Jasper sweetmeat basket

Jasper sweetmeat basket, about 1790

Jasper sweetmeat basket, about 1790

Josiah Wedgwood invented his most famous type of pottery, jasper ware, in 1774-75. The first large products for which he intended it were tablets for interior decoration, for example to be inlaid into chimneypieces. In the 1780s he began using it for decorative vases and flower containers, but he did not make it into dinner ware. He wanted to keep it as an exclusive kind of pottery by restricting its use to objects that had high status.

We can see Wedgwood’s thinking process when he writes to his partner Thomas Bentley on 4 November 1778 about candlesticks: ‘Something pretty might be made in blue and white Jasper, but would not that vulgarize the material?’ He decided that jasper was too good for tea services, except for the little sets of tea-for-one or tea-for-two which he referred to as dejeuners and which modern collectors sometimes refer to as cabaret sets.

Josiah Wedgwood did not make sauceboats and tureens of jasper ware for the dinner table, but in 1785-86 he did make some ware for the dessert course. Wasn’t this dinner ware? No it wasn’t, because in the 18th century people didn’t think of dessert as part of dinner. This may seem strange, but dessert had evolved out of the Tudor and Stuart ‘banquet of sweetmeats’, an after-dinner treat of sugary things which was eaten in a different place from dinner, perhaps in a summer-house in the garden or in a lookout pavilion high up on the roof of the house.

Dessert provided an opportunity to show off the ability to consume expensively produced hothouse fruit and expensive white sugar, ‘double refined’, as it was known. The sugar was produced by slave labour in the West Indies, and its price went down as the dreadful trade grew and grew. Then as now, most British consumers don’t seem to have spent much time thinking about the people who grew the food that they eat. What consumers thought about was the prestige and visual appeal of dessert: “‘Tis the dessert that graces all the feast”. Because it followed two massive courses of dinner, each with numerous dishes in it, by this stage the guests were looking to please their eyes as much as to tickle their jaded palates. This meant that it became usual to use more elaborate and expensive ware for the dessert than for the main courses. The porcelain factories who were Wedgwood’s competitors in this area certainly lavished more decoration on their dessert services than on their dinner services.

On 12 June 1786 a merchant named Peter Capper wrote to Wedgwood from St Petersburg in Russia with a question:

'What would be the price of an Epargne, or Apparatus for dessert of the above composition [ie jasper ware]? If it should consist of the following -

1 large groupe of figures or piramids for the middle

2 smaller ditto ditto for the sides

9 smaller ditto ditto to place around them

16 Small figures Separate, about 6 in high more or less.

5 Small vases for the corners about 5 in high

No stand or plate form for the above figures is wanted.'

Wedgwood wrote back:
'His Majesty (King of Naples) the last year ordered a great number of figures, some in groups for the dessert which I was obliged to decline on account of the impossibility of getting them modelled in time, upon which I was directed to make what I have just now sent for the purpose. I consisted of upwards of £100 worth of vases, bouquitiers, figure candelabra with a few small figures and busts. Such an assortment as this, with the addition of Glaciers for ice cream, and ice pails, reffraichoirs, and water cups to wash the fingers in after dinner, I would send by the first boat next summer if I have an order in time but it will take three months at least to make them.'

It is not known whether or not Capper put in an order on the lines that Wedgwood suggested. But in the following year Wedgwood began to make some of the items he had described to the merchant.

Glaciers for ice cream are double-walled vessels designed to keep the ice cream cold in its inner container by packing a mixture of salt and ice in the outer container around it. On Wedgwood's glacier the division at the shoulder between the upper and lower parts of the outer vessel is level with the division between the upper and lower part of the inner vessel. Outer and inner vessels each have their own cover. The decoration illustrates the object's function: the knob of the outer cover is a little cupid wrapped up in a cloak to keep warm, as he would need to since he would be sitting on a lot of ice. Around the shoulder of the glacier the decoration is modelled as a band of icicles. The lower bowl has shell handles springing from the masks of river-gods, with more icicles on the foot. The glaciers were sold for eight guineas a pair.

Ice-cream was a normal part of fashionable desserts by the mid 18th century. Hannah Glasse, writing The Complete Confectioner, expected her London customers would be buying it from confectioners all year round. Country houses had their own ice houses, usually built into the earth near a lake. Porcelain dessert-services by 1780 included a pair of glaciers in the more expensive services but not in the cheaper ones. Ice-cream was evidently still regarded as slightly more of a luxury than a porcelain dessert service.

Wedgwood described the little cups to be used with his glaciers as either cream cups or custard cups. These terms, along with cream pot or ice cream cup, were fairly interchangeable in the late 18th century. Custards, creams and ice cream tended to be quite similar in that their main ingredient was cream. Vincent La Chapelle in The Modern Cook in 1733 gives a recipe for 'Cream with Ice for Custards. Put a Spoonful of fine Flour in a Stew-pan with six Yolks of Eggs, and some Cream, or Milk, seasoned with a little Salt, Sugar, a Stick of Cinnamon, and green Lemon-peel...' adding beaten egg-whites and fruit at a later stage.

This is quite similar to Hannah Glasse's recipe for almond custards: 'Take a pint of cream, blanch and beat a quarter of a pound of almonds fine, with two spoonfuls of rosewater. Sweeten it to your palate, beat up the yolks of four eggs, stir all together one way over the fire till it is thick, then pour it out into cups. Or you may bake it in little china cups.’

The other new dessert items produced in jasper at about this time included bowls for rinsing an individual wineglass and the large bowls for rinsing up to a dozen glasses, known as monteiths. These are what Wedgwood meant by ‘reffraichoirs’ in his letter to Capper. He also began making coolers for wine-bottles, referred to as ‘ice pails’ in the same letter, and punchbowls. It may seem odd that these should be classed as dessert ware, but the reason lies in 18th century customs. During the main courses of dinner, wines were not placed on the table but kept at the sideboard. As soon as a diner emptied a glass of wine, a servant took it back to the sideboard and washed it. Each drink a diner wanted had to be brought by a servant. After the servants set the dessert on the table, they left the room for good. Since they would no longer be there to serve drinks, they set wines, glasses, coolers and rinsers on the table for the company to serve themselves.

The final new item for dessert was described as a ‘cream patera’. Since in the ancient world a patera meant a shallow bowl, this was a bit of Neoclassical marketing-speak. A pair of serving bowls was a standard component in a dessert service, and they were usually described either as one for sugar and one for cream, or as both for cream. Wedgwood does not seem to have made any other parts of the dessert service in jasper. The jasper pieces were presumably combined with porcelain plates and dishes.