Consumption and Class

After Emancipation, a new middle class that included African Americans began to emerge in US cities. With more opportunities to participate in the consumer market and to create businesses of their own, a new form of African American "gentility" started to form. Scalloped-edge porcelainThis African-American "gentility" was defined both by consumption tastes through actively participating in the newly-available consumer markets and the focus on values such as education and civil rights. However, many African Americans of all socioeconomic positions experienced racism in the consumer market, especially locally. African Americans in Annapolis chose to consume nationally-branded goods to avoid local producers who would often sell them low-quality goods for unfair prices (Mullins 1999, 25-26). Though many African Americans participating in this racist post-Emancipation market found ways to show resistance, some also took part in popular consumer activities as a means to show their status.

The analysis of ceramic from the archaeological record can reveal much about the socioeconomic status and consumption practices of the people who used and discarded them. The presence of fine ceramics, like porcelain, is one indication that people were potentially demonstrating household status. For example, research carried out at historic New Philadelphia, Illinois, a multiethnic community founded by a free African American in the 19th century, shows that families throughout the community drank tea from a variety of differently priced ceramic tea wares. Even though there was a wide variety of tea vessels located, it seems that they were used in the same way as in these African-American households as with contemporary white households (Shackel). Tea drinking was a widespread practice during the Victorian era, but archaeological research in Lowell, Massachusetts has shown that ceramic assemblages differed between middle-class and working-class households most distinctly in the presence or absence of fine tea and coffee wares (Beaudry 170). Thus, having a fine tea set was seen as a mark of status and wealth for families all over the United States, including in Freedman's Town.

Taking Tea

Based on the ceramics located through excavations, many of the households in Freedman's Town seemed to have used fine ceramic teaware to take their tea, showing that at least some of the families in the community were able to afford these luxury items. Excavations at 1312 Ruthven revealed many fragments of teacup handles and saucers, some with a decorative scalloped edge. A relatively high amount of porcelain was found at Ruthven site, which could mean that this household was particularly wealthy.

Tea handles
Contemporaneous ceramic tea handles found at the Rutherford B. H. Yates house

The data also suggests that Rutherford B. H. Yates and his family enjoyed taking tea at their home, too. Twelve teacup handles - six china and six whiteware, a less expensive ceramic - were discovered in excavations. Many of the fragments of tea saucers and tea cups were located in one particular area of the backyard. It is possible that the occupants of this home enjoyed drinking their tea outside and had a particular area designated to the ritual of taking tea.

Egyptian black basalt pottery
This small sherd of Egyptian black basalt pottery likely
came from a teapot or sugar bowl

Along with the tea handles, one single sherd of Egyptian black basalt pottery was also found on the Yates' property. This type of pottery is almost exclusively used in ornamental tea wares, such as teapots and sugar bowls; it may have been part of an eclectic collection of tea equipage. We know from other excavations and historic descriptions that many African American middle class families had tea cups of many different decorations and styles, and this was the case for the Yates family as well. Instead of buying a complete set, they collected vessels one by one, building a complete set over time. Their children participated in the tea ritual by mimicking the adults in the family by "playing" at taking tea with toy tea cups. Despite the mismatched tea sets, the Yates family, and many families in Freedman's Town, could afford to take their tea in style.

Child's toy tea cup
The Yates children pretended to drink tea with toy tea cups like these


Porcelain is not solely used for teacups.  Frozen CharlotteDuring the Victorian period, porcelain dolls became popular among wealthy families. These porcelain dolls were more expensive, but many companies started making less expensive, but similar styles of dolls called "frozen Charlottes." These dolls were made all in one piece, while the more expensive dolls were made in separate pieces. Thus, the presence of a "frozen Charlotte" or a jointed porcelain doll in the archaeological record can be a good indicator of the inhabitants' socioeconomic status, alongside other data.

Porcelain doll parts
The Yates family could afford high quality, jointed dolls

Porcelain doll pieces were found at many sites in Freedman's Town, and a number of fragments were of the more expensive porcelain dolls. A piece of a porcelain doll face was discovered at the J. Vance Lewis house, and two distinct porcelain doll ears were found at the Rutherford B. H. Yates home. Because these are all pieces of dolls' heads, it is difficult to know if the piece is from a jointed doll or from a "Frozen Charlotte" doll. However, at both the Ruthven and the Yates properties, jointed doll parts from more expensive porcelain dolls were located. Thus, at some point during the occupation of both of those properties, the families were able to buy their children well-made and expensive dolls.

A porcelain doll earA porcelain doll ear
These two porcelain doll ears could have come from jointed dolls or "Frozen Charlottes"

Taking Tea