Tableware in Cities

It is not easy to find out what kind of dishes, glassware and cutlery city residents used in the 17th and 18th century Lithuania. Surviving property inventories of Vilnius burghers, usually representing the social and economic elite, are exceptionally valuable documents for any investigation in the field. This is why it is difficult to reconstruct in detail the look of the dinner table in ordinary people’s homes. Written sources almost never mention wooden or clay tableware because they were very primitive and cheap, but archaeologists occasionally unearth them in various cultural layers. Ordinary city dwellers generally used the same tableware as peasants did with clay bowls and jars as well as wooden spoons among the most important items and plates never in use at all.

Analysing dishes, glassware and cutlery used by city residents helps establish social and economic ranking of an individual or a social group, it also allows describe their everyday life. The tableware used by wealthiest and poorest residents of Vilnius differed greatly in terms of its value, quality, functions and forms. The materials that tableware is made range from wood and clay to glass and precious metals but in certain instances one can only guess what the proportions were. It is evident that the proportions depended on the social status of their owners. Wood and clay were prevailing cheap local materials used by Vilnius-based artisans to make various vessels for cooking and food consumption since the middle ages. In the second half of the 16th century, the well-off Vilnius burghers effectively turned down wooden vessels that, however, remained common in the homes of their less prosperous neighbours throughout the 18th century.

From wooden washtub to faience vases

The poorest city residents used wooden cutlery. Traditionally these vessels were whittled, scooped or turned from ash wood. Certain vessels were assembled from separate parts and sometimes other kinds of wood were used including maple, lime, birch, aspen, elm, oak and pine. Artisans would never decorate these vessels as their functionality was the prime value rather than their aesthetic look. Occasionally wooden bowls feature incised geometric objects. Large vessels, such as troughs and barrels, were used for everyday household work. Bowls and dishes were among the most popular turned wooden vessels. Larger and wider smug bowls were used to serve cold or hot dishes. Some of these bowls had lids to enhance hygiene and to keep food warm. Plates – flat and shallow vessels featuring neat sides and wide figural rims – were also used to serve food. Poor residents of Vilnius usually drank from wooden mugs or scoops of various shapes and sizes. Larger scoops of different design were used to draw and serve drinks and liquids, from several milligrams to several litres at a time.

Locally made clay vessels are becoming common from the second half of the 16th century in Vilnius.

Professional pottery established itself in Vilnius two centuries earlier as a sign of the developing city-style economic infrastructure. Vilnius residents were increasingly using clay vessels that were gradually improving in quality, decoration and use of elements requiring high artisan mastery. Wealthy burghers were first to use in their homes various items of wheel thrown pottery that was started to be produced from the second half of the 16th century: pots, jars, bowls, various pans, tall tripod vessels, baking forms, plates, flasks, mugs, medicine bottles and even nightpots. The use of glaze was perhaps the most significant technological novelty. Most of the pottery used by the Vilnius burghers and produced in Vilnius was glazed. First faience vessels, used for decoration and status demonstration, date back to the first quarter of the 17th century. The rich mostly boasted faience plates and bowls while jars, mugs and tiny vases were quite rare. It was in the 18th century that the elite could enjoy faience items in larger numbers.

A glance at the sideboard of the wealthiest

Glassware of the richest people included items made of glass, porcelain, faience as well as various tin or silver vessels. Some of them boasted imported items made of Venetian glass. The property inventory of Andrzej Michał Senczyło who was the burgomaster of Vilnius in the 18th century reflects the glassware fashions of the time as the list includes smaller and larger goblets, various bottles and other items. The rich would usually eat from tin bowls and plates of different shapes and sizes. A less well-to-do family had several bowls while the wealthiest homes including that of Mikołaj Kliczewski, another burgomaster of Vilnius, boasted up to 70 bowls. English tin was particularly valued. Jan Franciszek Klarowski, a city councilor from Vilnius, had six Dutch-made plates in the late 17th century. Franciszek Udalryk Pejer, the city burgomaster, had as much as four silver plates in addition to 17 tin ones at about the same time. The latter three examples are exceptional even among the wealthiest elite.

The rich also had silver vessels and various goblets of different shapes and sizes. The most prosperous homes boasted dozen silver goblets, sometimes gilded, worth up to 80 złotys.

Golden beakers were very rare as only the wealthiest could afford to give them as wedding presents.

Glasses, beakers and goblets were used for parties. A city councillor Jan Kostrovicki, a scribe Ławryn Minkiewicz and several other well-off residents of Vilnius had collections of goblets worth about 150 złotys in the second half of the 17th century. Wealthiest families also had sets of silver vessels of different sizes valued from 100 up to 3,000 złotys. Józef Bonfili, an Italian-born city councillor, and a city benchman Stanisław Szycik Zaleski had three silver vessels each while the burgomaster of Vilnius Mikołaj Kliczewski boasted as much as eight of them. The property inventories from elite homes also feature other luxury items used as tableware. The aforementioned Bonfili had a 100 złoty salver while Stefan Karas, a burgomaster, had several of them. Special bowls, usually made of tin, brass and sometimes even silver, were used to wash hands. Advocatus of Vilnius Bartłomiej Cynaki had a silver one. The property inventories also feature small tin bottles and, occasionally, copper kettles; Cynaki had a silver kettle. Various jars were used to serve drinks while soups were served in vases. Rich people also had special cruets to store or serve spices, oil, vinegar, mustard, sauce and sugar.

When did the fork come about?

During the Middle Ages and in the beginning of the Early Modern Period, city residents used just two items of cutlery: knives cut meals into smaller pieces and spoons to draw liquids. Only the richest could afford cutlery made of various metals, therefore most of the ordinary people used metal knives and wooden spoons. Forks did not appear on tables until the late 16th century and only the members of the royal court used them in the beginning. The wealthiest city dwellers adopted them considerably later, around the middle of the 17th century as the earliest. A fork on a table was not a common sight even in the 18th century. Representatives of the Vilnius elite used cutlery made of precious metals. Silver, gilded and “cossac-syle” spoons – from one to 20 – sometimes even featured the lists of inheritable property. Occasionally their owners, a city lay judge Stanisław Szycik Zaleski among them, would order to decorate spoons with engravings of family coats of arms. Teaspoons and coffee spoons began coming into fashion from the middle of the 18th century but only the wealthiest residents of the largest cities used these items of cutlery, just like small table towels, napkins and vessels to wash hands.

Special tableware for coffee and tea began finding its way into the homes of the richest from the middle of the 18th century too. Only the elite families had pots for coffee and tea made of various metals, including copper, silver and lead. The same is true speaking of coffee grinders (one or several in a single family), milk cruets and small spoons made of silver and other metals. The middle of the 18th century also brought fine sets of tableware, coffee sets and coffee tables into the wealthiest homes.

Expensive tableware, such as silver and faience plates, displayed in open cupboards, on shelves or on walls served as room adornments.

Some would also purchase exquisite tableware to invest money and sell later; sometimes pieces of tableware were used as a pledge.

Everyone had his own spoon, so to say.

Literature: I. Kaminskaitė, Mediniai stalo indai ir įrankiai Vilniaus Žemutinėje pilyje, Istorija, 2010/1, t. 77, p. 3–26; A. Ragauskas, Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas XVII a. antrojoje pusėje (16621702 m.), Vilnius, 2002, p. 404–405.

Aivas Ragauskas