We’re in the throes of Holiday Party Week here at MCHS, so in honor of the season, here is a glass compote (or footed serving dish), a little over six inches tall, from the early 19th century.


First, here is the history provided by the donor, Deborah Iddings Willson of Sandy Spring: “My great, great, great, great, great grandfather George Peirce came over with William Penn [and] settled on land given him, which is now Cecil Co. MD but was then in the Colony of Pennsylvania. There he bought this punch bowl, which was Maryland glass. [Peirce] came to America in 1684 so this was probably bought in the late 1680s or early 1690s.”  Many descendants of the Peirces (yes, that’s spelled correctly) settled in the Quaker community of Sandy Spring in the early to mid 19th century.

As is sometimes the case, the donor’s understanding of the artifact doesn’t quite match up to that of historians.  Based on style, pattern, and manufacturing technique, this piece is most likely a compote, made by the Bakewell, Page and Bakewell company of Pittsburgh, PA, between 1820 and 1840.

Calling this a punch bowl is not really a problem; the Peirce family may well have used this for serving punch, and the form is sometimes a referred to as a “footed punch bowl” or a “compote or punch bowl?” (complete with question mark). However, research by our long-time volunteer glass curator, Clare Armstrong, shows that the family’s belief that the compote is a 17th century Maryland piece is off base.* The pattern is one often attributed to the Bakewell company, or to other Pittsburgh glass companies (for more info on the history of Pittsburgh glass, click here), in the early 19th century. Clare assessed this piece as “freeblown, then tooled into shape,” which narrows the time frame to the early 19th century, and a recent informal appraisal by a glass expert confirmed the 1820s-30s date. An internet search today found a few examples of very similar vessels likewise attributed, including this one in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

You might think it makes a curator feel superior or something, if and when we have to tell a donor that their story is not quite correct. To the extent that research has ‘solved a mystery,’ yes, there’s a certain satisfaction, but telling someone that their story is wrong… not so much fun. And the mismatched facts do not, to my mind, invalidate the story. Maybe there was another punch bowl in the family that was a 17th century Maryland piece, and over the years the histories were mixed up. Maybe an uncle or great-grandfather was trying to impress someone via a little exaggeration, and the story stuck. Very rarely are donors knowingly perpetuating an incorrect tale; their version should be respected as part of an artifact’s background, even if there’s another version to be told. It’s like a game of telephone, only the fun part is trying to trace exactly where and how “hot potato” turned into … well, okay, I have no idea what that would turn into, but you see what I mean.

* The compote itself is off base, too. Mrs. Willson made no reference to the tilted bowl in her information, though it was donated in this condition. The tilt is the result of repairs to the stem over the years, and the fact that the bowl is not exactly centered on the stem.

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