Changing Tastes: The Celery Vase

The Mead Art Museum has in its collection a glass vase designed to hold celery as a presentation piece at the dining table (fig. 1). Celery vases, and all forms of presentation pieces for celery, are largely passé today as the status of celery has changed over the years. While it is now mainly known for its crunch and bland taste, celery was a high-status food in nineteenth-century America because of its historical associations and labor-intensive growing process.

Celery holder
Figure 1. Bakewell, celery holder, ca. 1815. Cut glass. Gift of Preston R. Bassett, Class of 1913, 1973.10

Celery was used in ancient Greece and appears in Homer’s Odyssey, although not as a food.[1] Wreaths of wild celery were given to victors at the Panhellenic Games at Isthmia (fig. 2, the left wreath).[2] Celery was first used as a food — to add flavor — in sixteenth-century France. As the quality and palatability of celery increased in the 1700s, it became increasingly common among the wealthy. The cultivation of celery was initially difficult and labor intensive. It had to be blanched during its growth to preserve the whiteness of sweetness of the stalks. This was achieved by piling soil around the plants during growth.[3]

Marble relief, celery
Figure 2. Marble relief fragment depicting athletic prizes. Roman. 2nd century CE. Rogers Fund, 1959. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 59.11.19

During its period as a status symbol, celery would be displayed prominently on tables as part of the table setting. A table-setting diagram from the women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book (fig. 3) shows the prominent position the celery and celery vase held near the center of the table. The entire bunch of celery would be placed in the vase with the leafy top still intact, creating a dramatic centerpiece (figs. 4 and 5). The vase itself was a part of this showy display of wealth and taste and was usually made of glass or silver. Celery could also be displayed in low dishes, but in the 1860s through the 1880s, celery vases (also known as stands or holders) were much more popular.[4]

Godey's Lady's Book
Figure 3. Diagram of table setting for dinner, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” March 1859. http://athomeinthenineteenthcentury.blogspot.com/2012/07/celery-at-dining-table.html
Celery, cock, and bowl
Figure 4. Albert Sterner (London 1863–1946 New York). “Celery, Cock, and Bowl,” 1933. Oil on canvas. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1933. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 33.51
Tomato soup ad
Figure 5. 1880 Tomato soup advertisement, http://www.patternglass.com/Store/CeleryVase/index.htm

The Mead’s cut-glass celery vase was made by the Bakewell glass company of Pittsburgh (whose name went through many variations over the years), active from 1808 to 1882. Bakewell was founded by the Englishman Benjamin Bakewell, and became known for quality lead (or “flint”) glass. The factory began to produce cut and engraved glass in 1810, and until 1819 it was the only American company producing cut-glass tableware. Given the quality of its products and the rarity and luxury of cut-glass pieces at the time, Bakewell became quite well known. One of their notable commissions was a set of engraved glassware for President James Monroe.[5] John P. Bakewell received the first patent for mechanically pressing glass in 1825, leading to the mass production of glassware.

This particular celery vase is cut in the strawberry diamond-and-fan pattern, “the most popular cut glass pattern in the United States in the early nineteenth century.”[6] Techniques for glass cutting were brought to the United States from Ireland and England. Glass was cut by a succession of abrasive and polishing wheels.[7] Before the advent of pressed glass, faceted glass cut in this way was relatively time consuming and expensive to make, making it a luxury item.

By the end of the nineteenth century, celery’s status had undergone a change. In 1884, a new type of celery, the “Gold Self-Blanching” variety, was introduced by the W. Atlee Burpee Co. (fig. 6).[8] It was much easier to grow and did not require the same mounding of dirt as the older varieties. This commercial strain became more widely available and more affordable, and celery thus became a commonplace vegetable, as opposed to a status symbol.[9] Around this time, the presentation for celery began to change as well. While the vase had initially been the most prevalent method of displaying celery, by the 1890s, low celery dishes (or trays, an example of which is in the Mead’s collection) became more popular.[10]

Golden celery
Figure 6. “Golden Self Blanching Celery” from the 1891 Johnson & Stokes annual. http://www.victoryseeds.com/celery_golden-self.html

This celery vase demonstrates how concepts of taste and luxury have changed over the years in food and decorative arts. Scarcity and labor cost made celery a fashionable commodity to be flaunted, until it was no longer expensive and exceptional and became just another vegetable. Cut glass was also once expensive to produce and a luxury good. While it is still seen as a fine decorative art, the advent of pressed glass made glassware generally more accessible and less prestigious. While they are sometimes collected today for their status as antiques and examples of decorative art, celery vases no longer hold the same position at the table as they once did.

Written by Sylvia Hickman, Class of 2016

[1] Susan Williams, Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America (New York: Pantheon Books in association with the Strong Museum, 1985), 110.

[2] Label text, “Marble Relief Fragment Depicting Athletic Prizes” (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/255013.

[3] Williams, 110.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Bakewell Glass”, accessed April 14, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/49555/Bakewell-glass.

[6] Label text, Celery vase (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/1501.

[7] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Cut Glass,” accessed April 14, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/147462/cut-glass.

[8] Ken Kraft, Garden to Order (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), cited in Williams, Savory Suppers.

[9] Williams, 110.

[10] Ibid., 110–11.

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