April 15

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 15 - 4:14:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (April 14, 1766).


This advertises goods, more specifically, household furniture and kitchen items from the home of the late Captain Morley Harison. This “public Vendue” was different from some others due to the fact that an individual had passed away, which contrasts with “public Vendue” of goods in the scenario when people were moving away. This advertisement does not provide a complete listing of the “HOUSEHOLD AND KITCHEN FURNITURE” that would be sold, unlike the advertisement from February 10 for “House Furniture” that I previously featured.

Both modern-day and eighteenth-century kitchens contained tools that can be used to prepare food and aid in cooking. Modern technologies have changed the nature of kitchens and changed the processes involved in food preparation, meaning that unlike in the eighteenth century, women are not forced to spend all day in the kitchen to provide meals for the family. Innovations such as ovens, crockpots, and microwaves mean that food can be heated up and ready to serve without someone having to stir a pot all day.

Instead of having a stove to cook the meals, boil water, and heat things up, eighteenth-century kitchens were outfitted with a hearth for cooking. The hearth was a recess in the wall that was placed at the bottom of a chimney. Colonists used a contained fire in the hearth to cook food. A spit, a tool that held a pot or tea kettle over a fire, aided in boiling water. Flavor could be added to foods because of the mortar and pestle, a tool comprised of a sturdy bowl and a heavy stick that was used to crush and grind dried herbs and corn for meal preparation.

To share this information with young historians, here’s a lesson plan that outlines how to make historically-accurate comparisons between colonial and modern-day American kitchens.



I appreciate the way that Kathryn uses a brief reference to “HOUSEHOLD AND KITCHEN FURNITURE” to explore how kitchens have changed since the colonial period, in terms of both the types of equipment found in them and the labor involved in meal preparation. As she notes, a variety of technologies have reduced the amount of time we devote to preparing food.

We should not assume, however, that modern Americans hold a monopoly on devising ways to save time and reduce labor in the kitchen. Colonists also relied on a variety of technological innovations, though some of them seem quite antiquated or quaint to us today. Every time I have visited Fortress Louisbourg I have been mesmerized by the eighteenth-century spit jack in the kitchen of one of the homes in the village – and I was not only the one. Many visitors seemed as interested by everyday life and the tools used by settlers as they were excited to explore the military aspects of the fortress.

Apr 15 - Spit Jack
Spit Jack from the Collections of Colonial Williamsburg.

So, what is a spit jack? Meat was often cooked on a spit, but the spit had to be turned constantly in order to evenly cook the meat. (Think of rotisserie cooking today). This involved a fair amount of labor. Somebody from the household – the wife, a child, or a servant or slave – had to spend hours turning the spit. Mechanization made this unnecessary, freeing up that labor to be directed elsewhere. A mechanized spit turner – known as a spit jack – used a system of pulleys and weights to accomplish what otherwise would have done manually.

To see a spit jack in action, watch this video from Thomas Ironworks.