Archive for February, 2010

When Pottery Meant Something

February 28, 2010

First this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened.  Then all that ended and something else happened…  Not very meaningful, of course – unless you’re an outline junkie.

But in the mid 1700’s something actually did happen.  In England anyway.  Super organized pottery factories burst on the scene.  SpodeMintonWedgwood.  Such names as these made the six towns collectively known as Stoke-on-Trent synonymous with exacting precision, a dizzying stylistic range and ruthless marketing – and large numbers of unskilled and child laborers.  Staffordshire’s pottery firms radically changed the face of pottery.  Within decades, they would practically dominate the world.  The one run by Western Europe, at least.

The days of small, family run country potteries were numbered.  An entire way of life would soon disappear.  You’d think these potters would riot.  They didn’t.  The new stuff rolling off the assembly lines hardly impacted  (just yet) the need for “coarseware.”  Staffordshire’s initial target was more up-scale.  Like pewter.

Pewterers and other high-end craftspeople had enjoyed a monopoly on most upper class tables for generations.  To them, the rise of Staffordshire meant disaster.  An Exeter newspaper article of April 4, 1776 says it all:

“Last week the tinners in Cornwall rose in consequence of the introduction into that country of such large quantities of Staffordshire and other earthenware.  About a hundred in a body went to Redruth, on the market day, and broke all the wares they could meet with, the sale of which was intended in that town.  From thence they went to Falmouth for the same purpose, and because they could not force their way into the Town Hall, where a large parcel of Staffordshire and other wares were lodged, they were about to set fire to it, had not Mr. Allison, the printer and alderman of that town, with another gentleman, pacified them, by promising to discourage the sale and use of these wares by every means in their power, and by going to a pewterer’s and bespeaking a quantity of pewter dishes and plates to evince their readiness to serve them.”

A picture paints a thousand words.  Sometimes newspaper articles do too.

Readings:
The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques. Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Story of Craft.  The Craftsman’s Role in Society. Edward Lucie-Smith.  Phaidon/Oxford.  1981.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries. John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

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We’re off to see the Wizard…

February 14, 2010

It wasn’t until we went on the gold standard in 1900 that the US had a unified currency (…the wonderful Wizard of OZ).  Originally, local banks issued local dollars, which were barely recognizable just over the hill.  Coinage, mostly foreign, was scarce.  People used “IOU’s” based on local notions of dollar value.  But as employment in the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution increased…

…blah blah blah…

Let’s face it.  The arcane world of economics is the kiss of death.  Suffice it to say that many early potters bartered their wares.  In 1833, Ohio potter Thomas Ochs bragged about a particularly good deal he swung.  In his journal he wrote:

Today I received a chicken, six loaves of bread, and a goose.  For this I gave a colander, a three gallon jug, a five gallon crock, and six plates.”

If I received these items at today’s prices I would have received:

1 Chicken (live) $15.00
6 Loaves Bread ($4.50/loaf) $27.00
1 Goose (live) $50.00
Total Dollar Value $92.00

For this I would have exchanged (at my current retail prices):

1 Colander $80.00
1 Three Gallon Jug* $270.00
1 Five Gallon Crock** $450.00
6 Plates*** $140.00
Total Dollar Value $920.00

My, how times have changed…

(of course, if you have something worth trading, I might consider a swap)

* I don’t make them, but a gallon jug goes for $90.00, so charging by the gallon, a 3 gallon jug would probably total $270.00.
** again, not in my repertoire, so taking the $90/gallon estimate it would total about $450.
*** I’ll assume medium sized and plain for use around the house at $20 each x 6 = $140.

Reading:
American Country Pottery.  Don & Carol Raycraft.  Wallace Homestead Books/Des Moines, IA.  1975.

The Roots of Rural Capitalism.  Western Massachusetts, 1790 – 1860.  Christopher Clark.  Cornell University Press/Ithaca, NY.  1990.

Catawba Clay

February 1, 2010

As usual, the Cherokee got all the credit.  Since 1540, when swine flu carried by pigs of Hernan DeSoto’s expedition erased the entire Mississippian Mound Building culture in the blink of an eye, the Cherokee had dominated the Little Tennessee River Valley.  They were Britain’s top trading partner in the area (until after the French Indian War, when they became the colonists’ main target for expansion).  And when pottery history came knocking at the door in 1768, who got the glory?  The Cherokee.

Josiah Wedgwood had heard of a fabled pure white clay deep in the interior of North Carolina.  He contracted Thomas Griffiths to collect samples.  Griffiths traveled from Charleston, SC to Fort Prince George, NC, the furthest colonial outpost.  There, he was asked to escort home a Cherokee woman recently rescued from the clutches of a rival tribe.  Lucky for Griffiths, as the Cherokee soon captured him.  What were they to make of this lone white boy in the middle of a free fire zone claiming to be ‘just out looking for clay?’

The squaw saved Griffiths.  But those “Strainge Copper Collour’d Gentry” drove a hard bargain.  It took plenty of eating, drinking, smoking, and “Strong Talk” (and 500 pounds sterling) to get at the “unaker” clay pits.  Griffiths shipped out enough material for Wedgwood to create the exact clay body needed for his masterpiece, the Portland Vase, and to kick off his fabulously successful Queen’s WareBow Pottery also used this clay, still called “unaker” in Mitchell County, NC, to make England’s first true porcelain.

In the shadow of the Cherokee, the Catawba, a small neighboring tribe, existed for generations.  But the Catawba had one main distinction; their pottery.  Other tribes made pots.  The Catawba, specifically their women, were veritable ‘Pottery Indians.’  Pottery was their primary occupation.  Pottery held the tribe together.  And continues to do so.  Cherokee families with Catawba wives became pottery families as well.

Was it possible the Catawba had a hand (even a minor one) in Griffiths’ saga?  It’s clear Griffiths dealt with the proud, powerful Cherokee.  But Fort Prince George, the Little Tennessee River and Mitchell County roughly formed the border between Cherokee and Catawba lands.  Who would best know the value of the unaker clay pits?  A family married into the Catawba tradition might.  The historical record falls silent.

Any recognition the Catawba have garnered in recent years has been well deserved.  But if they did play a part in the creation of the Portland Vase, Queen’s Ware, and England’s first porcelain, I for one would like to see that acknowledged.

Readings:
Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

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

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.