Porringers are small bowls with one or two handles which the pewterers called ears*. They were used in England until the mid 18th century, mainly for eating semi-liquid foods like potage or broth but also for other purposes. In America they remained in use until the early 19th century.
They were also widely used in mainland Europe.With their attractive ears, antique English pewter porringers are very decorative, but they are not common and most surviving examples are post-1650. They can be defined by the shapes of their bowls, ears and under-ear brackets, and these features also help with dating.
Most post-1650 English porringers only have a single ear and no lid, but that is not true of Continental examples. Earlier English porringers generally have multi-lobed ears or fleur-de-lys ears.
The Pewter Society has published a detailed and well-illustrated study of post-1650 English porringers based on over 200 examples.
You may come across some specialised porringers:
- Bleeding bowls with graduations inside the bowl
- Commemorative porringers with two ears, a lid and cast decoration on the bowl and lid
- Wine tasters – essentially small, shallow porringers
- Quaiches – the Scottish version of a porringer* British silver collectors often wrongly describe all porringers as ‘bleeding bowls’ and use the term ‘porringer’ for a two-handled cup, but that is not what the term meant prior to the 20th century.
* British silver collectors often wrongly describe all porringers as ‘bleeding bowls’ and use the term ‘porringer’ for a two-handled cup, but that is not what the term meant prior to the 20th century.
Study of post-1650 English porringers
The Pewter Society published a detailed study of post-1650 English porringers in Autumn 2015 and Spring 2016. Part 1 gives some background and covers makers, manufacturers, uses and sizes. Part 2 looks at bowls, brackets, ears and the positioning of makers’ marks, and how these relate to dating and provenance.
The study was accompanied by a spreadsheet of over 200 examples. The spreadsheet is called ‘Table 1’ in the text. A small number of corrections and additions were made to the spreadsheet between the publication of Parts 1 and 2, and again after the publication of Part 2. You may therefore find minor discrepancies between the spreadsheet in its current form and the text of study, but they do not affect the conclusions.
Bleeding a measured quantity of blood from a patient was supposed to help cure a wide range of ills and remained a common practice until the early 20th century. The blood was caught in a bowl which was often made of pewter. Pewter bleeding bowls look much like ordinary porringers, but they always have straight sides which are graduated internally. The graduations are normally at intervals of 2 fluid ounces (57 millilitres).
Bleeding bowls were still being offered for sale by medical equipment suppliers in 1929, and most surviving pewter examples are 19th or early 20th century, although earlier examples to exist. For more information see pages 12 and 13 of Part 1 of porringer study.
English commemorative porringers
These splendid and decorative porringers all have two ears, a cast medallion in the base of the bowl and a lid or cover with finely-detailed cast decoration. They were made from c1689 into the second quarter of the 18th century. They are rare. Only 25 English examples are known to survive, and that figure includes three bowls without a lid and one lid on a plain bowl.
The majority of bowls depict:
- William & Mary, or
- William III on his own, or
- A figure (probably William III) celebrating the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick
The lids are a little more varied, but just over half depict William & Mary. Many have three knops which allow the lid to be turned over and stood on the table by itself.
Porringers depicting monarchs were not necessarily made during the reign of that monarch, and porringers depicting an event like Ryswick were not necessarily made shortly after that event. From analysis of the makers, we know that some were made as much as 20-30 years later.
A study of these porringers was published in the Journal of the Pewter Society Spring 2013.
Heavily-decorated porringers with lids and two ears are common on the Europe mainland, but we are only aware of one in which the decoration is commemorative rather than simply ornamental.