Archive for October, 2009

Luman Norton’s Barn

October 25, 2009

John Spargo was a big fan of the Nortons.  The Norton family of Bennington VT, was a powerhouse pottery dynasty from 1793 to almost to the end of the 19th century.  They initiated or excelled in virtually everything being made at the time; Redware (at first), Rockingham, Yellow ware, Sponge ware, Parian sculptures, Flint Enamel, Agate (“Scroddled”) ware, Granite ware, Porcelain, and of course, that quintessential American classic: salt-fired cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Begun at the foot of a mountain named after Susan B. Antony’s family,  the Nortons were one of a very few American pottery firms to successfully compete with the post-Revolutionary War British pottery invasion.  Bennington was even for a time called “The Staffordshire of America.”

Only the first few generations of Nortons were actual potters, though.  Captain John Norton, his son Luman, and Luman’s son Julius.  Most of the rest were content being local Brahmins, sitting atop the wealth created by their pottery making progenitors.  Except Edward, who tried to revive the then flagging pottery in the late 1880’s.  But he died young.  From then till today, the Norton name became affixed to their refractories and abrasives businesses.

Anyway, John Spargo was a Marxist agitator turned pottery collector (really).  He wrote several books early in the 20th century about American ceramics.  His “The Potters and Potteries of Bennington” is a landmark text.  It’s also a hagiography.  A paean to the Norton family.  The book is peppered with glowing accounts of the Nortons by their friends and neighbors.  The Nortons were gregarious, true enough.  They regularly strolled through the pottery, top hat in hand, chatting with the workers.

Luman, the second of the line, wasn’t as gifted as his father or his son.  But he put the Pottery on a solid footing.  So what a scandal when somebody burned down his barn in 1812!  Shortly after, someone tried to burn the rebuilt barn.  Luman posted night guards to protect it.  This was the very eve of the War of 1812.  A tense time.  Sitting under the stars, I wonder what the guards talked about.  Soon armies would rage across their countryside, possibly directly into their homes…

Luman Norton was, according to Spargo, well liked and well respected.  How ironic, then, that the arsonist wasn’t a British agent or an interloper from any number of rival potteries.  It was one of the trusted boys guarding his barn.

There must be a story here.

Norton Pottery workers

Norton Pottery workers

The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton, NY.  1926.

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

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

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

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

The Poor Potter, Third and Final Part.

October 11, 2009

All the poor potters in the early days of the United States struggled to help their country survive.  But Ben Franklin’s exhortations to produce much and admit little eventually backfired.  Ben’s son, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, sided with the Loyalists during the Revolution.  Charleston, MA, a long standing and major colonial pottery center, was burned to the ground during the British occupation.  Production there never recovered.  Worst of all, the notion of competing with work coming from England morphed into a curious form of self-depreciation.  If locally made fine quality items wanted to sell, they’d do best to not be signed.  That way, they could be passed off as imported.

This mind set developed at least partly because English imports skyrocketed once the Treaty of Paris established American independence in 1782.  Most of England’s manufacturing elites, potter Josiah Wedgwood foremost among them, favored the American cause.  An independent North America was a potentially huge market, free from tax laws regulating trade with colonies.  (And we did become Wedgwood’s largest customer.)  Just as America was beginning to create a national craft identity, England’s Industrial Revolution hit high gear.  We were swamped with foreign-made mass produced goods.

It took the better part of the 19th century for American artisans to move beyond that mountain of cheap stuff and the mental block that came with it.  The spark that got things rolling again was the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.  That watershed moment initiated the first serious reappraisal of the American crafts scene.

But that story is too good, so it’ll have to wait for another time…

Meanwhile, redware production had pretty much died out.  As William Ketchum, author of “American Pottery & Porcelain (Antique Hunter’s Guide),” sadly noted: “The potters have gone, but the clay is still there.”


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

American Pottery & Porcelain (Antique Hunter’s Guide). William Ketchum.  Leventhal Publishers/New York.  2000.