Artifact of the Day

Small Finds, Big Stories: Wine Bottle Seal

Sometimes it’s amazing what you can learn from a single artifact. This wine bottle seal, the only one we’ve recovered so far from the Eutaw Manor House, is an outstanding example of just how much everyday items can reveal about the people who owned them.

But first, what even IS a wine bottle seal?

The practice of affixing a seal or marking to wine bottles began in Great Britain and the British colonies as early as the 1600s. Glassmakers added seals to wine bottles after the wine bottle was fully formed, but still hot. An embossed disc of glass was affixed to the warm, adhesive surface of the wine bottle. These discs were then impressed with a seal that had been specifically designed for a patron, or with the patron’s name or initials.

The process took time and money, which meant sealed bottles were costlier – and also something of a status symbol. During the eighteenth century, even unmarked glass bottles were uncommon and a bit pricier than the generic ceramic jugs in which most wine was sold. But even after glass bottles became the usual containers for spirits, bottles with custom seals cost at least 1.5 times as much as unmarked bottles (Source).

MVA Wine Bottle Seals
Wine bottle seals with embossed names, symbols, and initials. Courtesy of Culture Embossed at the Council of Virginia Archaeologists (http://www.cova-inc.org/wineseals/visual.php).

Taverns and inns often embossed their tavern symbols onto the seals, as seen in the seal below, from the Three Tuns tavern (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum).

Three Tuns Seal

Initials, which could be impressed or etched into a bottle without the use of a custom-made seal, gave people who were not extraordinarily wealthy a way to personalize their wine bottles. Given the different levels of effort and expense involved in making and purchasing sealed bottles, the presence of a seal might give us an idea of the owner’s class, wealth, social situation, and reason for purchasing sealed wine bottles.

The wine bottle seal from Eutaw does not include the name or initials of any of the residents of Eutaw, nor is it marked with the symbol of a tavern. There is the name, Wm. (William) Eade. Then, there is the much larger imprint of “Latour,” and “Bordeaux” at the bottom.

IMG_5266
The William Eade bottle seal recovered from the wine cellar at Eutaw

The latter two names are not mysterious at all. Château Latour is one of the oldest wine-making estates in Bordeaux. The estate has been producing wine since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that it gained widespread recognition as one of the premier wineries in the world, largely due to a wider export market, particularly in England. It also became one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wines during his time in Paris as the minister to France.

In 1855, Napoleon III requested a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines. Brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a château’s reputation, trading price, and quality. The result was the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, in which Château Latour was rated Premier Cru, the best of the best. This not only established that Château Latour produced surpassingly wonderful wine; it guaranteed high prices. At the time the bottle bearing the seal found at Eutaw was sold, it likely cost at least twenty times as much as most other varieties of Bordeaux (and it was also probably delicious). Nowadays, the average price for a bottle of Latour is about $800.00.

So now we know where the wine came from, but how did a bottle of the world’s most famous Bordeaux end up in the land of Natty Boh? The name William Eade provides some clues.

William Eade was born October 10, 1775 to Jonathan Eade and Margaret Bowles in Middlesex, England. William’s father, Jonathan Eade, was a merchant and chandler. A chandler can be either a provisioner of ships, or a seller of household goods, but it’s unclear which of these meanings applied to Jonathan Eade; nonetheless, it was clear that his profession was mercantile in nature. William probably apprenticed with his father for a time before striking out on his own in 1800, when he formed a partnership with Benjamin Aislabie.

Eade 1800

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An 1810 View of  Minories, the street where Eade and Aislable’s firm was located. William Pearson, Old Houses on the North West Corner of the Minories and Aldgate. 1810. British Museum, Binyon 22, Crace XXIII.92. © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1801 Eade and Aislabie moved to 152 Minories, taking over the wholesale wine and spirits mercantile business founded by Benjamin Kenton (Source: Harper’s Manual 1920). Eade and Aislabie had an illustrious clientele; one notable patron was Horatio Nelson.

In 1814, William Eade left the partnership with Aislabie, and relocated to Bordeaux, France to continue in the sale of wine and spirits. There, he went into business with Joseph Camo, and later formed the firm of Eade, Bell and Company with his nephew, Edward Bell.

Following his death in 1824, William Eade’s will (proved September 24, 1824) included the following provisions:

“I recommend that my business here may be brought to a close as soon as possible consistently with due advantage to my heirs that my stock of wine fit for the London may be offered to my English Correspondents & it will be for my executors to judge upon consulting with my nephew Ed Bell how far it may be advisable to keep my young wines till they be fit to ship to London or elsewhere.

I recommend that my private stock of wine here should be sent to London to be sold with my private stock of wine there unless it can be disposed of to advantage in France.

I authorize my executors to continue my wine business in Bordeaux till such time as my stock of wine there can be turned to a good account & to make any remuneration they may think fit to Mr. Ed Bell for his attention & trouble beyond his share of the profits of the business & also to facilitate in any way they may think fit towards the winding up of my concerns the views of Ed Bell may have in forming a connection in the Bordeaux wine trade by lending him any sum not exceeding fifty thousand francs.” (Note: Fifty thousand francs in 1824 is the equivalent of $500,000 in 2018.)

According to the July 6, 1834 edition of the London paper, the Observer, the last batch of Eade’s wines was to be sold through wine merchants Ullock, Ullock, Lancaster & Company in London, England.

Given that bottle seals were generally marked with the names or initials of the customers who purchased the wine, rather than the firms that retailed them, the bottle seal from Eutaw probably came from one of the bottles of wine mentioned in Eade’s will. This tells us that the sealed bottle was likely purchased in 1824 or later.

Benedict William Hall, who lived at Eutaw in the 1820s and 30s, was a merchant. He may have heard of the sale of the last of Eade’s private stock, and had the connections to obtain a few bottles. The fact that this bottle remained in the cellar until the catastrophic fire that destroyed the house in 1865 is curious; the number of wine bottles we’ve found in the cellar (A LOT) could indicate that Benedict William Hall maintained a wine cellar, and that the collection of wines remained in the house after his death in 1843. It’s also possible that the wine was consumed, and the bottles re-used for homemade brandy or cider.

What do you think? Did a fabulous collection of outstanding French wine perish in the fire that destroyed Eutaw in 1865? Or did the residents of Eutaw have the opportunity to sample Eade’s private stock, and make the thrifty choice to reduce/re-use/recycle? We may never know for sure, but this small glass disc nonetheless reveals a lot about the international wine market in the early 1800s, and about the tastes of the Hall family in their heyday.

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