Cocktail historian Wayne Curtis is a strong proponent of learning from the pre-Jerry Thomas era, when tavern keepers put fiery pokers in their punches and flavored their drinks with dried pumpkin and fruit. He admittedly isn't interested in resurrecting period practices such as tossing dead goats and feces in stills.
But Curtis' recent Tales of the Cocktail discussion of filth and disease in the alcoholic context led me to wonder how colonial imbibers kept flies out of their punch bowls. The 18th century images of punch-drinking sessions included in David Wondrich's authoritative Punch all depict uncovered bowls, sloshing with sweet liquid. It's hard to imagine that vermin in the warm, muggy climes where punch became a staple, such as Barbados and Virginia, wouldn't swarm the sticky juice.
"I have never seen a punch bowl with a top," Curtis told me.
An associate curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts theorizes lids were unnecessary because drinkers were faster than flies.
"A bowl of punch didn't last long," Daniel Ackermann says. "Punch was ordered, passed and drunk. The flies in the room had plenty of thirsty competition."
While punch bowls at taverns and inns were frequently emptied with gusto, punch was also served in private homes and at public celebrations, where the thirst was too small or the bowl too big for immediate draining. That's why most bowls came equipped with lids, says Leslie Grigsby, Winterthur's senior curator of ceramics and glass. Grigsby's exhibit on drink-related objects opens at the Delaware museum this April.
Many punch bowls had matching covers, Grigsby says, "whether they were made in ceramics, as was most common, or in silver, glass, or even wood." In 1744, a New Castle merchant's inventory listed a "Gla[s]s punch Bowl & Cover."
The covers served to keep the bowls clean, and to keep the punch warm. In his "suggested procedure" for replicating Blackwood's Hot Whiskey Punch, a punch popular with 19th century Scottish intellectuals, Wondrich recommends retaining heat by keeping the punch "in a jug by the fireside, a bowl on a hot plate on the sideboard, or a Crock-Pot wherever the extension cord reaches."
Although a few examples of punch bowl tops are safely stored in museum collections, the existence of utilitarian punch bowl lids has largely been forgotten.
"Not surprisingly, over time, the lids to most bowls were damaged and discarded," Grigsby says. "Sadly, few survive with the lids."