19th-Century Chinese Ginger Jar Artifact Highlight #24

This hexagonal Chinese ginger jar was donated to our collection in 1990. It dates to mid-to-late 1800s. The stoneware is covered in a green glaze and features a different recessed flower design on each of the six sides. The base is unglazed, and no manufacturer’s mark or date is visible. Jars like this one would also include a cork or ceramic lid, and possibly a wax paper seal to preserve the contents, but those were not included with our jar.

Ginger jars were made for everyday use and storage of a variety of goods like spices, herbs, and salt. They were called ginger jars because they often contained ginger when they were exported to the West. The jars came in many sizes and colors. The green glaze of our jar contains copper oxide, an active metal that gives it its emerald green luster. Many ginger jars were made in Shiwan kilns located near Guangzhou in Guangdong province, an area of China that has produced pottery since the Stone Age.

Ginger is one of the most popular spices in the world and has been traded for centuries. In China it was and still is valued in medicine and is a staple in cooking. In traditional Chinese medicine it was used to treat the cold, flu, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and poor appetite. It can be used in a variety of forms, including fresh, dried, candied, and pickled.

When the Chinese traveled to California during the Gold Rush, they brought with them items to trade, including silk, opium, and ginger. While some headed for the gold fields, many stayed behind in San Francisco to become merchants and restaurant owners. Much of the food, like tea, rice, dried fish and abalone, and ginger was imported from China. Wherever they moved, Chinese laborers planted gardens and sold vegetables to nearby settlements. They also cooked their own food and developed a style of cuisine that became popular in America.

During the 19th century, when Eastern elements of design became fashionable, ginger jars became in-demand decorative objects. They were often painted with flowers, figures and landscapes and displayed standing by fireplaces or on small tables.

The ginger jar was donated to our collection by the Golden Drift Historical Society and is currently on display at the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat.