Granny Notes and Bough Pots
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Have you ever heard of a granny note? This is what historical societies and museums call the little slips of paper that come with treasured heirlooms, explaining their stories. Things like "this quilt belonged to great-grandmother Lucy and was made from scraps of cloth saved from her childhood." Sometimes the notes are helpful, sometimes humorous, and occasionally frustratingly vague--like a photo of a woman simply captioned as "mother." Whose mother??? This author was so frustrated by cryptic notes on old photographs that I meticulously labeled every photo I took with full names, even if the people in them were as familiar as, well, my mother. Then there are the granny notes with delusions of grandeur--you know what I mean--"this ballpoint pen was used to sign the Declaration of Independence."
The Longmeadow Historical Society is blessed with many helpful bits of information recorded on scraps of paper, backs of photographs and tucked into lovingly preserved clothing. We treasure these notes, for they often are the only links to the people who owned, used and loved these everyday objects. However, and you knew there was going to be a BUT, right?... One of my favorite granny notes, written carefully in old-fashioned script on several small pieces of paper, describes a lovely piece of ceramic. The "D-shaped" receptacle is white ceramic with silver and orange designs, sitting on little round feet. The design is of graceful flowers and vines, and a shining shield. The silver gilt shimmers in candlelight.
Bough pot, silver luster, 19XX-75
The note proclaims "This Vase is one half of a circular centerpiece once used on Governor Bradford's table. It is a relic of the Mayflower and has been transmitted from one person to another, being last used by Governor Winthrop." Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620 and served as Governor of the Plymouth Colony. Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649) was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 12 years. The note goes on to say that "William Winthrop, a grandson of the Governor, gave this to his housekeeper after the article became imperfect." After that, it descended to the donor, who presented it to the Historical Society sometime before 1930 (Accession #19xx-75).
So how do we know this story isn't accurate? Some thirty years ago, a member of the historical society must have wanted to verify the Mayflower claim. Two area experts, Gregory Farmer, then of the Connecticut Valley History Museum and Elizabeth Fox, then of the Wadsworth Athenaeum said the story was incorrect. Another expert, Lita Solis-Cohen, a noted antiques expert and writer, wrote a letter explaining further: "You have a bough pot. It is not part of a centerpiece but was meant to be used on a mantelpiece...The screw that attaches the feet are common in this form which was made in England, in the Leeds and Staffordshire areas. Circa 1790-1820. Most have polychrome floral designs, and some are decorated with silver luster like yours." A bough pot was meant to hold flowers or bulbs for forcing.
Bough pot, with cover, collection of Historic Deerfield (69.0171)
In fact, further research revealed that lusterware, though seen earlier, didn't reach commercial production levels until after 1805. Silver luster was introduced at Wedgewood in 1805 and was in mass production in the 1820's. The metallic luster, or shiny elements, were produced with powdered metals in acid, with gold producing a purple/pink, iron a gold/yellow, and platinum producing the silver color.
Platinum as a metal was used in South America by pre-Colombians, and began to be investigated by European scientists after a report in 1748 by Antonio de Ulloa was published about the new metal of Colombian origin. So where does that leave us with our lovely bough pot? It is likely one half of an early 19th century silver luster flower pot, made two centuries after the Mayflower made its epic voyage. Europeans did not have a method for refining platinum ore until later in the 18th century. Neither Governor Bradford or Winthrop ever saw this pot.
But it is a lovely thing, isn't it?
Contributed by Betsy McKee, LHS Board Member
Originally published May 27, 2021