The Chicken, the Egg…or the Rabbit? An Easter Table circa 1900
Interior photograph, c. 1910-1920. Joseph Downs collection, Winterthur Library, Col182_98x30-13
The angle of this image has been chosen, to the best of the photographer’s ability, in order to capture the central focus of the interior: a long table, packed with place settings, decorated for a party, perhaps at a boarding house. As the photograph has been carefully and proudly staged – from the vantage point, it seems, of someone stepping back from the morning’s work – so the table itself is presentational, demonstrating aspects not only of the hostess’ personal taste, but also those of a larger cultural and historical context. “The decoration of a table is an ‘introduction’ to what may follow,” wrote the author of a book on table decorations, published in 1924, perhaps ten years or so after this photograph was most likely taken. Pausing after the preparation but before the first revelers have arrived, the decorator of this festive table introduces us to a moment from the everyday in the early 20th century, and to some of the preceding traditions that helped to shape it.
The Easter lilies, paired with daffodils and maybe narcissus, give the occasion away. Were it not for these flowers, we might miss the small, fuzzy shape at each place setting, but in the context of the Easter holiday, it becomes clear: a chick, a recognizable form in many incarnations, from felt to ceramic to marshmallow, has been set on an elaborately folded napkin atop each diner’s glass. Evocative of fertility and new life, the chick found its place among eggs, flowers and other harbingers of spring associated with the Christian holiday, which in part evolved from seasonal pagan celebrations. In some cultures, the chicken or another bird sensibly took the place of the rabbit – seen here in a 19th century Pennsylvania German image – as the deliverer of Easter eggs.
Johann Conrad Gilbert, Easter Bunny with Eggs. Berks County, PA, 1800-1810. Watercolor and ink on laid paper. Winterthur Museum, 2011.0010. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle
One reason for the popularity of the chick in connection with Easter is likely its association with family, nurturing and mothering – as exemplified by a Currier & Ives print entitled “The Cares of a Family.” One writer of the time noted that Easter was often thought of as a holiday particularly festive for children, and certainly it was a time for families to spend cheerfully in one another’s company, like the mother quail and her brood depicted here. Accordingly, writing around the same period as the interior photograph, in 1903, the author observed that “our thought of a modern Easter Sunday pictures a bright morning, birds singing, everybody in good spirits…”
“The Cares of a Family,” after Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, published by Currier & Ives, 1872-1874. Ink and watercolor on wove paper. Winterthur Museum, 2000.0019.071A. Bequest of C. Porter Schutt
In spite of Easter’s association with children and festivity, the prescriptive literature of the period is sometimes self-conscious about the inclusion of animal decorations on the Easter table. For instance, one writer draws a firm distinction between a children’s party and a more “dignified” adult one, but another acknowledges that adults, too, might enjoy some kind of animal-themed souvenir. Suggestions are made for simpler table settings that focus on the elegant beauty of floral decorations. But many authors nonetheless succumb to quaintness as central to the light-hearted joy of the holiday. Other suggestions for animal-centric decorations comprise far more elaborate and saccharine arrangements than what we see in this interior, including beribboned rabbits surrounding an egg-filled nest, and a diorama of chicks strutting across an artificial pond. We can characterize the current image, then, as taking a fun but relatively restrained and casual approach to the holiday.
The chicken as a table decoration, of course, goes beyond the confines of the Easter holiday, and has a long history. The below example made by the Chelsea porcelain factory speaks of the popularity of hen-form tureens in the 18th century Anglo-American world and beyond. Also adorning tables of this period were similar Chinese export porcelain manifestations of avian table decorations. Although some of these objects were non-functional and simply decorative, the bird as a vessel seems to have had particular appeal, perhaps because of the associations between egg-laying, fertility and bountiful nourishment. Figuratively partaking of a chicken dinner that could never be exhausted, diners eating from a non-consumable bird-form vessel participated in a kind of ritual of abundance. In some small way, the fluffy chicks on the table in the photograph carry forward this vision of good things to come, the ultimate symbol of the optimism of the Easter holiday made manifest through interior decoration.
Hen and Chicks Tureen. Francis Barlow, Chelsea Porcelain Factory, 1750-1760. Soft-paste porcelain with lead glaze. Winterthur Museum, 1996.0004.222 A, B. Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens at Winterthur
By Emelie Gevalt, WPAMC Class of 2017
This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur. Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.
 Edna S. Tipton, Table Decorations for All Occasions (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1924), xiii.
Venetia Newall, An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), 326.
 Helen Philbrook Patten, The Year’s Festivals (Boston: Dana Estes and Co., 1903), 153.
 See for instance Tipton, 29-30 and Lilian M Gunn, Table Service and Decoration (Chicago & Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1935), 117.
 Tipton, 30.
 Tipton, 30 and Mary Whipple Alexander, The Table and How to Decorate It (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), 27.