Deborah Peterson Culinary Historian

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Harleysville, PA 19438
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What is it, and Why is it on Display?
A Look at the Asian Spice Grinder/Chopper

Research by Deborah Peterson and Mary Porter
from a PowerPoint presentation at the MAALHFAM Conference on March 21, 2015


A friend of mine uses this device when she demonstrates colonial cooking. When asked about its documentation, she told me that "the original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art display in the German Kitchen," and who was she to second-guess the PMA?

She further stated via email that she has "run into this model of chopper/grinder in several places. Pomona Hall has a large one and calls it a spice grinder - with no citation or details. The Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in Madison, NJ has one that is labeled a 'go-devil'. I've never seen any other so named, and this too comes without documentation. The one I'm betting on is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Pennsylvania Dutch room that is clearly a kitchen. In the catalogue of items for the room, which is authored by Beatrice B. Garvan - a Pennsylvania Dutch historian who worked there for 30 years - she calls it a'chopper' and says 'it was used to grind spices, nuts or sugar' and dates it to 1820-1860. (She is also the author of a book called The Pennsylvania German Collection.) I know it has ancient roots in Japan and India, so I don't believe it was invented in the 19th century. If you've ever used one you'll find it is a much more efficient spice grinder and requires less effort than a mortar and pestle. So that's why I love and use it. And of course it can be used for herbs and greens to juice them - but I've seen no written reference for such use. I know you and Clarissa [Dillon] have always objected, and I've respected that for Past Masters' events. But since we are no more, I use it now. I understand your thinking although I do not share your high standards."

This grinder/chopper just doesn't seem to be in keeping with what I have absorbed in my 30+ years of research into colonial domestic history. It looked Asian to me. I became curious about it and decided to do some further research on the item.


I went first to the PMA for more information on the piece pictured here. The website lists it as a "Chopper, Artist/maker unknown, American, Pennsylvania German, made in North and Central America, Dated: 1820-1860. It is made of cast iron and oak, and it is 11 1/2 inches long. The curatorial department is American Art, Accession 1902-500a,b; gift of Mrs. William D. Frishmuth, 1902."

I contacted via email the PMA and enjoyed a dialog with Lucy Peterson, Departmental Assitant, American Decorative Arts. She pulled the object file for 1902-500, the Chopper shown here, and other than a record of it being loaned to the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County in 1950, there was nothing else. (The title of the form reads, "From the Ephrata Cloister Object Catalog," so it is a reference form from the Cloister regarding the loan. It reads, "Date Received: 10/04/50" and also lists 8/13/93 as the date the data was entered.) The file did not shed any light on the provenance or the Pennsylvania German attribution to the object.

I contacted the author of the book, Beatrice B. Garvan, and am awaiting email from her. As she passed through the offices of Lucy Peterson, Lucy showed my research to her, and she said, "Hooray!" The chopper is no longer on display at the museum.


Lucy then queried David Barquist, one of the curators of American Decorative Arts for PMA, who said that he has never seen another object like it. He commented that when the Pennsylvania German Catalog was written, "it was created in a spirit of inclusivity rather than exclusivity." It is my opinion that some of the objects featured in the collection can be questioned. Lucy told me, "Your instincts are sound. It is quite possible that it is in fact Asian, as we have no way of determining whether it is of Pennsylvania German origin."

What's more, she states, "we cannot be sure at what point in its history the object became identified as Pennsylvania German. The object's donor, Mrs. Frishmuth, was apparently known for collecting household implements which she found interesting, so we are not able to trace the object back to a collector who dealt only with Pennsylvania German objects. I regret that this may not be the confirmation you were hoping for, but hope that this serves as an indication that your instincts are spot on."


Of course, I decided to find out more about Mrs. Frishmuth, "collector of interesting household implements". It is also interesting to note that she also collected Asian Art and Antique Musical Instruments.

This image is a portrait of Sarah Sagehorn Frishmuth painted by Thomas Eakins (American, 1844-1916) called Antiquated Music, 1900, oil on canvas and donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929 (1929-184-7).


No images....yet.


At the Landis Valley Museum, Lancaster, PA, Bruce D. Bomberger, Ph.D., Curator, told of several of these grinders in the museum's collection. I have no images yet, hence the lack of illustrative image. The grinders in the museum are:

F22.145A-B, cast iron with an early-looking (first half of 19th century?) iron wheel cutter, cast iron trough is 15.75" long, cataloged as "herb grinder".

FM29.766, ditto above, slightly shorter, cataloged as "spice mill", no cutter.

FM29.768, "spice mill", is super-sized at 33.5" long and 7.75" high, no cutter, weighing, I'd guess by lifting it, 65+ lbs. Same design, just bigger.

FM29.767 I did not lay eyes on, but is a similarly shaped wooden trough lacking legs or a stand, and is about the same super-size as FM29.768.


I went to Facebook and put the query out to my Facebook friends, along with an image. I asked for primary source documentation that would help me identify this object. There were a lot of replies telling me that it was a grinder for spices, but no primary sources were given dating it or of its being Pennsylvania German.

I also received quite a few private messages explaining what it was from those who probably did not want to embarrass me publicly by pointing out the obvious to the dafty. :-)


  One of the leads from the Facebook dialog was to a spice grinder in the Thomson Neely House in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. The helpful curator, Kim McCarty, suggested that I look in The Academy of Armory, written in 1688 by Randall Holme, a huge book that supplies helpful illustrations for persons making heralds, along with lots of information on the heralds. Think business card illustrations. There were many illustrations in the cooking/kitchen section, but nothing looking remotely like a spice grinder.

Several persons from several sites recommended that I check From Hearth to Cookstove, Collectibles of the American Kitchen 1700-1930, by Linda Campbell Franklin published in 1976, p. 123. This image is the object she called a "Herb Grinder" and is described as "a utensil for grinding dried herbs and spices; a cast-iron boat-shaped mortar with a rolling pestle shaped like a wheel with knob handles." Its caption reads, "HERB or SPICE MILL. Early-19th century. Cast Iron, wood, L: 18" American (?), Courtesy Keillor Collection."

The author uses terms like "clues pointing to" or "I find it logical to suppose", and "so, why not...herb mills?" This made me very mistrustful of her research.

She also mentions that these objects "would have made great ballast on early trade ships, carrying tea, spices, cloth, chinaware, etc." Ballast is what was used in an empty or almost empty ship. A ship wouldn't need ballast coming from Asia, as it would be loaded with trade goods to be marketed in the European market.


Spice Mill, c. 1850s. In the same book on page 197 can be found Fig. 1012. SPICE MILL. C 1850s, Wood, leather, L: 10 1/2"; W: 3 3/4"; (boat); 10" x 4" (pestle). Norwegian, Courtesy Keillor Collection.

Notice it isn't designed to cut, but to grind. I went to the Web to find out more about the Keillor collection, but I had no luck. There are two current Keillor collections that deal with radio/music collections. I did find reference to Mr. and Mrs. James A. Keillor, Sr., of Wading River, Long Island, New York, who were collectors of many interesting objects, but apparently the collections had been sold by auction after their deaths.


Another book that was recommended was Irons in the Fire, a History of Cooking Equipment by Rachael Field, published in 1984. It is a book about kitchen utensils and their history. I show this image because I really like it: "scouring pewter dishes in a seventeenth century kitchen (BBC Hulton Picture Library)". I love this kind of art; it shows everyday cooking gear and working clothing. I have not found a spice grinder in European or colonial art yet.

When I checked the credentials of the author of this book, I didn't learn much about her experience in this area. She has written bits in some antiques buyer guides and a few articles for antiques collecting magazines. She attended Downe House in Thatcham, England, which is a school for girls ages 11-18. I tend to doubt some of her writings. She mentions how women's skirts caught fire, and refers to a pastry coffin as a box: it is a pastry shell. But I really like this image.



Both of these "choppers" have been de-accessioned from the Colonial Williamsburg collection.

The first image comes from p. 31 of Ms. Field's Irons in the Fire, where it is listed as a "Cast iron herb grinder and chopping wheel. These herb choppers were more common in Colonial America, though the boat-shaped troughs can be found in England and are often confused with grisset pans (which are also boat shaped, and used to catch fats from roasting meats) are almost idential in shape. Late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. In the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation."

Erik Goldstein, Curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics (the study or act of collecting of coins, paper money, and medals) tells me "we've had two of these things (now deacessioned) over the years. In both cases, they had little information in the files about them, other than the date parameter of 1800-1900."



Then, in Hawaii . . .

Lynne Belluscio took photos of these Chinese herb grinders at the Mission House in Hawaii last July and shared them with me.

The text reads, "This foot operated mortar was used by Akina Pang-Ching, a Chinese herb specialist, who was born in 1856 to a well-to-do family in Peking. Pang-Ching ran away from home at the age of 17, stowed away on a vessel sailing to Hawaii and landed in Puna after a voyage of three months. He later married a Hawaiian woman and lived in the Hilo area where he practiced as an herbalist and diagnostician. Pang-Ching had herb manuals from China, and those herbs that were not available locally or did not have a Hawaiian equivalent, he imported from China.


A Collection of Medical Herb Slicers, the FITA Museum in HCMC which houses The History of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine.

A lovely display at the History of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine in Ho Chi Minh City (HVTM).



There are lots of these objects with various names such as grinder, spice grinder, ship grinder, ship mill, sow-and-pig mill, herb boat, herb grinder, go-devil, tobacco grinder, seed grinder, rolling herb grinder, spice cutter, sugar cutter.

First of 7 images: This one taken at an antique show. Cost of object was $525. No known provenance.

Second of 7 images: Sold as a food chopper (grinder) 1760-1850; 18" long. The date came from Antique Country Furnishings by George C. Neumann, who is fond of long time-spans but offers no provenance.

Third of 7 images: Shows a Chinese grinder and that they can be larger. No provenance provided.

Fourth of 7 images: Labeled an Early American Cast-Iron and Wood Herb Grinder of Crescent Form, sold for $625 in 2012 through Northeast Auctions. When asked about the documentation, they told me that was what the party offering the grinder listed it as.

Fifth of 7 images: In the past (date unknown), Old Sturbridge Village had commissioned Virginia Metalcrafters, Richmond VA, to make a grinder. It has since been removed from their collection.

Sixth of 7 images: Herb Grinder New England, late 1700-early 1800. When I asked Sharon Platt of her auction house, there was no documentation on dating the grinder.

Last of 7 images: Shows a cast iron herb grinder, 19c, sold for $172.50 on June 9, 2012, from Crocker Farm Auctions. No provenance.



These are grinders used for grinding, not cutting.

The first image is a Chinese Herbal Boat Grinder from the northwestern provinces of Vietnam, made of pig iron (a brittle iron with a very high carbon content) typically used in Asian medicine. Claims to be from the 1700s-1800s, and listed as used by rural Vietnamese. Fincham Collection; no response to the dating as of yet, but I am hopeful of a reply.

The second image is a traditional boat-shaped grinder used to grind dried herbs to powder. The FITO Museum in HCMC, which houses The History of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine.

The third image is an antique Japanese Medicine Grinder, Kyoto, circa 1825, listed with LiveAuctioneers.

The fourth image is of an Early 19th Century Shaker Herb Crusher, 12" long. Date unknown.

  This is a modern herb grinder used for cutting legal smoking herbs. Also called a tobacco grinder. If you want to order this grinder, you can contact

Then, there is a section of tea grinders.

Tea grinders, Tang Dynasty, 619-907. During the Tang period, tea was compressed into bricks and then shaved and boiled in a cauldron, often along with other ingredients. The Song era, 960-1279, brought the development of grinders to make powdered tea which was then formed into cakes or simply whisked with hot water in a tea bowl. The first teapots specifically designed for brewing loose-leaf tea were created in the 1500s. These were unglazed pots from Yixing (pronounced "eeshing"), China. Loose leaf tea, in small quantities, considered a companion to spices, was what was exported to Europe starting then.


Then, we get to grinders labeled "Shaker."

First image: Shaker Cast Iron and Maple Herb Grinder, Hancock, Massachusetts, C. 1820-40, cast iron boat-shaped receptacle and wheel, turned maple handles with inscribed line decoration, ht. 7, lg. 14 3/4 in. Sold for $470 in 2003 by Skinner, Inc. No provenance documentation.

Second image: Early 19th century Shaker Herb Crusher. Auction house, no provenance.


Twentieth century herb grinder:

"Lars Anderson made this herb grinder in his native Sweden and brought it with him when he immigrated to Minnesota in 1905." Minnesota Historical Society.

Wooden herb grinder, made circa 1864, brought from Halland County, Sweden, to the United States in 1905, by Lars Anderson. It consists of three parts, all made of hand hewn wood: a trough with a pouring lip at one end, a grinding wheel to roll through the trough, and a cylindrical handle to guide the grinding wheel. The handle is wider at one end to prevent the wheel from sliding across the length of the handle. 13 1/2 inches long.


Back to the PMA grinder:

I asked William Woys Weaver about the grinder in the PMA collection. In his opinion, "I believe this is some type of patented nut chopper, post-1865. I have seen advertisements for them somewhere. They are not Pennsylvania Dutch per se but may have been cast in one (or more) of our local foundries (also in Baltimore). If you can find a mark we might be able to pinpoint this better. I saw the advert in The American Agriculturalist so it has to be 1870s. They don't belong in early sites anyway." (William Woys Weaver, PhD, As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine, April 2013. Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism:

Inquiries sent to several museums did not indicate a foundry mark.


This one has foundry marks.

Mary Porter, reference Librarian Extraordinaire of the Indian Valley Public Library, Telford, Pennsylvania, found this grinder with a foundry mark. Cast Iron Herb Grinder, C. B. Rogers (1848-1885), Philadelphia, the trough marked "C. B. Rogers" on four feet and the grinding wheel with carved hardwood handle, lg. 18, ht. 7, wd. 8 in. Sold for $1,845 in August 2014.

Clayton Brown Rogers, born in Hainesport, New Jersey in 1810, moved to Philadelphia in 1848 and opened a seed and agricultural warehouse which he operated until his death in 1885. (Sinnot, Mary Elizabeth. Annals of the Sinnot, Rogers, Coffin, Corlies, Reeves, Bodine, and Alied Families. [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1905], pp. 57, 62. Jordan, John Wolf, Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, vol. III. [New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1914]. pp. 923-24)


Looking carefully.

This grinder has been widely represented as an early American herb crusher through modern Indian markets. Its wholesale price starts at $24 and goes for up to $950 in antique shops.

So far, no colonial era American pieces of a similar form can be documented. No matching examples have yet been found in auction catalogs, reference books, or contemporary artwork.


Modern crushers and grinders

First image: Primitive herb crusher treenware, currently available on Pinterest.

Second image: The Indian grinder that can be yours for anywhere from $24 to $950. One friend told me that there are a lot of these objects that have been reproduced quite a bit over the years. The reproductions look very close to the originals, right down to the aging.

I have inquired about this object at many, many local museums. I understand that there is limited staff, time and money to find out the answers to my queries in a timely manner. Quite a few of the museums did not respond in time for this presentation, but many did, most often not having provenance, or informing me that the object was probably 19th century.

What is interesting is that most of these objects were donated by volunteers, other well-meaning individuals or board members in the twentieth century. Once one site had one, it was considered appropriate, and other sites obtained them.


Prior to the 19th century these objects are Asian and have no place in colonial American interpretation. There is not one item of documentation that supports colonial American use.