said they were manufacturing and what sizes they actually produced.  Chris Green’s (1999) major publication on the John Dwight’s pottery in Fulham, England served as the dataset for this capacity study.  Using associated historical documentation, Green found that the factory in 1696 produced coarse and fine stonewares in half-pints, pints, quarts, pottles, gallons, and double gallons.  Documents recording factory products nearly a century later showed that these sizes were still available with the addition of intermediate sizes and sizes larger than the double gallon.  But when he actually looked at the waster piles – the discarded ceramics that failed to make it to market – to indentify these sizes in the archaeological record, he found a high degree of fluctuation in capacity for those dating to the seventeenth century.  Waster vessels are not an ideal sample because inherent perfections caused their demise in the kiln, though Green suggests that poorly sized vessels were not a common reason for discard.

This Nottingham mug from the midden measures a pint in capacity.


Using a much smaller sample of mugs dating to the eighteenth century, Green found increased standardization of capacities, most likely resulting from new liquid measure legislationin 1700 called the Act for Ascertaining.  Importantly for our purposes, Green notes that fine stonewares, such as white salt glaze, were probably exempt from the legislation since they were not as commonly used to serve beers or ales in tavern settings in England.  Our small sample from the South Grove provides supporting evidence.

Part 3 of this blog series will focus on the cultural importance of mug size in the eighteenth century.  Stay tuned!

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