A discussion about collecting delftware in 18th century Deerfield, MA titled “River Gods” might seem flirty given that religion and politics are ‘safe’ conversation topics only while lolling about on a sunny beach with close friends. But who wants to talk religion and politics on a sunny beach?
“River Gods” (the Deerfield River being a major artery of travel and commerce) along with “Mansion People” was a nick-name for Deerfield’s most powerful citizens. The upper crust. The one percent. Knowing if these appellations were their idea or everybody else’s might offer telling insight into the personalities of this small group.
The River Gods certainly acted the part of virtual deities. They rose to prominence during the French And Indian War when necessities of military patronage resulted in consolidated economic clout. The River Gods came to project an aura of civic righteousness.
Except when it came to delftware. Delftware was a major status symbol in New England from the beginning of the French And Indian War until the Revolutionary War – precisely when the River Gods held sway. Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled. No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a round or two of punch, egg pop, sullibub, or other such alcoholic concoction.
The River Gods favored Dutch delftware over English delftware. Maybe this was because Dutch delftware painting, being directly inspired by Italian faience, was more refined. Or maybe the Dutch allure stemmed from its unique method of dusting additional layers of glaze over the painted pots, giving an extra glossy veneer. English delftware by comparison was quirky, less refined, more playful. This was ironic because the English delftware industry was largely begun by immigrant Dutch potters.
Various parliamentary Navigation Acts dictated that transactions between England’s colonies and the outside world be done via the East India Company. This assured that non-English goods (Dutch delftware) were either impossible or prohibitively expensive to acquire. But the River Gods used their own ships for business transactions in the Caribbean. They simply bypassed the East India Company and purchased Dutch pottery directly in the West Indies. In legal terms this is called customs fraud, ie: smuggling.
To be a River God was to be the law. But the adage that nobody is perfect must be applied universally. Even, or perhaps especially, to River Gods.
Delftware at Historic Deerfield 1600 – 1800. Amanda Lange. Historic Deerfield/Deerfield MA. 2001.