By Reece Black, Archeology Lab Technician, Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site
Stoneware ginger beer bottle fragments are recovered from archeological sites across the world. Sites in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States have produced many specimens. Here in Brazoria County, we find these artifacts at former plantations and 19th-century townsites. This artifact spotlight will discuss the history of ginger beer and show some artifacts that were recovered from the Levi Jordan and Varner-Hogg Plantations.
Ginger beer was a popular drink in the United Kingdom and America from the late 18th century until the 1920s. Ginger beer has its origins in fermented honey drinks and small beers popular in the old world, but it is wholly a new-world idea. Its production is tied to its main ingredients: ginger and sugar. These crops were brought to the colonies and flourished in the tropical climate of the Caribbean. Enslaved labor and superb growing conditions allowed for the cheap production and exportation of these materials back to the United Kingdom. Factories were set up to mass produce the liquid beer and the stoneware bottles needed for worldwide distribution. The abundance of these cheap ingredients also allowed people in the colonies to create their own homebrewed versions of the drink.
Today’s ginger beers are mostly non-alcoholic, but in the past, these mass-produced ginger beers could contain up to 11% alcohol by volume. In 1855, the British Parliament passed a law imposing taxes on exported beverages with an alcohol content over 2%. Because of this law, most brewers reduced the alcohol content in beverages meant for export. Throughout the 19th century, small beers with less than 2% alcohol may not have been considered “alcoholic” by some. Alcohol content could be changed depending on how long the drink was allowed to ferment, and some recipes do not call for fermentation to occur at all. Depending on how it was prepared, ginger beer could be found in ads for bars or ads for tolerance houses.
England shipped ginger beer in stoneware bottles until the early 20th century. Stoneware bottles were cheaper and more durable than glass at the time and kept their contents at a consistent temperature. Bottles were handmade using a potter's wheel or formed in molds that gave them uniformity in size and shape. Stoneware is a vitrified (non-porous) ceramic that is fired at a high temperature. Many ginger beer bottles feature a two-toned gold and cream finish, called Bristol Slip.
These bottles were manufactured across the United Kingdom, but many notable factories were in Glasgow, Scotland. By the late 19th century, bottles were being manufactured in the United States and Canada. Although stoneware was manufactured in Texas during the 19th century, most of the locally manufactured goods were utilitarian jugs, crocks, churns, and bowls. Bottles in Texas were imported.
Hundreds of stoneware bottle, crock, and jug sherds are found across the Varner-Hogg Plantation. Diagnostic ginger beer sherds have been found at the Main House, behind the Garage (modern restroom and concession stand), and in Structure 4 at the Picnic Loop. Two unmarked bases and a mostly intact bottle were found at the Main House. Bristol slip sherds were recovered behind the garage and in the Main House yard. The most thrilling find was the stamped bottle base recovered from Structure 4.
Structure 4 is a wooden structure with a brick fireplace that probably served as a cabin for enslaved laborers and was potentially used to house tenant farmers and convict workers after emancipation. The stoneware bottle base recovered from the 1981 excavation features an imprinted logo from the manufacturer. Although faded and hard to read, this mark shows that it was crafted in the Port-Dundas Pottery in Glasgow, Scotland. The pottery was founded by William Johnstone in 1828 but passed through several owners and proprietors throughout its lifetime. Originally, Port-Dundas produced salt-glazed stoneware for the local industrial trade, but when James Miller acquired the property in 1856, it started to produce bottles, whisky jars, crocks, and domestic wares in Bristol Glaze. Port-Dundas continued producing these products until its closure in 1932. This piece was most likely manufactured between 1856 and 1900, as buildings in the picnic loop were largely destroyed by the 1900 Hurricane. This bottle shows that marginalized groups on site had access to imported goods and the means to acquire them.
Like the Varner-Hogg Plantation, stoneware sherds were found at the Levi Jordan Plantation. In the 1990s, two stoneware ginger beer bottle finish sherds were recovered from Excavation Block II by students from the University of Houston. In 2018, one stoneware ginger beer bottle sherd was recovered from Excavation Block III by archeologists from Coastal Environments, Inc. None of these sherds have any stamps or maker’s marks, but they all are Bristol Slip gold. At this time, it is unknown what function the buildings in excavations Blocks II and III served, but a mix of domestic and agricultural artifacts were found in both locations. More information is needed to determine their exact usage, but the finding of ginger beer sherds helps to put the puzzle together.
Ginger beer bottles have been recovered at other Brazoria County locations, including Velasco, Quintana, Eagle Island Plantation, and Durazno Plantation. None of the bottles and fragments excavated at these sites have maker’s marks, but all are similar forms to bottles made in the United Kingdom during the 19th century. These bottles, along with other imported English ceramics and European goods, show that although Texas was often considered the frontier during the 19th century, it was still part of the ever-expanding globalization of world trade and consumer choice.
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