23 December 2011

Pennywise Peasant: Reenactors on a budget (Updated 01/13)

Should you spend top dollar on period-accurate items if you can afford it? Yes. Especially as a craftsman, I wholeheartedly endorse spending the money on the handmade item from your local potter or woodworker. If you know a local pewterer, them too.

However... Quite awhile ago (has it been ten years? I think it might have.) I wrote this page to guide my guild members on "How To Do Faire Without Mortgaging the Castle". That is to say, how to create a period impression from the thrift stores.

Recently, I was critiqued on its content by a fellow member of a Facebook group dedicated to 16th & 17th Century Artifacts, and his points were fair. Many of the items pictured aren't 100% accurate to the extent items present in museums and woodcuts from the 6th century. However, many of them are. As I say there and elsewhere on that site, the goal isn't to get you 100% accurate, it's to get the new faire persona up and running as quickly as possible with the bare minimum spent on kit.

I have said many times that the simplest concession a reenactor can make to his or her audience is in the manner and style with which they consume thier meals. Assuming you're following all the other rules... nothing will be more jarring to a patron at faire than watching a peasant eat a snowcone out of a plastic cup.

You could wear Nikes with your garb and I think it might elicit less comment.

My philosophy on props is simple: Spend the money and time on the items that are of the greatest impact. Unless eating or cooking is your main gig at the faire, your utensils will probably make at most a 20 minute cameo each day. Spend the money on things that are out and center stage most and work your way outward from there.

Some disagree with me; that is their right.

The renaissance faire isn't reenactment, it's theater. And the goal of any prop in theater is to either sell the performance to the audience and at a minimum to not detract from it. Without a prop budget to work with, my goal becomes and remains verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. In this case, that means choosing pewter or wood over plastic and paper.

I wrote this almost ten years ago. A decade years is a long time and the reenactment community is not what it was, nor are the thrift stores. Goodwill's prices have changed and their selection is variable anyway. So is it possible to be period-accurate while working from thrift stores? 

To add a level of difficulty, can I do it with documentation that connects our finds directly to similar actual museum pieces?

Is that level of accuracy possible on a pennywise peasant budget?

Never one to turn down a challenge, I went through the faire ware and selected out only those items that have joined our collection in the past two years.  This is what I found...

As with anything, it begins with research. What are the appropriate types of item should you be looking for? What is or isn't a period-correct material? What shapes are correct for my period? When in doubt, head to the museum. If there isn't a museum near you with a collection of 16th century household artifacts on display, well there's this funny thing called the Internet.

Here's a by no means all-inclusive list of links to get you started.

  • Surry/Hampshire Borderware - 1480-1650  (Museum of London)
    The kilns of this region supplied most of England with tableware and still do.
  • Tinware - 1480-1650 (Museum of London)
    NOTE: Not made of tin, 'tinware' refers to a glazing/decoration technique where a flat white tin-based glaze is applied and then painted over, often quite ornately. In Italy referred to as "Majolica" these pieces were often coveted above platters made from  precious metals.
  • Imported Pottery - 1250-1650 (Museum of London)
    The trade in pottery across the continent was quite robust, especially the salt-fired crockery of what is now Germany.
  • Potash Glass of the later Medieval Period (Museum of London)
    Appropriate glass pieces are some of the easiest to find, and a great conversation-starter with the public, who falsely believe that glass is a modern invention.
  • Italian Ceramics of the Renaissance (National Gallery of Art)
    Mostly Majolica pieces, which dominated Italian ceramic culture.
  • New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
    The Met has an extensive collection of European artifacts, including pottery and some metalware.
Auction Houses
Collectors Groups & Appreciation Societies
Artwork featuring period pieces
  • Larsdatter.com (Links)
    Karen Larsdatter's site may well be the single greatest resource of links to images from the medieval through renaissance periods, categorized by items that appear in the image. A one-stop shop for practically anything.

Below are two pages from my sketchbook, scribbled while looking through museum catalogs at a college library. I was studying ceramics and pottery for art school at the time.

Note the shape of the period jugs. The same shapes are repeated over and over in metal and ceramic across England and Europe. The jugs shown in the sketches are extremes of the type. now known as the 'Bellarmine' style, after a cardinal of the 17th century. The faces aren't always there, but they often were.

But regardless of whether or not they have a face, the shape is the important thing: narrow at the top, with a big round belly.  Actually, the Bellarmine jugs tend to have a very narrow neck and an enormous belly, but the narrowness at the top is quite variable, as is the placement of the handles as you can see in the links above, especially the one to the Museum of London (MOL).

These shapes persist from the 14th century well into the 17th.

Below is a salt-fired pitcher and two mugs. The pitcher is tinted red with an iron-oxide wash. The inside is glazed with a green glaze (a popular combination of the period, echoing the 'redware' styles) and the mugs are salt-fired stoneware. Salt-firing was probably a German innovation, and is obvious in a finished piece because of the pitting and color variations you see below. Salt firing was a fiercely-protected trade secret of the German potters, but as noted above, there was an active international trade in ceramics througout the renaissance.

Estimated Cost: Probably $12.00 for the set at Goodwill

Similar jugs, pitchers, and mugs HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

And because thrift shops are the eventual home of many an amateur's experiments with pottery, you might even find faces on some items. No, the item below, isn't period or even close, but I've seen ones that are.

I bought it for $.99 at my local Salvation Army store, just to prove the point.

Other fun items you can often find are the sort that no one else around knows what to do with. The item below is a watering pitcher, obviously. It is also an almost exact reproduction of THIS watering pitcher at the Museum of London. They were used on flowers and herbs, yes, but mostly to water the rushes on the floor to keep the dust down.

The piece below is mostly here because I like it. The glazes are modern, but the designs are timeless and the shape is perfect.

It was also about $6.00 at Goodwill.

Below is a fun piece. It's obviously a watering jar, but what most don't realize is that it's a reproduction of an Elizabethan piece like this one HERE at the Museum of London. The repro is slipcast rather than thrown on the wheel, but the shape and glazes are spot-on. I applaud the maker, whoever they were.

Cost: $2.99 from Goodwill

Plates and bowls of the English renaissance tended to have a wide, flat rim. The most common pewter plates you'll find at thrift stores won't be actual pewter (more on that in a minute) and won't have quite as wide of a rim as the period pieces.

My guild presents themselves as the artisans, yeomen, and other working-class peoples of the renaissance. Therefore most of our goods are unpretentious and utilitarian. That translates to: "cheap and easy to replace". Wood, earthenware, and some limited pewter are the name of the game.

The bowl below (without spoon, I'll get to it later) is as close as you'll usually come to the correct size and shape.

Cost: $2.00 from Goodwill

According to finds on the shipwrecks Mary Rose and the Alderney shipwreck, the porringer is basically a metal version of the noggin. That is to say that it's a bowl with either one or two handles attached to the side.

The porridger below is a one-handled version of the one seen here from the wreck of a ship off of Alderney Island, dated to 1588.

Most feast gear sites focus on wooden items because they are so very cheap and plentiful in thrift stores and so rare in archaeological digs because wood rots and England has a moist climate. It's best to avoid the wood known as "monkey wood" because it's too light and doesn't look anything like the woods of Europe.

Thankfully, the Mary Rose sank and preserved a significant number of everyday artifacts, such as these plates and spoons which are almost identical to these plates (below).

Cost: $2.00 each from Value Village/ARC

While the popular conception of trenchers is that they were square, they were often imitations of the popular varieties of metalwork that were also around at the time, face-turned on a lathe. These were made on a lathe. Here are some lovely and elaborately decorated wooden trenchers from the latter 16th century at the Victoria & Albert museum that you can see HERE, HERE, and HERE

Bowls were similarly styled in a fashion that you and I would find familiar, as seen in these bowls, also brought up on Mary Rose. The bowls tend to be rather shallow, similar to the bowl of an Elizabethan spoon.

Official reproductions of the bowls can be had via a woodturner certified by the Mary Rose trust for £27. They are beautiful. If you can afford one, I encourage you to buy one.

These are mine. Made in an almost identical fashion but purchased at the local thrift stores.

Estimated cost: $.99 ea
(Sand them down and treat them with a coat of food-safe 'salad bowl' finish available from your local hardware store. These need to be re-treated.)

Wooden spoons are used by most people in reenactment. They're easy to come by, read well at a distance and are cheap. Look to pay about a dollar for one at most thrift stores. Possibly less. Many spoons would probably be made from horn rather than wood, but several wooden spoons came up in the Mary Rose wreck.

I have never found a horn spoon at a thrift store since they're something of a commodity to those who have them, so I don't feature them here. I've recently found some good local sources for them and they're not terribly expensive so contact me if you think you need one.

The seven matching "Apostle" style spoons shown below came from the thrift store.

Estimated cost: $1.00 ea (bought as a set) from Goodwill

You probably won't find a set of apostle spoons at your local Goodwill. I was somewhat surprised to see them there myself. That said, there are a lot of repro spoons and a lot of spoon collectors in the world, so who knows? I did.

In the meantime, a wooden spoon will suit you just fine. Are they perfectly period correct? Probably not. Most are the wrong shape. If anyone's interested in a spoon-carving demo, I can provide one. The proper shape for a renaissance spoon tends to be very shallow with a fig-shaped bowl (shown below).

Once again, it's the shape that's important.  Wooden spoons ape their betters.


Here's where most of us sin and fall short of the glory and I for one, could not possibly care less. The price of 16th century reproduction pewter tankards is so exorbitant that it's absurd. Especially when there are alternatives that meet the 'Close enough' test easily at hand.

This is evident in the complete lack of period-correct tankards that I found in my search. The closest I got is this one. It's similar (though much less adorned) to some German ones that I've seen from that period like THESE. Note that it is essentially a metal cast replica of 16th century wood and leather tankards like this one from the Mary Rose and this reproduction sold by the Tower of London.

Nevertheless, it's still a 17th century reproduction. And it doesn't matter to me. I refuse to haul around a hundred dollars worth of pewter at faire.

Cost: $6.00 at Goodwill

And these are reproductions of American Colonial pieces... except the horn-shaped one. I'm pretty sure those are fantasy.

Average Cost: $4.00 each

Want to be accurate and cheap? Stick to the ceramic mugs that I showed you above.

Want to make your own leather one? I can show you how. Get together with your friends and buy a share of a vegetable tanned hide. We'll make a leather jack sometime in the first quarter of 2012.

Wood is good too and wooden tankards like the Mary Rose tankard I linked to earlier are certainly plentiful at the faires.

All of them perform the function of getting beer from the tap to your mouth quite well. (I checked it out for you, no charge!)


For "pewter" items, I generally seek out the work of the Wilton Armetale foundry of Columbia Pennsylvania. They do fine work and most of the tankards you see here are theirs. If you buy one of their tankards, you can rest assured of its lack of lead. Look for their hallmark which looks approximately like the one below.

Wilton-Armetale is still a thriving concern and available new from their website and at retailers everywhere. (Though some of the designs shown are no longer made.) We are not paid for this endorsement or we wouldn't be telling you to hunt them down at Thrift Stores and Flea Markets. Buy them where you can find them. They're functional, durable, lead-free and we're enthusiastic consumers and collectors of their wares.

If you buy it new, it comes with a sticker like this one affixed to the bottom. Take heed.

So... did I succeed? 

Well, that depends on the level of authenticity you demand. Personally, I think these wares are as close as needs be. Certainly within my acceptable fudge factor.

Other items will occur to you the more you eat at faire and you may decide down the road that a fine polished pewter tankard is what you want. Or some forged utensils to replace the wooden ones. It's up to you and it's your money, honey. The things found here are simply a good way to get you on the road to where you want to be.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! One of the common concerns among newcomers in our local SCA group is the cost of everything - especially since many of our newcomers are college students. I pull out my feastgear basket which holds many Goodwill finds, and specific items purchased from local artisans (we're lucky to live in an area that is known for it's pottery). It takes a little digging, but these things are definitely out there!