Mystery Object

Summer-Fall 2014: Culinary Molds

Culinary Molds, about 1750-1765. Staffordshire, England. Salt-glazed stoneware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Catherine H. Collins Collection.

Culinary Molds, about 1750-1765. Staffordshire, England. Salt-glazed stoneware. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Catherine H. Collins Collection.

Still hungry from our last Mystery Object? How about something sweet? These Staffordshire jelly molds, made of salt-glazed stoneware, were a staple in 18th-century English dining culture.

In the second half of the 1700s, dining service à la française (“in the French style”) was at the height of its popularity. These dinners included a savory first course, a second course with a jelly or a pudding – often fruit-flavored – and a dessert course of sugar-based confections and dried fruits. The dining table was organized into an imaginary grid, and all of the courses were set out together much like a modern buffet.

An English table set in Service à la française, including molded treats.

An English table set in Service à la française, including molded treats.

Art in use

Mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a beloved treat in 18th-century dining rooms, the classic dessert blancmange is a sweet, white gelatin. To make it, moisten two tablespoons of arrowroot with two tablespoons of cold milk and stir until smooth. Then, bring half of a pint of milk to boil and add the arrowroot paste. Stir for two to three minutes, then sweeten with two teaspoons of sugar and flavor with vanilla or almond extract. Pour into a mold to set.

Comments from the gallery

Question: “How would you use an object like this in your life?”
  • “To fill with my tears as I write poetry about someone I know”
  • “As a decorative rock to hide my house key”
  • “As a silly hat that looks like a used cupcake wrapper”
  • “As a large bowl to cover spiders until someone comes home to kill them”
  • “Ice cube mold”
  • “To build sandcastles”
  • “To hold peppermints and M&Ms”
  • “As the cat’s water bowl”
  • “Hairband holder”
  • “To make cake or brownies shaped like pineapples”
  • “Star-shaped mold for crème brûlée”
  • “To throw in a shouting match”
  • “As a squirrel feeder for my 32 pet squirrels”
  • “To hold the blood of my enemies”
  • “To put pineapple chunks in”
  • “A dish to hold odds and ends”
  • “To make cupcakes”
  • “I could eat spaghetti out of the big one!”
  • “To make cute Jello for girlfriend (she is cute)”
  • “Pineapple press”
  • “Soap-bar holder”
  • “Putting peppermints in”
  • “Baking cupcakes”
  • “Make pineapple cake”
  • “To make elaborate sandcastles, of course!”
  • “Aspic mold”
Question: “What are the first three words that come to mind when you look at this object?”
  • “Eccentric – profound – clay”
  • “Extravaganza – elegance – refinement”
  • “Pure – decoration – man”
  • “I – want – food”
  • “I – am – hungry”
  • “Fascinating – weird – cool”
  • “Soap – dirty – fingers”
  • “Functional – simple – soap”
  • “Cup – cake – pan”
  • “What – the – heck?”
  • “Oatmeal – jellyfish – ruff”
  • “White – kitchen – food”
  • “Boat – pineapple – white”
  • “Cook – beach – eat”
  • “Nom – nom – nom”
  • “Exquisite – masterpiece – lemon wedge”
  • “Cool – awesome – fun”

And from a time-traveling gallery visitor: “These are pieces for my flux capacitator that I left on a recent trip to the 18th century. Sorry for the confusion.”

4 Responses

  1. Museum visitor

    How did they shape them like that?

    1. Anne Forschler

      They made the molds in molds! Using plaster of Paris, a hollow mold was made and then the clay was pressed into it, forming the shape, then smoothed on the inside. Once the clay was dry, it was removed from the mold and fired.

  2. Museum visitor

    Where did you get the idea for this project?

  3. Anne Forschler

    When we redid the gallery in 2011, we decided that we wanted a fun way to engage visitors and tell them about the types of objects that were used long ago. We have many objects of types that are no longer in use today, so we thought it would be fun to display them and let visitors guess what they are and give us feedback about them.

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