A jar of tasty food from home
Archaeologists found this stoneware jar in a trash pit near an adobe that was leased to Chinese business owners, most likely to the Tuck Wo grocery store.
Jars like this were made to ship food. Manufacturers filled them up and sealed them tight with wax for the voyage across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. From San Francisco, merchants sold them to Chinese grocers all over California. Chinese immigrants could go to grocery stores like the Tuck Wo store to buy familiar Chinese foods.
From soy sauce to rock sugar to preserved duck eggs
Jars with spouts, like this one, were used for shipping liquids: soy sauce, vinegar, oil, oyster sauce, and other seasonings. Jars with wider openings were used for larger foods like pickled vegetables, preserved duck eggs, or rock sugar. People often used the jars over and over again until they broke or were no longer needed, so a single jar probably held lots of different foods.
Baked mud, ashes, and clay
Stoneware jars like this were made in large workshops in Guangdong Province in southern China. Potters fired special clays in an oven to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit until the silica particles in the clay would melt together like glass. This made the pottery hard as a rock, perfect for shipping food over long distances.
If you look closely, you can see drips in the shiny brown glaze that covers the jar. This glaze came from a mixture of clay, mud, and ashes that the potter poured over the jar before it went into the oven. The potter would have used a brush to spread the glaze around, but some drips remained.
This kind of pottery is called stoneware, and Chinese potters have been making it for almost 2,000 years. German, French, and English potters began making stoneware about 900 years ago. Stoneware has proven to be quite popular because it is durable, air-tight, and does not absorb moisture. Many of the ceramic items in your own house are probably also stoneware.
A jar to keep food from rotting
Before there were refrigerators, people had clever ways of making food last longer. They would ferment their food, using healthy bacteria to transform the chemicals in the food and keep it from spoiling. Soy sauce, vinegar, pickled vegetables, and preserved eggs are all fermented foods that will stay fresh for months or years. People also would pack meat, fish, and shellfish in salt to preserve them.
Stoneware pots like this one were important for extending the life of preserved foods, because the pots kept out air and moisture that can carry harmful bacteria.
What foods in your house don’t need to be kept in a refrigerator? How does packaging help keep those foods fresh?
Yvonne Ching: Stoneware containers for salted vegetables, and more (video)
Yvonne Ching: How I use stoneware today (video)
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“There Was a Chinatown Here” by Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project (Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, Stanford University, and History San Jose) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.