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17 Nov
Thu / 2011

‘Twas Brilig! The Jabberwocky Ice Pail

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Because one scoop of ice cream blog post is never enough, here’s a bit more on dessert equipage from the eighteenth century…

As part of our installation devoted to the dessert service, we have on view an ice pail, made by the Worcester Porcelain Manufactory in 1770. This intricately decorated vessel is very much what it sounds like – it is a pail made to hold ice and chill food.  Designed in three parts, ice would be packed into the bottom of the bowl, and atop the recessed lid. Fruit or ice cream was held in an interior liner, where it was kept cool on both sides. 

Elaborate dessert services usually included a pair of ice pails (ours at one point had a mate that was its exact replica). This form, like many objects related to fine dining in the mid-18th C, was the contribution of the French. In this period, the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory was the elite supplier of grand dinner services to aristocratic circles in Europe, and initiated the trend of using porcelain rather than silver on dinner tables. In particular, Sèvres created specialized shapes for the dessert service – great ingenuity went into the presentation of dessert, the climax of the meal. 

Although the form was borrowed from the Sèvres manufactory, the painted decoration of the ice pail was an original invention by Worcester. As result of trading in the mid-18th C, Asian designs became fashionable in Europe. While some were copied directly from Asian ceramic imports, many firms began to produce their own Asian-inspired patterns. Many of these were copies, of other firm’s copies, of the original imported ware. 

The result, for our ice pail, is a pattern invented by Worcester in the mid-1760s, known as “Jabberwocky.” It features bright colors, turquoise and coral, fine gilding, as well as a scrolled border panels.  A fantastic dragon is the central motif, with wheat sheaf, flowering branches, and a “flaming pinecone” design at center.

The name “Jabberwocky” might be familiar to you; it is from the imagination of the writer Lewis Carroll, and his famous poem from 1872. The popular title is a Victorian invention, coined 100 years after our ice pail was made in reference to the pail's dragon motif and Carroll’s creature. In the 18th C, the pattern was referred to differently. A Worcester sale catalog from 1769 included: “A complete tea and coffee equipage, forty three pieces, of the fine old rich dragon pattern.” It sold for 6 pounds, 17 shillings. Use of the word “old” is noteworthy, as the manufactory incited “traditional" Asian patterns on a modern form.

Ice pails were not offered by the Worcester manufactory until about 1770 (the year of our piece) and what they produced faithfully followed the French design, raised on three flat, circular feet. A drawing from the Leeds Porcelain Manufactory shows the cross-section of an ice pail, with its hidden liner (see slideshow).  The pail shape itself, seems to have been inspired by a braising pan, a cooking pot with a deep lid that could be filled with hot coals. The pan is similar to what is today called a Dutch oven, and is what inspired the lidded ice pail.

Ivan Day, co-curator of English Taste (and food historian to the stars!) put an 18th-century ice pail to the test, by experimenting with his own ice cream.  Ivan discovered that if ice alone is used to fill the lid and the bucket, the ice cream will quickly melt. Ivan writes, “Although there is nothing recorded in the literature, it is almost certain that a little salt was sprinkled on the ice, which improves the refrigeration effect.” His experimentation showed that ice cream will remain frozen for up to 4 hours if salt is added to ice in both compartments (not at all bad for a 300 year old mini-refrigerator). He also noted that a small amount of condensation-ice will eventually form on the outside of the pail.  This would probably have caused it to adhere to the table cloth, and is likely the reason for the three elevated feet.

Ivan’s experiment, and his method of recreating period foods, is a wonderful example of experimentation as research. It demonstrates why (for me, personally) the decorative arts are so compelling -- for everyday objects in particular, it is not often recorded how or why a thing was made the way it was, and there may be no documentation as to how it was exactly used. Objects themselves can often reveal social traditions or etiquette when one considers the logistics of their use. By the late 1820's, the ice pail form was out of fashion and was rarely made.  The dessert, however, perseveres.

And so I say, cheers to the fine old rich tradition of ice cream socials!

About Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole joined Rienzi as curatorial assistant in 2010, after completing her M.A. in the history of decorative arts and design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Parsons School for Design in New York City, and a B.A. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

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