Punch Bowl, c. 1795
Originally punch, unlike what many of us are familiar with today, was initially a highly intoxicating beverage made from a simple mixture of five canonical ingredients: lemon or lime juice, sugar, water, “spice” (usually nutmeg), and liquor. Gentlemen and sometimes ladies in London and throughout the British colonies would gather in private homes and in “punch houses” to indulge in drinking this intoxicating mixture. Often large bowls, such as this one, would be place on the floor rather then on a table to prevent the bowl from being broken during these gatherings. Among the earliest records of Masons in Maryland from 1759-1764, the records of the Old Leonardtown Lodge, St. Mary’s County (which meet on Sundays), are receipts for the purchase of the various liquors and other ingredients used to make punch.
Produced in England around 1795, this bowl represents a group of objects made after the American Revolution during the Federal Period, roughly 1788-1825, when British manufacturers, anxious to retain the American market after the war, produced a variety of wares designed to appeal to the new American Republic. These items were often decorated with American patriotic symbols, which were still being developed during the period. On the outside of this bowl there is an American eagle with a shield decorated with the stars and stripes and two depictions of George Washington (1732-1799). Ironically this bowl with its depictions of Washington was presented by George Washington while he was President to Brigadier General Benjamin James Mercer(1757-1799), whose name appears on the outside of bowl, upon his retirement from the United States Army in 1795.
Benjamin Mercer, listed in the first Baltimore directory of 1796 as both constable and innkeeper – with his address at 34 Light Street, was Baltimore City’s first policeman. He was appointed constable in 1798, a year after Baltimore was incorporated as a city, after the City Council passed an ordinance calling for the appointment of a constable “whose duty it shall be to walk through the streets, lanes and [alleys] of the city daily with his mace in his hand, taking such rounds that within a reasonable length of time he shall visit all parts of the city.” He retired from this post in 1799 when the City Council, finding that keeping law and order in Baltimore was too large of a task for one man, appointed one constable for each ward. He passed away on December 7, 1799. His obituary published in the Baltimore Federal Gazette published on December 9, 1799 states: “Departed this life in the 42d year of his age, Mr. Benjamin James Mercer, master of Baltimore lodge; his remains were yesterday interred in the Methodist burying ground, attended by a numerous and respectable assemblage of Masonic brethren. By attention, frugality and honest industry, he acquired a genteel competency and at an age when he might expect to reap the comforts of his exertions, he was hastily summoned to appear before his Heavenly grand Master, where the urgency of business nor earthly excuse would be of any avail, for death (the Grand Tyler) will accept of no excuses.” In 1852 his remains were exhumed and interned in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City.
This bowl was inherited by. Mercer’s daughter, Mrs. Jury, who in the 1830’s bequeathed the bowl to the Museum. Unfortunately when the husband of a cousin of Mrs. Jury’s, who was a Mason, went to collect the bowl to present it to the museum his wife took a liking to it and took it home. The bowl did not resurface until after their deaths, when the bowl came up for auction in 1896 as part of their estate. Miss. Connie Jury, a great niece of General Mercer, hearing of this and aware of Mrs. Jury’s initial wishes informed Bro. William H. Nicholson, Grand Tyler at the time, of the pending sale. With approval only a few hours before the auction commenced Nicholson was able to bid for the bowl on behalf of Arcana Lodge, No. 110, who presented the bowl to the Museum on October 13, 1896, thereby getting it to its intended destination.