Saucepans, dog collars, candle boxes, nutcrackers and shoe brushes – this is just a selection of early modern domestic objects that have survived inscribed with dates. From the late sixteenth century there was a great rise in the number of dated objects. Dates could be engraved, painted, or moulded onto an object. Most were added at the time of making, although many were re-engraved or re-fired later in their existence as they were re-appropriated for new uses by new owners. Some even have dates crudely scratched in by non-professional hands. Alongside the year, these objects often also have initials, names, and other short messages such as ‘Carolus Rex’ or ‘Serve God’. Although the presence of dates on these objects is often acknowledged by historians and curators, few have probed further into their larger significance. Why was there a desire to mark the passing of time on material surroundings? And what can dated objects tell us about early modern ideas of time?
For some objects the reason behind their date is relatively straightforward. Many were dated to commemorate major life cycle events like births and marriages. Spoons, for example, were often given as baptismal gifts and were inscribed with the relevant year – one seal-topped spoon is inscribed ‘Edward Fowler baptised the 14 of Januari 1615’. Death was also marked by a date – memorial plaques and coffin plates record the year of death, as does the stoneware figure of Lydia Dwight, commissioned by her father following her death and inscribed ‘Lydia Dwight dyed March 3 1673’. Alison Champan has argued that the astrological information in early modern almanacs was used to make specific dates and the events which fell on them obtain a higher celestial significance. If dates themselves could be meaningful, then it is logical that when an event or occasion was commemorated through an object then the date would be included. Edward Fowler’s baptismal spoon shows us that the exact date when an important personal event occurred was deemed highly significant, perhaps because it was seen to have providential significance.
Aside from life cycle events, moments of national importance could also be memorialized by a dated object – small scale objects like the medals and coins that commemorate the various battles of the Jacobite rebellion are an example of this, but so too are large-scale monuments like the London Fire Monument. Yet these examples also demonstrate the way in which dates can be used to manipulate memory. Dates add a sense of authenticity to an object, but the objects themselves can also be loaded with bias – the London Fire Monument, for example, constructed 1671-1677, bore an inscription with the date of the fire, 1666. In 1681 however, text was added to the Monument that blamed ‘Papists’ for starting the fire.
Indeed, the question of authenticity is certainly an important one. A date physically inscribed upon something can make it appear more genuine, or more authoritative. This was noted by Michael Clanchy in his seminal work, From Memory to Written Record, in which he wrote that the purpose of the increasing tendency to date a document from the twelfth century was ‘to settle subsequent disputes about its authenticity’. Yet how do we know that a date inscribed upon an object is authentic? With collectors from the nineteenth century onward valuing, and indeed trusting in, an object more if it is dated, the fraudulent dating of objects is itself an interesting issue. The dates painted on earthenware wine bottles from the mid-seventeenth century are one example. The survival of a great number of these bottles with inscriptions has led to speculation that some may have been inscribed at a later date. Contemporary testimony to the practice suggests that plain bottles were bought up, painted, refired, and then sold on as genuine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Whilst dates could mark specific events like births, marriages, or national occasions, not all dated objects are quite so straightforward. A series of some twenty shoehorns by the maker Robert Mindum are known from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They are all inscribed with the name of the owner, the year, and the name of Mindum himself. One example is inscribed, ‘This is Will’Yam S…[Of] Robart Mindum 1597’. Another bears the inscription ‘This is Francis Hinsons shoing horne gyven by Margareat and Elsabeath Smith and made by Robart Mindvm 1600 ER’. The reasoning behind the dates on these shoehorns is much more mysterious. It is possible that they were given as gifts, like that from Margareat and Elsabeth Smith, and perhaps the date then marked some occasion. Yet by putting his own name on the shoe horns, Mindum makes a connection between himself, the owner, and the date, so it seems to go deeper than merely recording a birthday or anniversary.
In his major theoretical work, The Shape of Time, the art historian George Kubler argued that objects occupy time differently to humans and animals. As Kubler described them, the durations that objects occupy are much longer than biological life-spans, reaching far back and stretching infinitely forward. Some artefacts are so durable that they might even be able to surpass time.With objects occupying a much longer continuum, ideally outliving their makers or owners, we could see these dates as personal markers on the sea of time, not unlike graffiti. In this way, the object marks a moment and then transcends you, as it reflects the short interaction between the brevity of human durations and the longevity of object durations. The date, accompanied by personal details, like the owner’s names, and other short inscriptions, like ‘serve God’, becomes a message to posterity. Indeed, in his review of Kubler, Jan Bialostocki suggested that we should take into account not only the visual form of things, but also their importance as vehicles of communication. Might we see dated objects as vehicles of communication across time?
 For an in-depth study on life cycle events, see David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
 Spoon from the private collection in Chicago.
 Alison Chapman, ‘Marking Time: Astrology, Almanacs and English Protestantism’, in Renaissance Quarterly 60 (2007): 1257-90
 Discussed extensively by Christine Stevenson in her article, ‘Robert Hooke, Monuments, and Memory’, Art History 28 (2005): 43–73.
 Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 300.
 Louis L. Lipski and Michael Archer, Dated English Delftware (London: Sotheby’s, 1984), p. 308.
 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (London: Yale University Press, 1962)
 Jan Bialostocki, ‘Review’, Art Bulletin, 46, no. 1 (1965): 135-139.
Sophie Cope –
Sophie did her BA in History at the University of Cambridge where she specialized in early modern material culture. She is particularly interested in how the passing of time is expressed in materials. Her MA dissertation at the V&A/RCA uses dated objects to explore ideas of time, memory, and materiality in early modern England.
© Sophie Cope 2014. All Rights Reserved.