If I could travel back in time to speak with any 19th century American potter, Eleazer Orcutt would make the short list. He wouldn’t be alone on that list, but few others were so involved with so many potteries in so many places.
A handful of individuals can be credited with transforming pottery making in certain areas. Athens, NY potter Nathan Clark almost single handedly trained enough potters to make New York the “Stoneware State.” Bennington’s Norton family left their mark by setting standards nearly impossible to duplicate. Moravian Rudolf Christ left a unique body of work that continues to astound. But stoneware potter Eleazer Orcutt belongs to that small group who played a direct, personal role in pottery development across a vast geographic expanse.
There was a surprising amount of mobility during Eleazer’s lifetime. Many potters worked in multiple places. Immigrant English masters like Staffordshire’s Daniel Greatbatch were in great demand from Vermont to South Carolina to Illinois. Sometimes entire families, like the Crafts’ of Whately MA, would fan out across several states to take advantage of local markets. Orcutt’s family, also from Whately, followed this path. They were not only friends and often times business partners with the Crafts,’ but in-laws as well. Imagine those family reunions!
Family dynasties were common. The Osborne family of Quaker potters was active throughout New England during the 18th century. The Bell family seems to have dominated Virginia and Maryland in the 19th century. Various pottery clans of Georgia and the Carolina’s continue to produce master potters to this day.
Then there were the drifters. They’d blow into town, fill your shop with pots, earn some cash, buy some whiskey, and be gone. They seem to have been a particularly common sight in many late 19th – early 20th century southern rural jugtowns – although Christopher Webber Fenton attracted his share of ‘less savory’ folks to the Norton Pottery in Bennington during his tenure there in the mid 1840′s.
Eleazer Orcutt’s resume places him at either the beginning or the height of several major pottery regions in the Northeastern US. Whately and Ashfield, MA. Portland, ME. All over New York, from Troy to Poughkeepie, Lasingburgh and Albany… Not as a vagrant potting drifter. He was instrumental in establishing potteries in many of these places.
The wealth of experience Eleazer Orcutt carried with him must have been amazing. But he is gone now. And we’re left with just the internet.
American Potters and Pottery. John Ramsey. 1939. Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.
American Stoneware. William Ketchum. 1991. Holt & Co./New York.
Early Potters and Potteries of New York State. William Ketchum. Funk & Wagnalls/New York. 1970.
The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber. G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York. 1909.
Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins. Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA. 1968.
A Guide to Whately Pottery and the Potters. Henry Baldwin. Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA. 1999.
The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine. M. Lelyn Branin. Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct. 1978.
The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling. Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.
American Redware. William Ketchum. Holt & Co./NY. 1991.