Is this a Finger Bowl?

glass finger bowl

Is this a finger bowl? It is about 2 inches in diameter and 2 inches high. It was in my mother’s china cabinet for as long as I can remember, and then after my parents passed I brought it out to my house. My memory is that my mother called it a finger bowl.

The reason that I’m asking is because I decided to do a post on finger bowls, and I pulled out this old “finger bowl” illustrate the post. I then looked at Ebay to try to find similar bowls to determine its approximate age. I was shocked to discover that most finger bowls on Ebay were about 4 1/2 or 5 inches in diameter – and suddenly realized that the small glass bowl that I have may not be a finger bowl.

Let me step back a bit further, and share what I originally planned to post. I found information on finger bowls in two home economics textbooks that were a hundred years old. The first book contained a drawing of finger bowls and said:

line drawing of a finger bowl

If fruit needs to be pared or cut at the table a silver knife should be provided, and finger bowls should be used. It is well to use paper napkins instead of linen when fresh fruits are prepared at the table, for fruit juice stains are sometimes difficult to remove.

Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. II) (1920) by Anna M. Cooley and Wilhelmina H. Spohr

Hmm. . . I can’t tell for sure, but the finger bowl in the drawing looks larger than mine.

The second hundred-year-old home economics textbook said:

Use of Finger Bowls

Finger bowls are used after the fruit course of breakfast, and at the end of a luncheon or dinner. They should be placed on plates with a doily between the plate and the finger bowl. 

For breakfast, the finger bowls and plates may be brought in first. The finger bowl and doily should be removed to the left so that the same plates may be used for the fruit course. 

For formal luncheon or dinner, finger bowls on doilies and plates are brought in, one at a time, when removing the main dish of the dessert. The finger bowls and doilies are then set aside and the plate used for bonbons and nuts, which are passed on a tray. Or, if desired, the finger bowls may be brought after the bonbons. In this case the finger bowl and plate are exchanged for the plate of the dessert course. An informal way is to pass finger bowls on plates and doilies before the dessert course. Then the finger bowl and doily are set aside as at breakfast and the dessert served on the same plate. 

School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

Some days I guess that I’m just destined to have more questions than answers. I still don’t know whether I own a finger bowl – and I’m now wondering whether people actually ended meals with two desserts a hundred years ago – a “main” dessert and a secondary dessert (bonbons, nuts).

63 thoughts on “Is this a Finger Bowl?

  1. At that size, I’d say it’s an individual salt cellar. It’s probably vintage rather than antique; it looks to be from the Depression-glass era. The pattern’s similar to the ‘thumbprint’ pattern that was common then.

    1. I have some really small dishes that are even smaller than this one that I think are designed to hold salt. I guess that people dipped celery sticks and carrots in salt before eating years ago.

      1. Or, they would take a pinch of salt for their table food. The cellars were used before common salt shakers, or the tiny individual shakers that sometimes were used. My mother had a collection of the cutest little salt shakers — most of what I know about this stuff comes because of her collection.

        1. This is really interesting. I’m learning so much about some of my old dishes and their functions. I am now realizing that I didn’t know the current purpose of the dishes, or how they were actually used. And, I hadn’t realized that there used to be individual salt shakers until now. They sound like fun – though a nuisance for the hostess to store and keep clearn.

  2. I first thought salt bowl too but it could be a condiment bowl. Sometimes mustard was on the table with a tiny spoon. Certain spices could also be on the table to be added as desired.

    1. You may be right. Today I generally just put mustard and other condiment jars on the table when I think that someone may want to use those condiments – but people used to more formal.

  3. I ~love~the idea of everyone at table cutting up their own fruits ; )
    Also, your dish does look like a condiment dish : ) I thought salt cellars came with a lid to keep the salt dry…fun post today, as I would never say no to two desserts!

    1. So do I – It sounds so wholesome and fresh to cut up their own fruit at the table. If two desserts were offered, I’m afraid that I’d also say yes to both – though I don’t need the second (and probably not the first.) 🙂

  4. It’s most likely for salt. Not sure if a “master” salt for the entire table or an individual salt. A finger bowl would be much wider. I remember, as a child, fine restaurants presenting finger bowls and this example isn’t a finger bowl.

    1. Until I read your comment, I hadn’t realized that there were both master salt bowls and individual ones. I wonder how it was used. Were empty individual salt bowls part of each place setting – and then the master bowl was passed around so each person could put some in their individual bowl if they wanted some? . . . or was each individual bowl filled prior to the meal, and the master bowl used to replenish the salt if more was needed?

  5. I suspect your family may have used it as a finger bowl, whether it met the standard definition or not, so your mother would have called it what she was told it was. It appears to be similar to the small dessert dishes my grandmother had. I have a vague recollection of learning about finger bowls–possibly in my Home Ec class, but I do not recall their use in my family. Of course, we were working class folk, and there would have been no need to use all those extra dishes to be washed. 🙂

    1. You may be right. My family were farmers, so my mother may have somehow gotten the dish but not have been very clear regarding its purpose. Sometimes I’m amazed how many dishes they used for more formal meals a hundred year ago when everything needed to be washed by hand. It seems like they would have tried to minimize the number of dishes used but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  6. I enjoyed reading about the mystery bowl. I’ve never seen a finger bowl in use, but I’d like one for each of us when we are eating fresh fruit, particularly juicy peaches.

    1. Maybe finger bowls should be brought back. 🙂 I’ve had sticky fingers several times over the past week due to eating juicy peaches and plums.

  7. My sister collects glass so I asked her about your bowl. This is what she wrote back:

    “I have seen things of similar size called a “master salt”, as in a larger version of the “salt dip” from which each individual diner refilled their individual “salt dip”. Some folks use the term “cellar” instead of “dip”. The smaller ones often look like you could stick a fat candle into them to hold it upright. Others look like miniature bowls. The master usually had a little spoon for serving, and sometimes the individual salts also had teeny tiny spoons too. You can still find these sets (the master and individuals came in the same pattern) for formal dining, usually made of crystal and quite expensive. The finger bowl is for cleaning your fingers after eating fried chicken or juicy fruit or something similar. If you cannot stick all of your fingers into the bowl at once, it is probably not a finger bowl!”

        1. And, if there were children at the meal, I can picture them “playing” with the water in the finger bowl much to the annoyance of their parents.

      1. I bet that you’re right. Your comments brings back memories of all the spilled water glasses (and wet tableclothes) at family gatherings over the years.

    1. Thanks for checking with your sister. This is really interesting. Would the master salt be passed around the table, and then individuals would put some salt in their individual salt dips? It makes me think of how empty coffee cups and saucers are often at each place, but only filled if the person wants coffee.

      1. You’re welcome. It makes sense that the master salt would be passed around for each person to fill their own salt dip. Even with the tiny salt dip spoons it would be easier to control how much salt you get on your food. When using another household’s salt shaker you never know how much salt will come out with each shake.

  8. I think it may have been to hold mustard. My parents had a silver cruet set only used on very best occasions, and it consisted of salt and pepper shakers and a little bowl (about the same size as yours above). This little bowl was made of silver but had a fitted glass interior, and my mother would mix up English Mustard powder with water and serve it in this bowl. I’m guessing the mustard couldn’t come in contact with the silver wherefore there was an inner glass container. The mustard had to be thrown away after the meal as it dried up.

    1. It makes sense that the glass liner proteced the silver from the mustard. I never would have thought about making my own mustard from powdered mustard. Was it similar to the mustard that we get today from a jar?

        1. Like you, I just use powdered mustard in recipes. Your comments brings back a very vague memory of seeing an old recipe for making mustard. I may have to see if I can find it.

  9. I always thought a finger bowl was presented about the same time as the sherbert which was used to cleanse the pallet before the main course. Maybe an etiquette book would shed more light on the subject. So interesting!

  10. We grew up with cut glass finger bowls that matched a set of dishes. They were more like the 4-1/2 inch circumference you mentioned. This could be a mustard dish, or other condiment sauces, used with a small spoon — it’s too small for much else.

  11. I agree that it’s to small to be a finger bowl. I also think it’s too large to be a salt cellar. Guessing it is meant for condiments, such as mustard, or jams.

  12. I know a woman in her 90s who is still an excellent entertainer. I don’t know what she calls her dishes, but I’m pretty sure she has served me fruit in a bowl which is sized fairly similarly to yours. It really goes to show how much knowledge we lose over the course of time.

  13. My mother had a couple salt cellars. This is about what hers looked like. I have a finger bowl and it has a much wider opening… I suppose this could be used for condiments but 2″ is really small.

    1. My bowl seems like it such an unusual size. It almost seems too big for salt – though that may be its purpose, but too small for many other purposes.

  14. My mother had some bowls like yours, but her were slightly smaller. She told me they were for putting salt in, and then you dipped your celery stalk in the salt. Not sure how accurate that is, but it was what she remembered.

    1. It’s fascinating how people used to dip celery in salt. Now we worry so much about salt. I guess that it must have been less of a concern in the past.

  15. We had silver salt cellars, about the same shape as the diagram in your post, and about 2″ across the top — because they were silver, which is very corrosive, there were glass liners — we were taught that there should be NO spillage between the glass and the silver, or the silver would be ruined — and the silver had to be cleaned as soon as it was removed from the table. I believe your dish is likely a mustard dish — mustard was powdered, and I believe it was mixed with vinegar, so tangier than what we get from a jar these days, but with a flavor similar to dijon mustard. Nuts, etc. would not have been considered a second dessert, but rather a confection (candy). A nut dish would have been larger than what you show, and would have been set on the table between courses, to be eaten after dessert.

    1. Thanks for the information. It makes sense that this might be a mustard dish. I remember how my family had various dishes that had specific purposes that we used for family gatherings. It made the meals seem really special. Having nuts and candy on the table after dessert would encourage people to continue chatting and to linger longer.

  16. You know your mom, was she someone who would use what pieces she had on hand, even if it wasn’t for the initial purpose? I can’t help but think that many young people today will think ball jars are drinking glasses if they have never been exposed to canning.

    1. Your comment about people thinking ball jars are drinking glasses makes me smile. I like the analogy. You guessed right – My mother had lots of miscellaneous dishes in her china cabinet. She would use what she had on hand and not worry about whether they matched. She might have decided that something was a finger bowl even if that wasn’t it’s actual purpose. I don’t have any memory of her ever actually using it. It was just a bowl that she occasionally commented on when getting other dishes out of the cabinet.

  17. The good china we used for holidays when I was growing up had tiny plates for individual butter pats. We never used them; we’d just use one of the extra bread plates as a communal butter dish. But I was fascinated with them and used to sneak them out of the china closet for my dolls to use.

  18. This has certainly been an interesting post with lots of different thoughts of how the little bowl would have been used originally. Lots of antique/vintage shops shops refer to bowls of this small size as “condiment, candy, nut bowl” when labeling them. I think you should use it however you wish…it is a pretty remembrance of your mother. 😊

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