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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Glass-Keep

Object 57 - A wall mounted glass cupboard or glass-keep was used to store, protect, and display expensive and impressive pieces of glassware.

Peter Hewitt

Number 57 in our series of 100 Objects from Shakespeare’s world was contributed by Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

Sir, I shall not be slack; in sign whereof,
Please ye we may contrive this afternoon,
And quaff carouses to our mistress' health;
And do as adversaries do in law-
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.

The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene 2

In late-medieval England, most people did their drinking in public:  in squares, the street, on the village green, even in church.  Churchwarden’s brewed beer and baked yeasty cakes to be sold at ‘ales’ – festivals that raised money for the parish as well as marking key dates in the life of the community.  But in the early modern period, a shift occurred.  Drinking in public shifted toward the tavern and alehouse, and from the 1580s onwards, to the home.

This week’s object is a wall mounted glass cupboard or glass-keep.  It was used to store, protect, and display expensive and impressive pieces of glassware.  Most surviving glass-keeps date to the 1680s, but this example, currently on display at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon, was probably made in the 1620s.  It has latticed windows, and little bunches of grapes carved along its edges.

Glass-keep SBT 1993-31/27
A wall-mounted oak and fruit wood case/cupboard, used for storing drinking glasses (SBT 1993-31/275)

Glass-keeps frequently appear in the inventories of well-to-do merchants, craftsmen and tradespeople from the 1580s onwards.  Up until the 1670s, nearly all the glass in England was imported from the Low Countries or Venice, so the items displayed in this keep in the 1620s would have been cosmopolitan items; indicators of the owners taste and wealth.

Cupboards and glasses not only reflected peoples buying habits – they were central to how people engaged with each other through convivial drinking.  Evidence from inventories suggests that glass-keeps were primarily situated in the parlour (and occasionally in the hall and sleeping chamber).  This suggests that refined rituals of drinking – using the tall, stemmed glasses of the period – occurred away from the table, perhaps as part of after-dinner entertainment.  A really impressive drinking bout would have included many more objects besides the glass keep – bowls, coolers, jugs or ewers, linen napery and perhaps a side-table beneath.  In addition, according to Richard West in The School of Vertue of 1619, some sort of salt-receptacle (a saltcellar or box) would have been nearby to help with cleaning or ‘scouring’ of glasses between tastings.

Glass-keep SBT 1993-31/276 (interior detail)
Inside the glass-keep.

Whilst the gentry had kept open house for entertaining throughout the sixteenth century, this piece of furniture reveals the habits of ‘middling-sort’ hosts in the 1620s.  Here we see drinking practices that seem far removed from the communal and compulsory ‘ales’ of the sixteenth century parish.  Instead, neighbourliness was expressed through private hospitality, with intimate visits to the parlour and fireside providing opportunity for songs, friendship and probably a good deal of showing-off!