Archive for September, 2009

The Poor Potter is Dead, Part Two.

September 29, 2009

A generation after the poor potter of Yorktown died, Benjamin Franklin advised his son William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, to downplay local manufacture of consumer goods to William’s superiors in England.  Writing from London, Ben said that depreciative accounts of coarse, poor quality local production “are very satisfactory here, and induce the parliament to despise and take no notice of the Boston resolutions…”

This was the heyday of American redware pottery production.  It was also open rebellion.  There was a widespread feeling that the colonies could and should be self-sufficient.  They wanted autonomy.  It took Thomas Paine’s radical pamphlet “Common Sense” to finally push the colonists to completely sever all ties with England.  (Why is common sense always the hardest thing to swallow?)

American potters set out to prove they could equal the wares imported from England.  As this feeling grew, so did the number of potters.  Many greatly expanded their repertoire beyond the “potts and panns” of their forebearers.  Some modern observers believe all this activity didn’t necessarily result in an increase in quality, though.  Many new potteries went belly up within a short space of time.  But in Charlestown, MA, a major New England pottery center,  many potters consistently ranked in the top five percent of tax payers.  Somebody was doing something right.

Boycotts against anything imported caught on.  But people still needed things to put things in.  Redware fit the bill.  It was cheap and it was local.

So, potters as “local heroes?”  An interesting idea.  It might sound strange now, but once upon a time, making mugs was an act of rebellion in this country.

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

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue. Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

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

The Poor Potter is Dead, in Three Parts.

September 17, 2009

Part One:Rogers Jar
The poor potter is Dead, and the Business of making potts and panns  is of little advantage to his family, and as little Damage to the Trade of our Mother Country.”
William Gooch, Royal Governor of Virginia in his 1745 status report to the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations regarding Yorktown potter William Rogers.

Gooch had regularly dismissed this poor potter  to the Commissioners since 1732.  Yet during that time Rogers operated a huge earthenware and stoneware manufactory.  He made everything from crocks to bird houses.  His specialty was Fulham style stoneware mugs, fired in special saggars.

Rogers didn’t just make pottery.  He flaunted it.  His wares were traded (in his own ships)  from New England to the West Indies.   His operation was probably the largest of it’s kind in Colonial America at the time.  I’ve visited his kiln site.  It’s huge.  (It’s not far from where a British army under Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington’s Continental Army and their French Navy allies in the last major military clash of the Revolutionary War thirty four years later.)

Rogers also ran a brewery, was “Surveyor of the Landings, Streets and Cosways in York Town” (allowing him to use his shards to pave streets), and Captain of the Troop.  In short, he was one of the wealthiest people of the colony.

Royal governors were supposed to enforce laws suppressing colonial production of consumer goods.  Such goods were meant to be purchased from factories of metropolitan England.  But many governors, like Gooch, supported the locals by issuing bogus reports about “poor potters” and such.  It’s possible Rogers was just a pottery owner, given the extent of his other activities and his wealth.  Who ever heard of a rich potter?  Still, all existing accounts of him highlight his potting activities.  So I prefer to think of him as the country’s first major pottery figure.

If he wasn’t, why should Gooch mention him at all?

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

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

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

The “Poor Potter” of Yorktown.  C. Malcom Watkins and Ivor Noel Hume.  United States National Museum Bulletin 249.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  1967.

A Recipe for Porcelain

September 3, 2009

Past centuries have not seen porcelains, which are merely a certain mass composed of plaster, eggs, scales of marine locusts and other similar kinds, which mass being well united and worked together, is secretly hidden underground by the father of a family, who informs his children alone of it, and it remains there eighty years without seeing daylight, after which his heirs, drawing it out and finding it suitably adaptable for some kind of work, make out of it those precious transparent vases, so beautiful to the sight in form and color that architects find nothing in them to improve upon.”

Thus wrote Guido Pancirolli in the late 1500’s.  At the time, the hunt was on in Europe for the elusive formula of true porcelain.  There were many alchemists and charlatans who boasted of knowing the secret.  Addressing this muddy state of affairs, Pancirolli offered this further bit of wisdom regarding true porcelain to his readers:

Their virtues are admirable, inasmuch as one puts poison into one of these vessels it breaks immediately.  He who once buries this material never recovers it, but leaves it to his children, descendants, or heirs, as a rich treasure, on account of the profits they derive from it; and it is of far higher price than gold, inasmuch as one rarely finds any of the true material, and much that is sold is unreal.

History of Ceramic Art.  Albert Jaquemart.  Sampson, Lowe Marston, and Searle/London.  1873.