Mystery object number 1 revealed: Edward Gleason’s 1860 “Magic” Dinner Castor at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

The rightful place of my “mystery object number 1” is on the mid-nineteenth century dining table. The Victorian dining table, when fully laid out for a formal dinner, presented an imposing array of linen and glittered with silvery utensils and hollow wares. It was a testament to conspicuous consumption, and the need to “keep up.” After the late 1840s invention of silver electro-plating (the technique of using electric current to apply a thin coating of silver over white metal objects, in imitation of solid sterling silver), many Americans could afford to own and display table wares that would previously have been beyond their means. Silver-plate manufacturers quickly learned to exploit middle-class Americans’ craving for status symbols by creating an increasing and bewildering variety of specialized dining objects, without which no properly laid table could be complete. By 1869, one silver-plate manufacturer sold place settings consisting of eight different types of knives, seven different forks, and five different spoons. Dinner guests proved their gentility by using each utensil correctly.[1]

       The object pictured below is: Edward Gleason’s 1860 patented “magic castor.” “Castors,” so named because they cast their contents forth, originated in early eighteenth-century England. They began as simple stationary metal frames containing bottles for condiments: salt, pepper, oil, vinegar, sometimes mustard, and even soy sauce, new to Europe from the East.[2] The singular term “castor” referred to the entire set of objects: metal frame and glass bottles. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, well-to-do Americans considered silver castors a necessary adjunct on their dining tables. 

R. Gleason and Sons
Magic Dinner Castor, ca. 1860
Silverplate and glass
17″ x 9″ x 9″
Brooklyn Museum of Art, H Randolph Lever Fund

But Gleason’s castor incorporated nineteenth-century technological innovations. It is not, of course, silver, but silver-plated; it is also intricately mechanized. The castor frame, like many others of the period, revolved horizontally like a carousel, so that diners could reach any bottle, no matter where they sat at the table. Besides this, Gleason encased the castor bottles in a tabernacle-like structure, with doors that opened and closed either at the touch of a button, or by turning of the finial at the top of the castor. He may have copied the idea from the English firm of Mappin and Webb, which manufactured a very similar “egg cruet” frame with opening and closing doors, intended to hold soft-boiled eggs and keep them warm. In his original 1856 patent application, Gleason claimed that enclosing the castor bottles kept them free of dust.[3]

Edward Gleason and Sons

R. Gleason and Sons
Magic Dinner Castor (open)

 In reality, keeping the bottles concealed behind doors in the castor frame probably had little, if any, practical value. But these “magic” castors surely added to the theatricality of the dining experience, opening to reveal their contents and then closing upon them again like the curtains on a miniature stage. Since formal dinners were highly ritualized affairs, performances in themselves, Gleason’s “magic castor” metaphorically presented a microcosmic version  of the Victorian dining experience. No doubt Gleason also hoped that his invention would serve the extremely practical purpose of making him rich. Inventors were the entrepreneurs  of nineteenth-century America, with the number of U.S. patents more than quadrupling every ten years, from 986 issued in 1850, to 4,588 in 1860, to 21,276 in 1867.[4] Gleason patented three versions of his “magic castor,” with minor alterations.

      By 1870, the small manufacturing firm of Gleason and Sons had dissolved. And castor frames, once the centerpieces on every well-laid dining table, were yielding place to the fruit stand, as luxurious imported tropical fruits took the place of honor over no-longer costly condiments. Edward Gleason’s castors remain to remind us of a time when Americans believed technology could magically solve all problems, even endowing users with that intricate mechanistic formality that marked the refined civilities of the elites.

[1] John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 208.

[2] Dorothy Rainwater and Ivan H. Rainwater, American Silverplate (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1972), 171; Bernard G. Hughes, Sheffield Silver Plate (New York: Preager Publishers, Ltd., 1970), 197 –200.

[3] U.S. Patent Office, Specification of Letters Patent No. 15,946, dated October 21, 1856.  

[4] Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: the American Industrial Revolution, 1790 –1900 (Washington D.C. and London: Smithsonian Press, 1986), 79.

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4 Responses to Mystery object number 1 revealed: Edward Gleason’s 1860 “Magic” Dinner Castor at the Brooklyn Museum of Art RSS Comments (RSS)

  1. Debbie Campbell says:

    We have this magic castor. How many are left and what is it’s value. Your article was very interesting.

    • Hillary Murtha says:

      Dear Debbie,
      I received so many inquiries about the Gleason castor that I just wrote up a new posting about it. See today’s (Sept 17th) posting.

  2. Jeri Serota says:

    I have a Gleason magic caster like the one pictured above. Mine is marked as
    “patent pending”. I am curious as to its current value. It is in excellent condition, but is missing one bottle. Can you help?

    • Hillary Murtha says:

      Dear Jeri, I received so many inquiries about the Gleason castor that I just wrote up a new posting about it. See today’s (Sept 17th) posting.

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