Crucibles in the Antebellum Imagination

Part of the The City Beneath The City: Archaeology of New Orleans Tour

In 2017, Dr. D. Ryan Gray led students and volunteers from University of New Orleans to excavate a portion of a private residence in the French Quarter located at 626 Bourbon Street. The team excavated a series of test units and shovel tests in the historical footprint of the modern property’s backyard and ground floor. 

Of the archaeological deposits uncovered during UNO’s excavations, two were rich in historical materials and related to the fill episodes of a brick-lined privy shaft and an unlined “cess pit” — a hole in the ground filled with waste material — built atop one another. These types of deposits sourced from privy shafts typically accumulated in a relatively short time, so the archaeological assemblage they contain can be traced back to a narrow window of time. However, in this case, because the two fill contents were mixed and dated to different time periods, the research potential of each is limited. Still, recovery of crucibles from the younger privy shafts that dates to ca. 1850-1860s illuminates how these artifacts could have been used in late-antebellum and Reconstruction-era New Orleans.

The artifact analysis offers a preliminary conclusion that the crucibles were primarily associated with metal work of some kind. One of the most common uses for crucibles is to assay pure metals such as gold and silver. The crucibles are used to heat impure metals, such as lead or brass. Once the metal inside the crucible is heated, the impurities separate from the noble metal. The heated mixture can be poured off, often by use of a “cupel”— or a vessel of bone ash — which oxidizes the impure metals and leaves the pure, or “noble” metals that are less reactive to oxidation, isolated in the bottom of the cupel. Additionally, crucibles could be used to mix multiple molten metals, combining them into an alternative alloy. Although the methods of metal work can be linked to these crucibles at 626 Bourbon Street, for what they were used exactly remains unknown. However, their importance can be generally understood by studying how and why crucibles were used in the late antebellum New Orleans period.

Crucibles were iconic, even magical, artifacts in the mid-nineteenth century. They were often tied to experimentation in the arts of alchemy and chemistry, still related to the awe of scientific achievement and manifest destiny that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. New Orleans newspapers contained many  articles documenting how crucibles were vessels for chemical combustion and often showcased as theatrical performances. At one performance, a scientist dissolved a common rock in a crucible to expose a complete fossil. In another, a scientist submerged a little girl’s hand into a crucible filled with molten lead and another mystery chemical, only to reveal that the child’s hand was completely unharmed. Crucibles were also used to explain how the United States was minting money, especially around 1841, when New Orleans became one of the three cities in the United States to have a certified federal mint.

Of course, not all uses of crucibles were described with innocent wonder. Historical newspapers were filled  with accounts that linked crucibles with criminality. Some articles report finding crucibles in the apartments of counterfeiters who used crucibles to cook various types of metal, shaping the molten metal into a coin shape and using a simulated “die” or stamp of a real coin to press into the hot metal. Once cooled, these pieces were circulated as official coin. Other articles report locating crucibles in the apartments of thieves, who used crucibles to cook up the metal from stolen  pocket watches and jewelry. This process assayed the metals from heists into a pure form while it simultaneously destroyed the material evidence of the original theft. 

Attention on gold itself boomed with the 1849 California Gold Rush, and with it metallurgy and metalworking. This was a period of territorial and technological expansion. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the United States’ occupation of North America stretched even further West. The expansion of the railroad, the creation of the telegraph, and the invention of the penny press created connections between the nation’s distant territories and fostered communication between people in these areas. As vessels of the gold rush, crucibles and cupels became well-known in the mid-nineteenth century, associated with the dreams, fortunes, and prosperity any man with a shovel and a sieve could find in the California hills. So prolific was metallurgy and its artifacts that San Francisco founded a popular newspaper in the eighteenth century called Cupel. However, stories of prospectors could be found  in every newspaper across the United States. 

While they may not have been common household items, crucibles were recognizable to most people in the antebellum as objects of invention, transformation, and achievement, as well as exploitation, gambling, and risk. As much as crucibles can tell us about the people who own them, whether they were blacksmiths, adventurers, or crooks, they also are artifacts that remind us of the power of expansion, technology, and magic in the imaginations of 19th century Americans.