A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects


Click on any image to enlarge it.


Our recently acquired Leather Bottell

Bottell in the Oliver Baker collection, 1921

So called "Costrel" converted to storage, sold for $854 at Skinner, March 2017. Image courtesy Skinner Inc.

The Leather Bottle Inn, Cobham, Kent, courtesy

Leather Bottells: Singing Their Praises

Let's start by joining in the chorus of a 17th-century drinking song:

Then I wish in heaven his soul may dwel,
That first devised the Leather Bottell.

Leather bottells are often (wrongly) called "costrels." Costrels were used mainly by travelers to carry their refreshment with them. But contemporary songs tell a different story:

A Leather Bottell is good,
Far better than Glasses or Cans of Wood,
For when a man is at work in the Field,
Your Glasses and Pots no comfort will yield.

-- c. 1665

A bottell was what a farm laborer drank from, and here it provides a glimpse of the English class system: glasses or wooden tankards were for the middle and upper classes; leather bottells were for laborers -- and laborers were good, just like their bottells.

A 1510 drinking song tells a similar story, but in a pub not in the fields,

Come sing us a merry catch quo' Bob,
Quo Scraper, What's the words?
In praise o' th' Leather Bottell quo' Bob,
For we'll be as merry as lords.

What we're getting here is a picture of a drinking vessel used by the working man in the fields in daytime and in the tavern at night. It was a bottle, not a costrel.

Not many survive today, perhaps because, unlike with blackjacks, there was no way of making the interior leak-proof by coating it with pitch. The dried leather became leaky comparatively early, so leaky bottles were either discarded or were converted to storage by having a hole cut out of one side: today there are probably more with holes in their sides than ones in original condition. As storage vessels, they are usually thought to have been used as salt boxes on the kitchen wall. But a song from the late 17th century lists far more uses than that:

Then when this Bottell it doth grow old,
And will good liquor no longer hold,
Out of the side you may take a clout
Will mend your shooes when they are out.
Else take it and hang it upon a pin
It will serve to put many odd trifle in.
As Hinges, Aules and Candle ends
For young beginners must have such things.
Then I wish in heaven his soul may dwel,
That first devised the Leather Bottell.

One thing's for sure: the working folk of the 17th century really loved their leather bottells -- and so should we!

The songs are all from Oliver Baker, Black Jacks and Leather Bottells (1921), the only book on the subject. For more on blackjacks, see Acorns, April 2017.

The Leather Bottle Inn is a charming English pub built in 1629 in Cobham, Kent. It takes its name from a leather bottle discovered there in 1720 that contained gold sovereigns, a considerable upgrade from the candle ends, hinges or salt that we might have expected.

The Inn's other claim to fame was that it was a popular drinking spot for Charles Dickens, who featured it in The Pickwick Papers. It was where the lovelorn Mr. Tracy Tupman drowned his sorrows with Mr. Pickwick after being jilted by his sweetheart Rachel Wardle.


Making Hay

Hay made agriculture possible. Before it there was no way of feeding animals over the winter, so early hunter-gatherers had to follow migrating animals as the herds followed their food through the seasons. Hay, which is simply grass dried and stored, made livestock farming possible, which in turn made human settlements possible. Without hay, we'd still be migrating with the animals.

Hay requires two tools -- a scythe to cut the grass and a pitchfork to make grass into hay by tossing, turning and drying it, and then piling it into stacks. Modern pitchforks have metal tines, which are heavy and dangerous.

In his interesting book, Cræft (the early English word for "craft"), Alexander Langlands situates the act of making (our usual understanding of "craft") in a broad historical and environmental context. For Alexander, "a wooden-tined fork is the tool of preference because of its lightness and the safety needs of working around animals and other humans."

In Sauve, in southern France, cræftsmen still make wooden-tined forks in the way that they have since the twelfth century. They are made from the nettle tree (known as hackberry in the US), which is a fast-growing tree that thrives on thin, well-drained and nutritionally poor soils, which are typical of steep limestone slopes and gorges of the Sauve region.

Fork-making begins with the planting of baby saplings reared from seed. After four or five years they are trimmed down almost to a stump. Next year, thin shoots emerge from around the stump and over the next four or five years the fork-maker subtly manipulates them to shape them into the prongs of a future fork. After about ten years, the young "future-fork" trees are cut and taken to the factory where wooden forms and heat persuade them into exactly the right shape. Voila, there's the pitchfork, made by a combination of nature and of human needs and skills, a single piece of wood without nails, glue or a man-made joint anywhere in it. Made by cræft.
Alexander is scornful of our overuse of machines -- he cannot believe that cooks want to use a battery powered pepper grinder. "While some machines are clever," he writes, "the net result of our using them is that we become lazy, stupid, desensitized and disengaged." Cræft works with nature as far as possible and uses machinery as little as possible -- it's not just a skill-set, it's a mindset. He quotes John Ruskin approvingly: "in our hands we have the subtlest of all machines."


Rare hanging livery cupboard

Uncommon mural livery cupboard

Supper and Breakfast

What today is serving as a useful coffee table was, when it was made early in the 17th century, a hanging livery cupboard. In his list of "Things usefull about a Bed, and a bed-chamber" (1688), Randle Holme describes one accurately (and charmingly), Arke or safe: a kind of little house made of wood, and covered with haire cloth, and so by two rings hung in the middle of a Rome, thereby to secure all things put therein from the cruelty of devouring Rats, mice, Weesels and suche kind of Vermine. Some have the pannells of the Arke made all of Tyn, with small holes for aire, others of woode.

'Livery," as we all know, was the bread, cheese, and beer (and in winter a candle) that was delivered (hence livery) to each member of the household to keep them going before and after the one cooked meal of the day (see When Oak Was New, p. 117 ff). Livery provided supper and breakfast for family members, servants and laborers.

A century earlier, in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573), Thomas Tusser wrote

Some slovens from sleeping no sooner be up,
But hand is in aumbrie, and nose is in cup.

Randle Holme calls it "an Arke or safe," Thomas Tusser an "aumbry," and today it's a "livery cupboard." Period nomenclature is not for the fainthearted.

Tusser's Good Husbandry was directed to farmers and working men and women, Randle Holmes' Armory more to the aristocracy and landed gentry. Ruth Goodman, in her fascinating book How to be a Tudor tells us that good farmers worked for a couple of hours before "'breaking their fast." With this in mind, we can better hear the scorn in Tusser's voice when he talks of the "slovens" who dive for the livery cupboard as soon as they wake up. Not "Good Husbandry."

We have just sold a mural livery cupboard, which would have been just as effective as a hanging one for thwarting "Rats, mice, Weesels and suche kind of Vermine." Interestingly, our mural livery cupboard had been given feet at one time in its life, suggesting that it, too, had seen use as a coffee table.