Archive for the ‘Early American ceramics’ Category

William Fives

September 22, 2013

“…a small brown jug bears his name, in slightly uneven letters, W. Fives.” – M. Lelyn Branin.

In 1834, scions of Whately MA pottery families Orcutt and Crafts began a shop ultimately known as the Portland Stoneware Company of Portland, ME.  They churned out huge amounts of ware, mostly 1 to 4 gallon jugs.  Orcutt dropped out in 1837.  Caleb Crafts took William Fives as a partner.  Their partnership ended a few years later.  Caleb left town.  William stayed on, but never again as owner.

It seems William Fives had talent.  Many potteries traded owners during the 19th century.  But William continued at this shop through a succession of owners.  Almost like a tacit agreement that he ‘come with the shop.’

He rented an apartment on Green Street with several fellow potters.  William eventually married, bought a house and had children.  He quietly passed away on Dec 5, 1849.

In the words of genealogist Susan Hoffman, William Fives “led a very quiet life.”  Normally, that would be commendable – though somewhat dull.  In William’s case “quiet” was amazing.  His family had emigrated from Ireland in 1803.   William was Irish in the mid 19th century northeastern United States.

The Irish were roundly despised even before a mid century deluge of ragged Irish immigrants broke on these shores.  They were considered even lower than the black population at the time.  After all, white folk ‘knew’ the blacks.  Blacks spoke the same language, had the same religious beliefs, ate the same foods and, while often poor, they did not generally live in abject squalor.  Gaelic speaking Irish arrived with absolutely nothing.  They were starving, stinky, sickly and destitute.  They tended to radicalism due to past experience.  Worst of all, they were papists! Catholic!  The Irish didn’t become ‘white’ until well after the Civil War.

William Five’s Green Street apartment seemed to be a focal point for Portland Stoneware Company potters.  Their surnames suggest an eclectic work environment.  Clough (Welsh), Aliff (Breton), Vankleek (Dutch).  ‘Melting pot’ potteries might not have been rare, although it is known that some – the Norton’s of Bennington most notably – strictly favored local boys.  The Portland roster indicated a fairly open-minded environment in the midst of wide spread xenophobia and anti-Irish sentiment.

Open minds are to be treasured even in the best of times.  For that alone William Fives and his cohorts deserve notice.

Readings:
The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

How the Irish Became White.  Noel Ignatiev.  Routledge/New York, London.  1995.

NASCAR

June 16, 2013

“War is hell.”  – William Tecumseh Sherman.

Automobiles excited speed freaks from the beginning.  But Prohibition bumped things up a notch.  Young men raced bootleg whiskey to backwoods delivery points.  When Prohibition ended the drivers didn’t want to stop.  One thing led to another and racing became a “sport.”  They raced each other for small stakes.  Once money got involved it became NASCAR.

The whiskey those early daredevils drove around came in salt-fired stoneware jugs.  This scenario was officially sanctioned a few brief decades before, with far reaching consequences for everyone involved.

The Civil War had ravished farms across the South.  Barns were burned and cattle herds were decimated.  Reconstruction efforts like the 1870’s Farm Alliance Program promoted corn production as a cash crop for whiskey distillation.  There simply wasn’t much livestock to feed.  Whiskey boomed.  So did the need for jugs to put it in.

One immediate consequence was that local potters couldn’t keep up with demand.  Quality predictably declined when so many newcomers flooded the market.  Many of these new potters were itinerants.  The very best were called “500 gallon men” due to the quantity they could produce in a day.  But many others were just “whiskey heads” who breezed into shops, made a few bucks, blew it all on whiskey, and drifted off again.

The stoneware whiskey jug boom also impelled several important technical innovations.  Albany slip came into common use, sealing somewhat porous jugs and protecting their precious contents.  As production grew, kilns evolved.  Some potters stayed true to their old groundhog kilns but others needed more stacking space and more consistent firing.  Kilns got shorter, taller and more fuel efficient.

During Prohibition, revenue officers looking for bootleggers would see shops filled with jugs one day and empty the next.  “Where did those jugs go?”  “I didn’t catch his name…”  Cleater Meaders of White County, Georgia remembers “Most of the liquor ended up in Atlanta or Athens – university people got most of it.”

After Prohibition, visitors from cities like Atlanta and Athens sought out rustic ceramic ‘tourist items.’  The stage was set for Jugtown and all that followed.  Meanwhile the young bootlegging drivers sped off to their own destiny.

OK, so it can’t be said that pottery alone created NASCAR.  But pottery was a crucial ingredient there at the beginning.

Readings:
Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition (1984).  Sweezy, Nancy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.

Turners and Burners.  Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

We Make Earthenware Fast

May 5, 2013

There was a conversation between two 19th century redware potters that never actually happened.  Their little ‘chat’ was just a letter to a friend and a newspaper ad written in two different states several decades apart.

Norman Judd worked in Rome, NY starting in 1814.  Rome was a frontier boom town at the time,  catering to fortune seekers on their way to the Western Reserve (preset day Ohio).  In such a place people cared only about cheap, instant access to the necessities of life.  Anyone willing to mass produce tableware could make a quick buck.  Bennington trained Judd was just the guy for the job.  He described his life to a friend:

“We make Earthenware fast – have burned 8 kilns since the 8th of last May – amtg to $1500 – Ware here is ready cash.  It is now 8 o’clock at night, I have just done turning bowls – I rest across my mould bench while writing – no wonder if I do make wild shots…”

James Grier faced a very different situation.  When he started his Mount Jordan Pottery in Oxford, PA in 1828, the competition was fierce and growing fiercer.  Grier, and his son Ralph who took over the shop in 1837, followed the (by then) common path of advertising their talents in local newspapers to set themselves apart from the crowd.  Most 19th century pottery ad language tended to the ‘best there ever was’ sort of hyperbole.  But Ralph Grier took a slightly different tack.  An 1868 notice in the “Oxford Press” read:

“EARTHENWARE of all kinds of the very best quality.  No poor ware ‘cracked up’ and foisted upon the public.”

What potter has not at one time or another teetered into the depths of the chasm exposed between these two sentiments?

Readings
American Redware.  William Ketchum Jr.  Holt & Co./Ney York.  1991.

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Legal Issues

April 21, 2013

Dirk Claesen was good.  So good the captain of the Graef, sailing Claesen to New Amsterdam from Leeuwerden Holland in 1654, wrote him a letter of introduction.  Claesen was an “extraordinary potter” who “resolves to fix his abode upon the island of Manhattan or Long Island, then you procure him a convenient situation for his settlement and to establish a pottery as he remains satisfied.”

Dirk Claesen truly was good.  He soon married and bought property.  His “potbaker’s corner” plot was the city’s redware production focal point for the next 150 years.  In 1657 Dirk became the first of only four “pottmakers” to receive New Amsterdam Burgher Rights.  His pottery skills served him well.

But things went bad.  Dirk remarried twice.  Legal problems hounded him and his three wives.  In 1655 Wife #1 sued a man for hitting her.  She sued another for stealing her canoe.  Dirk sued Andries Hoppen to pay for pots Hoppen ordered.

In 1660 Wife #1 was sued to pay for wine and beaver pelts she ordered (losing despite Dirk’s plea that he “knows nothing better than that is all paid and sent plaintiff.”).  Wife #2 was sued when her hogs rooted in a neighbor’s garden.  Dirk was sued to take back Wife #1, “the aforesaid woman suffers great want and lies on straw without bed or bedding… and has the ague.”  (She died, ending the case.)

In 1665 Dirk sued Anthony Dirkzen for taking salary as an employee then running off “to fight indians.”  In 1670 Dirk sued to get paid for a brick carrying job.  In 1673 Wife #2 was sued to pay for two beaver pelts.

In 1675 Dirk and Wife #3 were sued by children of Wives 1 and 2 for some property.  Dirk was sued for cutting William Phillips’s nose so badly “that it hung down over his lipps; which is contrary to law and the Peace of our Sovereign Lord the King, etc.”  Apparently, his daughter “had by her impudence enticed William Phillips to come into bed to her, where her father, the potbaker, finding them, caused the disturbance.  The act being found to be evil, she was committed to the sheriff’s custody.”

What’s missing in this messy tale is any description of Dirk Claesen’s pottery.  He was, after all, “extraordinary” at it.  The moral of the story?  Pots come and pots go, but your rap sheet lasts forever.

Reading:
Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

 

A Jersey Outset

April 7, 2013

Why did men used to need a dowry bribe to marry?  Fortunately, these enlightened days offer men an alternative prenuptial pageant.  And women get bridal showers, so goods are still exchanged.

In the early 19th century a working class bride might instead expect to receive an “outset,” a collection of useful items given by her parents on occasion of her marriage.  People needed many things to start up a household.  Silverware.  Bedding.  Furniture.  And pottery.  Especially inexpensive redware slip trailed with moralistic adages.

Chamber pots were a common gift.  Various kinds of dishes were another.  These were occasions when the parent (or the potter) could have some fun.  “When this you see remember me…”  Or offer words of advice.  “Give drink to the thirsty.”  Or instruct in proper living.  “Visit the sick.”  Sgraffito potters also got in on the act with whole sentences scrawled around plate rims.  “Eating is for existence and life, drinking is also good besides.”  Words to live by.

But one wonders at some sayings trailed onto outset gift plates.  Take, for example, the bacon plate shown below.  “Hard times in Jersey.”  The two most likely makers of this plate were either Henry Van Saun who ran a “Pottery Bake Shoppe” near New Milford, NJ from 1811 to 1829, or George Wolfkiel who bought the old Van Saun shop in 1847 and ran it until 1867.  Wolfkiel is believed to have made a set of dishes for the wedding of a certain Mrs. Zabriskie in nearby Ramsey.  It’s possible that this plate was part of her outset.

You can see this bacon plate today at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford CT.  But what was the message to young Mrs. Zabriskie on the occasion?  Good luck?  Oh well?  Told you so?

Hard times in Jersey

Readings:
The Reshaping of Everyday Life.  John Worrel.  Harper Perennial/New York.  1989.

Kitchen Ceramics.  Selsin, Rozensztroch, and Cliff.  Abbeville Press/New York.  1997.

20 Million Flower Pots

March 24, 2013

Everybody loves an underdog, as the saying goes.  But whenever a rural occupation confronts an industrial revolution, doom results. 

In this regard, early American redware potters were singularly marked.  They might marry the tavern keeper’s daughter (lots of business was transacted in taverns) or open a dry goods store (another reliable outlet) to avoid their fate.  Some switched to stoneware.  Some quit altogether.

Others found salvation in flowerpots

Abraham Hews of Weston MA wasn’t thinking this when he opened a redware shop in 1765.  He relied on ‘word-of-mouth’ sales within walking distance of Weston instead of the huge nearby Boston market.  Still, probate records at his death put him solidly in the middle income bracket.  In fact his was to be one of the few redware potteries to remain active, from father to son, until 1871. 

Abraham Hews II had big plans for the shop.  He actually listed himself in tax roles as “potter” (Abraham I only ever called himself “yeoman”).  Things went well, even though Abraham II phased out extraneous slip decoration after 1800 like most New England redware potters would.

But the writing was on the wall by the 1860’s.  The Hews family began the switch to flowerpots, both molded and hand made, to stay alive.  They relocated next to clay pits shared by North Cambridge MA brick makers in 1871. 

The Panic of 1893 erased  North Cambridge’s brick industry, leaving all that clay to A.C. Hews & Co.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the dawn of the 20th century Hews could boast an output of over 20 million flowerpots. More than anyone.  Anywhere.  Ever. 

Plastics finally slew the Hews clay flowerpot business in the 1960’s.  One family’s 200 year involvement in clay ended.  It might date me, but it’s a personal thrill to think that one small slice of redware pottery history saw it’s closing chapter in my own lifetime. 

It’s nice to feel connected.

Readings:
Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper Perennial/New York.  1989.

 

The Potter Makes Everything

January 20, 2013

Nobody messed with Johannes Neesz and got away with it.  Or maybe he just had a peculiar sense of humor.  Once upon a time a minister invited Johannes to lunch to discuss an order of dishes the minister wanted, adorned with pious sayings.  Johannes arrived promptly but was kept waiting for 2 hours.  One of the plates finally delivered read, “I have never been in a place where people eat their dinner so late.  Anno in the year 1812.”

Enigmas, or inside jokes, defined  late 18th – early 19th century Bucks and Montgomery County PA Germanic “tulip wares.”  Flowers, people and animals that no sane person could ever tire of looking at were paired with commentary (maybe or maybe not arcanely reflecting religious sentiments) around the rim.   A plate with a beautiful peacock surrounded by vined flowers by Georg Hübener (active 1785 – 1798) read, “Surely no hawk will seize this bird because the tulips bend over it.  The kraut is well pickled but badly greased, Master Cook.” Other oddities included “I am very much afraid my naughty daughter will get no man” (Henry Roudebuth, 1813).  “Early in the morning I fry a sausage in sour gravy” (Michael Scholl, c.1811).  “To consume everything in gluttony and intemperance before my end makes a just testament” (Jacob Scholl).

German emigration beginning in the 1680’s brought a well developed sgraffito style with copper green highlights (unlike English counterparts) to the area.  But the late 18th century uniquely American development of the fruit pie caused an explosion in decorated dishes.  Dishes by Johannes Neesz (sometimes spelled Nase, or Nesz, as on his 1867 gravestone) stood out.  He experimented with black backgrounds for his sgraffito.  He combined sgraffito with colored slips.

More importantly, he carried sgraffito beyond just pie plates and onto all sorts of thrown works, from tea sets to pickle jars, shaving basins, and more.  Others previously had dallied with this.  Others since would go further.  But Johannes purposefully pushed the boundaries of what was possible in tulip ware.

That last point is a godsend for modern redware potters.  It’s how we justify our ‘interpretive drift’ of splashing sgraffito on just about anything.  Because of Johannes, we can substitute “historically accurate” for “this is what I prefer to do.”

Johannes Neesz might respond with another popular sgraffito adage, “Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”

Readings:
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

Cheesequake

December 9, 2012

Cheesequake potters were lucky.  The little village lay next to a massive deposit of excellent stoneware clay in the Amboy region of New Jersey.  The Morgan family in Cheesequake owned the deposit.  These master potters, along with their allies the Warne and Letts families, dominated Jersey markets during the late Colonial era.

Potters near navigable waterways throughout the Colonies could purchase Morgan’s clay.  The combined Crolius and Remmey clans of New York City were particularly important customers.  These two long standing pottery families intermarried, with shops always next to each other.  Their territory significantly overlapped that of the Morgans.  But unlike Morgan, they did not sit atop hectares of superlative clay.  A previous source on “Potbakers Hill” in lower Manhattan had been swallowed up by the fast growing metropolis.  Today that spot is called “City Hall.”

So the New York Crolius/Remmey’s were dependent on the New Jersey Morgans.  Maybe their relationship was amicable.  But why was William Crolius lurking about on 1786-90 Amboy NJ tax roles?  Poking around for an exposed seam off of Morgan’s property?

The British, ever aware of the value of a good pot shop, sent a raiding party on August 8, 1777, to ransack Continental Captain (later General) James Morgan’s stoneware shop during the Revolutionary WarJohn Crolius lost his pottery to the Red Coats a year earlier due to his patriot proclivities.

After the war, thanks to canals and (eventually) railroads, Morgan’s clay almost single handedly supplied the 19th century avalanche that became The Age of American Stoneware.  The Remmey/Crolius clan withered on it’s lofty perch in Manhattan.

But the Crolius/Remmeys seem to have not given up easily.  Joseph Henry Remmey owned the Morgan pottery for a time in 1820.  In 1822 Catherine Bowne, James Morgan’s granddaughter, obtained the shop and ran it until 1835.  Clay supply success eventually eclipsed the Morgan’s own pottery business.  Potters everywhere now worked with their clay.

About all that remains of the Morgan, Werne and Letts potteries, the Crolius and Remmey potteries, and the Amboy pits themselves is archeological interest.  You can still study mute examples of this fabled material – thrown, fired and salted – in museums and Historical Societies.  But if you took a Morgan jug out from a glass case today and put it’s mouth to your ear, like a sea shell, maybe you could hear the battles that once raged over those clay pits.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland Vt.  1971.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.   1970.

Jugtown, USA

October 14, 2012

“Get big or get out.”
-Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, Nixon Administration.

They say potters make good cooks.  Some do.  More to the point, for ages having things to put things in was crucial to subsistence survival.  (Not that anything’s changed, we just don’t think about it as such).  Obviously diet dictates the containers we need for processing, storing and eating food.  Just as obviously potters across the globe have made these containers for centuries – thus the cooking assumption.

Potters used to congregate where clay deposits and transportation routes coincided to best accomplish their work.  Early on in the US such communities were called “jugtowns.”  Imagine a US map with a shot gun blast through it.  That would be a jugtown map.  They were scattered everywhere.  Some big, many small.  They began in places like Yorktown VA to Charleston MA and beyond.

Some jugtowns got bigger and more organized as time went by and pottery technology evolved.  Particularly in pottery neighborhoods of Bennington VT, Utica and Albany, NY, Portland, ME, Trenton, NJ, and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

But all that was prologue.  The big break out followed the westward migration across Indian lands.  Gigantic jugtowns – factory towns really – sprouted up, pushed west by the railroads.  East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.  After Redwing, new jugtowns were unnecessary.  By then railroads could deliver crockery just about anywhere.

But something else was at play.  Advances in glass, canning and refrigeration radically changed food preparation, storage and even menus.  The need for things to put things in was forever altered.  Big proved fatal.  Pottery faded to irrelevance.

The food industry certainly made pottery important.  But food almost killed pottery as well.  Interest in hand made pottery was just barely kept alive through China painting, the Arts and Crafts movement, and (later) even the GI Bill.  But then Ray Kroc and his ilk whacked us with “fast food.”  There’s little need for a plate or even a paper bag when eating a sandwich, burger or wrap.

About all that’s left for potters today is the ‘moral high ground’ of aesthetics.  This was evident even in the founding of “Jugtown” NC back in 1922.  Nice, but not critical to most household budgets.

Of course many modern potters can eloquently defend their existence.  Still, without a clear idea of where we’re coming from how do we know where we’re going to?

Readings:
American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

Clay in the Hands of the Potter.  Rochester Museum and Science Center.  An exhibition of pottery manufacture in the Rochester and Genesee Valley Region c. 1793-1900.  1974.

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts.  Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

Turners and Burners.  Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Prerss/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Pony Up The Cash

August 5, 2012

Amazingly, there are still people who think 18th – 19th century pottery is boring. But under that pottery’s constrained veneer is a rich quirky vein. One powered mostly by anonymous potters. While historians can discern individuals’ handiwork, local contemporaries most likely knew exactly who they were.

Norwalk CT excelled at this genre (and this conundrum). Norwalk was one of New England’s busiest pottery towns. It straddled the traditions of (relatively restrained) New England and (relatively ornate) mid Atlantic pottery.

Asa Hoyt was potting in Norwalk by 1790. Asa did simple slip-trailed sunburst patterns until he hired New Jersey potters with elaborate trailing backgrounds. Hoyt was succeeded by Absalom Day and his wife Betsy Smith. Absalom threw, Betsy fired. The Smith family inherited the pottery and kept it going long into the 19th century, defining the quintessential “Norwalk” style. They even won a diploma at the American Institute’s 17th annual fair in 1844 for “superior earthen spitoons.”

Norwalk’s slip trailed, slab molded pie plates were unique. They were shallower than Pennsylvania’s thrown pie plates, and had no corollary in the rest of New England. Most were made before 1850. One hand seems responsible for the best work. This Smith Pottery employee used the Spencerian script learned by every kid until the “i gadget” made hand writing pointless. As it happens, we actually know the guy’s name. Henry Chichester was a master calligrapher. The book “Norwalk Potteries” even has a group photo from 1863 with him in it.

Saying trailed by Chichester and others ran the gamut from generic to off the wall. The majority were pretty straight forward. “Apple Pie.” “Clams and Oysters.” (New Englanders ate a lot of clams and oysters). It’s not hard to guess the motivation for some. “Pony up the cash.” “Cheap Dish.” “Money Wanted.” Or just “Money.” Some were commemorative, like “Mary’s Dish” or “Lafayette.” Some ventured into politics. “Hurrah for Heister Clymer*”  Morality, like “Give Drink to the thirsty,” often veered into ‘you had to have been there’ territory. “Honor the human.” Odd phrase, beautiful sentiment.

And some were downright bizarre. “Why will you die.”

To simply end there would be a bit abrupt. What on earth was the story behind that plate? But pondering the chasm between those potters’ motives and our understanding of the physical remains of what they did is exactly what makes the historical enterprise so fascinating.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries. Andrew and Kate Winton. Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH. 1981.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins. Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA. 1968.

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling. 1977. Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware. Brian Cullity. 1991. Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA. 1991.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers