Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 16

Table Glass from the Wreck of the Machault

by Paul McNally

The Glass

Table glass of French origin was restricted to one tumbler base, badly crizzled and decomposed, and many hundreds of wine glasses of a single type. There were in addition eight wine glasses of English origin.

1 Base view of a small pattern-moulded French tumbler in crizzled non-lead metal; mid-18th century. (Photo by G. Lupien.)

The tumbler base (Fig. 1) is from a small pattern-moulded ribbed non-lead tumbler typical of those manufactured in central and western France in the middle of the 18th century (Charleston 1952: 18). The crizzling is characteristic, and so is the tendency to turn brown or pink in the course of decomposition. Similar tumblers are normal finds at French sites in Canada with comparable occupation periods: the Fortress of Louisbourg, Forts Beauséjour and Gaspereau, and Beaubassin for instance.

No vessel count of the French stemware was undertaken because ice and tidal action have reduced most of the examples to fragments and because continuing excavations at the site produce more and more specimens. The glasses so far probably number close to a thousand, with no significant variation between examples except that stem height differs slightly. Capacity appears to be uniform. Shown in Figure 2 is the only wine glass complete to a segment of the lip rim. The main feature is a hollow six-sided moulded pedestal stem. The French called the form bouton carré and evidently borrowed it from Bohemian glassmakers (Barrelet 1957: 114) though English collectors have long referred to such stems as "Silesian." The glasses are of three-piece construction: the moulded stem was welded to a round funnel bowl with a thick base, and a plain conical foot was formed on the stem. In every case the foot has a folded rim. In many cases the lower part of the stem is twisted slightly from reheating the stem and attaching the foot; the variation in stem height results from the same process. The glass has no lead content.

2 French wine glass with hollow six-sided moulded pedestal stem (bouton carré) and round fennel bowl, non-lead metal; third quarter 18th century. (Photo by G. Lupien.)

Hollow pedestal stems were a normal French form of stemware in 1760. They were common at the Fortress of Louisbourg, and some examples recovered there were certainly deposited in the 1750s (Dunton: pers. com.). Engraved examples illustrated by Barrelet (1957: Fig. 21) and Haynes (1964: Pl. 62g) bear the dates 1758 and 1746 respectively. Haynes remarks that it is not impossible that such glasses are English (1964: 219). One might add that is it not probable either. While engraved dates are not necessarily accurate, the size of the Machault sample indicates the form's great popularity in the third quarter of the 18th century.

The French wine glasses were scattered throughout the wreck, but were concentrated on the port side, adjacent to the keelson and well forward. The very number of glasses is sufficient to indicate that they were cargo, and additional evidence is the fact that the feet show no wear, which would have been the case had they been used to any extent. Why they were included in the cargo is unclear. Documentary research has not disclosed them among items requested from the crown by threatened Montreal, nor among items actually shipped although wine of several varieties does figure in both lists (Beattie 1968). The enterprise was mounted by the crown, but evidently merchants and ships' officers could speculate privately in commodities such as glass.

English stemware is represented by seven drawn plain stems with trumpet bowls and a fragment from a glass with an opaque-twist stem. All are of lead metal.

The tall plain-stemmed glasses were a fashionable style from about 1735 until the early 1760s in England (Hughes 1956: 88-9). Rudimentary plain-stemmed wine glasses were in use as common ware throughout the century and later, but there is a clear distinction between these short-stemmed and usually clumsily made glasses, and those made during the period in which the style was fashionable. Of the latter it has been remarked: "Some would say that this [is] one of the most beautiful English glasses ever designed" (Lloyd 1969: 60). The Restigouche examples (Fig. 3), though they have lost most of their bowls, show some of the gracefulness implied. They are drawn, or two piece, glasses.

3 English wine glass with drawn plain stem, lead metal; fashionable about 1735-65. (Photo by G. Lupien.)

Opaque-twist stems enjoyed popularity in England from 1750 until 1780 (Thorpe 1969: 213-4). The stems were formed separately: cylinders of glass in which enamel rods were imbedded were enclosed by an extra gather of metal, then drawn and twisted to form long canes subsequently broken into appropriate lengths. The Restigouche example has a round funnel bowl and a double-series twist formed of a central and a surrounding corkscrew, both in white (Fig. 4).

4 English wine glass with round funnel bowl, opaque double-series twist stem, lead metal; 1750-80. (Photo by G. Lupien.)

The presence of English glass in the French wreck requires some explanation. Before embarking on a lengthy discussion, and lest it be argued that too much is made of a chance occurrence, it should be pointed out that the presence of English table glass at sites with mid-18th century French contexts is a continuing phenomenon, witnessed with certainty at the Fortress of Louisbourg and again at Fort Beauséjour (McNally 1971:123). The converse is not true, or at least has not shown itself to date.

In general, English glass deposited in French contexts probably came from several sources. The French writer Paul Bosc d'Antic wrote in 1760: "L'étranger consomme les quatres cinquièmes des glaces angloises . . . aujourd'hui ils nous fournissent des lustres, des lanternes, des verres à boire, des verres d'optique de toute grandeur, &c." (1780: 59). This is evidence enough of a thriving if one-sided trade in glass between France and England, and glass so obtained might easily be forwarded from France to her possessions. Doubtless at least some glass was brought to Acadia by New England traders (Clark 1968:180-2). Still more could have been booty.

The most famous contemporary French observations on English table glass come once again from Bosc d'Antic in 1760. They form as poor a notice as a patriot might fashion against pernicious foreign manufactures.

Les Anglois ne doivent point se flatter. . . . Leur cristal n'est pas d'une belle couleur; il tire sur le jaune ou sur le brun, pour peu que la couleur rouge de la manganèse domine. Il est si mal cuit, qu'il ressue le sel, se crassit, se rouille promptement, est rempli de points et nébuleux. . . . Il a encore un autre défaut capital, c'est d'étre extrèment tendre. Ils vendent cher leurs ouvrages (1780: 60).

To be fair, the physical defects outlined had troubled English crystal some decades earlier, but certainly no longer applied after 1750. Unless the English made a habit of sending inferior glass to foreign markets, the criticism was unjustified, and might indeed be turned against much French table glass at the time — witness the tumbler base found at the Restigouche wreck, the primary identifying feature of which is its tendency to deteriorate and discolour in a certain manner. And certainly the faults and expense had little effect on appetite for the product, as Bosc d'Antic himself indicates: "Il n'est point de pays où les Anglois ne trouvent moyen d'introduire leurs ouvrages de cristal et de verre" (1780: 59).

The English table glass on board the Machault might have been purchased in France, or taken from one of the nine small British ships captured by the French fleet in the Gulf of St. Lawrence before they arrived at Chaleur Bay (Beattie 1968). If it had been obtained in France, either for speculative purposes or for the personal wants of an officer, it was certainly purchased in preference to the domestic alternative; the large number of French wine glasses aboard the ship attest to their availability. Such preference is emphasized by the observation that English table glass was apparently available in France only at specialized English shops (Barrelet 1953: 107). If the glasses were taken from one of the captured English ships, more wine glasses were not strictly needed on the French ship, though the stemware may have served as souvenirs. In either case, their occurrence is the product of preference rather than necessity.

The reason for French preference for English glass was at least partly aesthetic. The French glass industry was at something of an impasse. Supplies of wood fuel were dwindling, as they had in Britain much earlier. Britain, of necessity using coal, had hotter and more efficient furnaces. Having to cover their melting pots to exclude coal fumes, British glassmakers found they could make glass freer of impurities. These improvements, along with the development of lead glass, were the foundation for an independent British commercial and stylistic tradition. While the French were beginning to form their own tradition, there was considerable distraction in the ease and short-run inexpense of importation, as well as the influence on styles which such imports inevitably had. In 1760, l'Académie des Sciences offered financial rewards for ideas to boost the flagging industry (Wilkinson 1968: 182). The uniform nature of the French glass on the Machault may be indicative of the restricted repertoire of domestic glassmakers.

The heavy styles of English table glass in the first half of the 18th century had never made much impression on the continental market which largely fell to Bohemian and German glass; however, in 1745 an excise tax, levied by weight, was enacted upon English glass manufacture. The succeeding styles, already inherent in the grandeur and delicate trumpeting of the English plain stem (Fig. 3), are epitomized in twist stems (Fig. 4) and in cut glass. The tax caused a reduction in size and thickness of the vessels and forced the use of ornamentation to make up for the absence of lustre. Curiously, the result, rarely less than elegant, was a delightful expression of rococo and the new styles caught the fancy of continental consumers on a grand scale as Bosc d'Antic's remarks rather ruefully indicate. An elastic commercial spirit caused English glassmakers to capitalize on apparently ruinous taxation by allowing it to force them to meet foreign taste. "All foreign commissions to be executed to the utmost care and perfection" read a 1757 advertisement in the Whitehall Evening Post (Thorpe 1961: 209).

It is very doubtful that English table glass was less expensive than French — Bosc d'Antic remarked on its dearness, the lead oxide flux used was costly, and French stemware far outnumbers English on the wreck (that is, if English table glass were cheaper as well as desirable, more of it could be expected). In addition to its attractiveness, one further attribute may have increased the popularity of English glass. Lead glass was more durable than thinner and more brittle non-lead glass, as shown by the relatively better condition of English glass artifacts after two centuries in the ice and tides of the Restigouche.

Perhaps as striking as the presence of English table glass is the presence of a large quantity of stemware of any kind. This is emphasized by the fact that the Machault was on an emergency mission to embattled New France, and also by contrast with the yield of table glass from at least three French forts dating to the 1750s. At Forts Gaspéreau and Beauséjour, New Brunswick, dating to the first half of the decade, and at Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan, which was French until 1761, French table glass was restricted to tumblers, which in most cases were the pinkish crizzled non-lead glasses (Fig. 1: Thompson 1971: McNally 1971; Brown 1971).

That a supply of wine glasses was en route to Montreal in 1760 may point to one or both of two social and economic phenomena. The availability of table glass to classes other than the very rich was increasing rapidly in the middle of the 18th century. The few years between 1760 and the early 1750s may have seen a marked decrease in the cost of glass, along with an increase in the output of glass factories, while the middle class was growing. More probably, however, the number of relatively wealthy individuals in Montreal was very large in comparison to that in more isolated posts. Excavations at the Fortress of Louisbourg and at Place Royale in Quebec City recovered considerably more French table glass than a few tumblers, and included stemware identical to that found at the Machault wreck (Lafrenière: pers. com.). Thus a tentative picture of widely disparate economic fortunes in New France is indicated by preliminary evidence in table glass research. Such a picture, of course, will surprise no one.

The presence on the Machault of a rather large consignment of French table glass, not essential for the relief of New France and, for that period, nearly luxury goods, may also lead to the conclusion that as late as the spring of 1760 — a time when Quebec City had fallen and all New France was threatened — there existed a certain amount of French confidence in the maintenance of French colonies in North America, either through an improvement in French military fortunes or diplomatic bargaining at the treaty table (John P. Heisler: pers. com.).

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-10-24 To the top
To the top