Stemware at Fort Vancouver

Photo of a broken stem from a glass with a swirl design in center
This piece of blown glass stemware was found by archaeologists at Fort Vancouver.

NPS Photo

By Robert Cromwell, Chief of Interpretation

Among the myriad of shapes and forms that glass can be formed into, some of the most elegant functional forms can be classified as "stemwares." The term "stemware" derives from the fact that most glassware vessels in this category have a body sitting upon a stem that attaches to a foot, upon which the vessel stands (although many forms do not have a stem). Stemwares can be loosely categorized as glass usually used on the table and associated with food or drink, although they can also be associated with decorative glassware, such as vases. Common stemware forms from the 19th century in the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site archaeological collection include: carafes, cruets, decanters, dessert glasses, mugs/cups, pitchers, drinking glasses, serving glasses, and tumblers.
Photo of wine glass with wide base and broken rim, small size overall.
This glass was found by archaeologists at Fort Vancouver.

NPS Photo

The elegance of Hudson's Bay Company era (at Fort Vancouver, 1829 to 1860) stemware forms arises from the fact that most were manufactured by glass blowers. Vessels were either free blown or made using limited molds. Most were formed from colorless, high lead content glass (some term it as "crystal), that gives a distinctive bell-tone ring when the body of the vessel is tapped with a metal object (think of classic Victorian dinner table toasts).

The glass blowers of this age could manufacture stemwares of incredible complexity. Vessels could be formed from one gather of glass, or could incorporate two, three, or four gathers of glass. Each gather required individual skills, and glass blowers worked in a technical dance of unison, constantly turning the molten vessel on the blow pipe to prevent it from collapsing under its own weight. Many vessels were fire-polished to an incredible sheen, and once cooled, were sent to glass decorators who could engrave patterns with cutting wheels or diamond points; and even acid etch, enamel, or gild individual elements.
Photo showing the bottom of a glass tumbler. "A.L. Lewes" has been scratched into the glass.
This tumbler, found by archaeologists at Fort Vancouver, apparently belonged to one of the fort's clerks, Adolphus Lee Lewes, who inscribed in name on the bottom of the glass.

NPS Photo

These vessels were expensive in their era, and were symbolic representations of the new Victorian ideals for table manners. Among the hundreds of objects listed in the Fort Vancouver 1841 "Articles in Use" inventory for the Chief Factor's House are many stemware vessels, including 7 glass salt cellars, 7 flint decanters, 18 wine glasses, and 22 glass tumblers. Their monetary and personal value is demonstrated by a glass tumbler base recovered from a privy behind the Bachelors' Quarters that was personally engraved "A.L. Lewes," a clerk at the fort in the 1850s.

Interestingly, although these objects were typically associated with the upper class gentlemen who would have resided within the fort walls, many stemware fragments have also been excavated from households in the fort's employee Village.

Last updated: December 6, 2017