New Wine From Old Bottles

Among the many pleasures of being an archivist is the pleasure of seeing the Archives used by an historian in an interesting and exceptional manner.  In my former job as Correspondence Archivist I was fortunate enough to have my finger on the pulse of history, as it were.  In assisting historians, I formed many connections and, in some cases, friendships.  On occasion those historians have shared with me articles based on their research at the State Archives of North Carolina – it is an unlooked-for surprise when such an item finds its way to my inbox, as recently happened.

Dr. Alan Watson at UNC Wilmington is one of these friends.  In fact, Dr. Watson has been a friend of the Department of Cultural Resources far longer than I have been with the Archives but it is my good fortune to have assisted him with various projects over my time at the Archives.  A colonial historian of note, Dr. Watson has a vast knowledge and keen interest in North Carolina history.  His interest has turned in recent years to, among many subjects, pewter.

Thus it was that I received a wonderful article in the mail from Dr. Watson on the topic of pewter in colonial North Carolina.  Beyond being a well-crafted article, it also takes everyday items from the Archives’ collections and scrutinizes the items in a new way.  Dr. Watson uses the various archival record series of wills, estates, and inventories of wills and estates to examine pewter in colonial North Carolina.

Granted identifying a particular item such as pewter ware is, perhaps, not exciting but it is an interesting concept.  Other items come to mind that are also interesting to find in probate records – guns and books, for example.  My personal favorite is when you find a testator who being angry (one presumes) with their legal heirs leaves those heirs only “a personality.”  It is not that Dr. Watson combed records for mention of pewter ware that is exciting but rather how he placed pewter in the context of colonial North Carolina.

Examining the penetration of pewter into colonial North Carolina by checking records from counties of three regions (upper [Edgecombe County] and lower [New Hanover] coastal and what was then western [Orange County]) Dr. Watson exposed colonial North Carolina’s ties to the Atlantic World diaspora and trade.  He mentioned routes of both water-born and land trade.  Dr. Watson then layered the British mercantile system over the Atlantic World connections, examining how pewter represented the economic engine that made the colonies a raw goods supplier of Britain as well as a market for British finished goods. You can see then how such an article caught my attention.  Dr. Watson, however, was not finished.  Using a thesis of historian Timothy H. Breen, Watson relates how such an economic system built a shared experience among the British colonies and gave the colonists a foundation of common experience that would eventually unite them in protest of such policies. Suddenly we are shifted from finding pewter in probate records to discussing British colonial policy and Revolutionary era American colonial motivations! What a pleasure to see a record series examined in such an interesting way.

Alan Watson, “The Prevalence of Pewter as Tableware in North Carolina before the American Revolution,” The Pewter Collectors’ Club of America Inc., the Bulletin, Winter 2012, Vol. 14, No. 8