A porringer is a low bowl or dish featuring two handles which extend horizontally from the lip of the item. Traditionally European porringers featured two handles, whereas their colonial counterparts were crafted with just one. They have a similar form to the traditional Scottish vessel known as the 'Quaich', which was used for drinking wine and spirits but generally holds a much smaller quantity of liquid than a porringer does. Porringers were known in America as 'caudle cups'.
Porringers were commonly used for containing a wide variety of food and drinks such as bread, vegetables and milk. Sometimes small contemporary pans used mix porridge are now referred to as porringers. However, these do not reflect the same bowl and handle style as a traditional silver or pewter porringer. We can trace the original form of the porringer back to the 1600’s. Back then they were crafted without any intent for a cover or lid. This indicates that they were primarily intended for fairly solid food, which would have been less vital to keep warm (than soup or stew for example).
The porringer first evolved from its predecessor: the posset cup. Stylistically, these two items were very similar, the main difference being that porringers don’t tend to have covers. The posset cup was used for holding ‘posset’ which was a late night beverage made from curdled milk with wine or ales.
The small size of silver porringers and the easy-to-use handles are well suited to feeding a child. Consequently, these silver bowls became popular christening gifts. This could also explain the origin of the name, as children would have sometimes been fed a porridge like substance. In addition, porringers were frequently gifted to newlyweds. The two handles were symbolic of sharing, and the bowl seen as a ‘charm’ for the couple’s future in having children together. As a porringer was crafted to feed one person, it was common practice that a piece would be embellished with a personalised engraving. Subsequently, it would be passed down through the family generations.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, porringers of all sizes were used within homes throughout England and Europe. They were used as an all-purpose bowl for an individual family member. For those families who could not afford silver porringers other materials were used. Pewter, wood and ceramic versions all served as cheaper alternatives to silver. Their handles would have been crafted in either a ‘C’ or ‘S’ form. Examples of both forms can be found from the 17th century. Some types even incorporated handles in the shape of a large ‘C’ and the top and a smaller ‘c’ below.
During the Stuart period porringers became to be made with rich ornamentation. It is likely that silversmiths took great influence from glass blowers at this time. Glass blowing in Murano (an island near Venice, Italy) for example was highly eminent during this period. This resulted in porringers with bead like ornamentation.
The porringer eventually started to be obscured by other silver items when the Queen Anne style was dominant (1702-1714). The tureen, the punch bowl, and tea related items came into their prime at this point.
Today, antique silver porringers can be used in various ways. Whether they are cherished as ornamental pieces, utilised and filled with food as they were originally intended or gifted as a christening / wedding present, they still retain their place within any collection of silver hollowware.