The use of fish as a decorative feature on a punch bowl is not, at first, an obvious choice. Although sometimes drunk with anchovy toasts, salmon, fried whitebait or oysters (in Britain at least), this does not seem to be the reason for fish decorations.
Instead, it appears that the use of fish decorations on British punch bowls was associated with alcohol and the imagery of being as drunk as a fish.
London, Bristol or Wincanton delft blue and manganese punch bowl c. 1750
The expression ‘to drink like a fish’ has long been popular in Britain to indicate drinking a large amount of alcohol. It was first recorded in 1640, appearing in Fletcher and Shirley’s stage comedy The night-walker, or the little theife: ‘Give me the bottle, I can drink like a Fish now, like an Elephant.’ In William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World, he says ‘Thou art both as drunk and as mute as a fish.’
Delftware with a plain manganese exterior with fish
On Sunday 28th December 2014, my friend Joanna Crosby (who is working on her PhD on the social and cultural history of apples and the orchard, and who founded the Trumpington Community Orchard) was interviewed by Lucie Skeaping on BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show in a programme called Here We Come a-Wassailing (no longer available). As Joanna recounted the history of the drink wassail, wassailing songs of each period were performed, such as Here We Come A-wassailing:
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.