Making History Come Alive

Suzanne Findlen Hood is the curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg. She is co-author, with Janine Skerry, of Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, winner of the American Ceramic Circle Book Award for 2009. Her most recent exhibition, China of the Most Fashionable Sort: Chinese Export Porcelain in Colonial America, is currently on view at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Hood’s presentation of the same title will be part of the Drayton Hall Distinguished Speakers Series at South Carolina Society Hall on October 15.

You’re a curator in a field that holds enormous fascination for readers. What first drew you to ceramics and glass? It wasn’t until I was working on my master’s degree in Early American Material Culture at Winterthur that I really began to focus on ceramics and glass. Part of my fascination with dishes is that I love food. In my quest to understand the people of the past it seemed only natural that I would gravitate to the ceramic and glass objects that they used for dining and drinking.

What does your work entail? I research ceramic and glass objects that are currently in our collection for use in exhibitions at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. I work with colleagues to furnish historic buildings with antique objects to create as historically accurate an environment as possible.

What do you like most about what you do? I love to make history come alive, and I think objects are a wonderful way to do that. I can use one object, such as a teacup, to illustrate 18th-century trade networks, dining customs, fashion and technology. People get excited about that—even those who didn’t think they’d be interested. This gives me great joy.

You’re an alumna of the Attingham Trust’s program to study British houses and their collections. How did that experience shape your understanding? The most eye-opening thing about the Attingham Summer School was how different the furnishings of the English country houses were from American houses of the same period. Colonial American taste was dramatically shaped by English goods. In 18th-century Colonial America the most fashionable ceramics were English or Chinese. In England, French decorative arts appear to have been to the English aristocracy what high-style English goods were to the wealthy in the colonies. We saw lots of Sèvres and some Meissen. However, what was similar was a desire to express one’s wealth and status through an opulent display of architecture and furnishings.

How were ceramics and glass produced during this time, and how did they make their way to the colonies? Colonial Americans were required to purchase the majority of their manufactured goods from England, so almost all the dishes imported into the English colonies were made in England. Smaller numbers came from what is now Germany and China.

Tell us your impression of the 27 objects from Drayton Hall currently on exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg. The porcelain from Drayton Hall is varied and quite wonderful. It is typical of the Chinese porcelain that was used throughout the American colonies. What is clear is that the people who lived on the property were as fascinated with Chinese porcelain as the British gentry. South Carolina planter and political figure Francis Yonge, who lived where Drayton Hall was eventually built, owned wonderful early Chinese export beakers used for drinking hot beverages such as chocolate. Although Yonge resided in an Ashley River house of modest size, he went to England several times on the colony’s business. Both his travels and his wealth gave him access to luxury goods.

Do you have a favorite? My favorite pieces from Drayton Hall are the teacup and saucer that were made between 1722 and 1750, probably part of the first generation furnishings at Drayton Hall Plantation, which was finished in the late 1740s. The vessels are of the higher quality associated with Chinese porcelains destined for the English and Continental European markets. … Chinese porcelain with such minutely detailed painting was relatively rare.

Tell us about your exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, the topic of your October presentation. The exhibit focuses on the Chinese porcelain that was in the American colonies during the 17th century and the first three quarters of the 18th century. One unexpected find was a teacup, one of a pair, excavated from the site of the Governor’s Palace. Made in Jingdezhen, China, between 1685 and 1710, they are ornamented with a simplified version of the Sanskrit character “om,” which also appears on the bottom of the interior. The design can be read like a prayer wheel; as the bowl is rotated, the prayer is released. Sherds from a similar cup were excavated at Drayton Hall as well as Santa Elena, on Parris Island, South Carolina, from a 16th-century colonial Spanish settlement. … This type of unexpected discovery makes studying decorative arts so interesting and exciting.

What are you most looking forward to during your visit to Charleston? I am looking forward to spending time looking through the archaeological findings at Drayton Hall. But, I have to be completely honest—I’m most looking forward to the food. I love to eat, and I know there are many wonderful restaurants in Charleston.

We have to ask: Are you a collector? Yes, but only in a small way. I have a collection of 20th-century tableware designed by Eva Zeisel and Russell Wright, but I am not actively adding to that. My husband and I also collect American Indian fetishes—small carved stone animals, primarily from the Zuni Pueblo [in New Mexico].

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the video of Hood’s October 15 presentation, search YouTube for “Drayton Hall Distinguished Speakers Series – Suzanne Hood.” Founded in 1738 and located along Charleston’s Ashley River, Drayton Hall is an icon of colonial American architecture and identity. The oldest unrestored plantation house in America still open to the public, it is also the nation’s earliest example of fully executed Palladian architecture.