Late nineteenth and early twentieth century sites include large farmhouses with associated outbuildings; small, scattered farmsteads, rural, small town, and urban residences; public facilities; and industrial and commercial sites. The artifact assemblages from these sites can thus be composed of many kinds of items, representing a wide range of activities performed at a site. Since “many individuals, and whole classes of people may be left out of the historical record” (Moore 1994 2), an artifact assemblage may provide the most important physical evidence about a site’s occupants and their activities.
A large portion of a household’s assemblage relates to activities associated with food Large numbers of dinnerware sherds are often recovered from turn-of-the-century sites These sherds can serve a number of useful analytical purposes. Their decoration and factory markings can be particularly helpful in dating a site Many decorative styles have had limited periods of popularity and many factories used specific identifying marks at different periods of time. Pottery can also provide information on the character of a household Ceramic analysis may give clues to a household’s activities, size, and composition (see South 1977, LeeDecker et al. 1987, Specula and Bowyer 1996)
Remains of ceramic dinnerware can also be used to estimate a household’s socioeconomic status This process assumes that socioeconomic standing influences certain consumer behaviors Consumer behavior is a “complex interaction of economic, cultural, social, and psychological factors involved in the process of consumer decisions to acquire one particular item rather than another” (Spencer-Wood 1987a: 10). For turn-of-the-century America, social class was largely based on economic status, which in turn was highly correlated with occupation (Ibid: 11) Similar occupational categories tended to share similar “levels of income, social interaction, leisure time, shared knowledge, and values” (Spencer-Wood 1987b: 324). It may, therefore, be hypothesized that households which share similar socioeconomic backgrounds will also share similar patterns of consumption.
Most of the work now being done with ceramic index values follows Miller’s (1980; 1991) system of ranking ceramics based on the relationship between cost and decoration Miller sorted through price-fixing agreements and potters’ price lists to develop index values for a number of specific years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the latest year for which he established an index was 1881. More recently, several attempts have been made to establish indices for later years by using reprints of Sears, Roebuck and/or Montgomery Ward catalogs (e.g., Henry 1987, Thomas 1988; Snyder and Manson 1991) Unfortunately, the reprint editions are usually only partial reproductions of the original catalogs, omitting many pages of similar items The full depth and range of dinnerware sets is often not available in the reprint editions There has also been some concern that mail order catalogs may have served only a limited (mainly rural) segment of the population Other groups undoubtedly purchased their dinnerware from general stores, specialty stores, or directly from the manufacturer It has not been clear if the costs and types of dinnerware purchased from these different sources differed substantially from each other.
This research was made possible through Grant MT-0424-5-NC-19 from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT).