Archive for April, 2010

Beaker People

April 25, 2010

Some say it’s the fringe characters that prevent stagnation and propel a society forward.  Others might counter that the fringe hasn’t done the United States any favors since the year 2000.  Lunacy aside, one thing is sure.  Rogue potters have left an indelible impact on the greater story of European and American ceramics.

One could almost say it all began with such scoundrels.  As the Late Neolithic moved into the Early Bronze Age, a raucous band scourged across Europe.  They began near the mouth of the Tagus River in Portugal and split into two paths, one roughly following the Atlantic coast northwards and the other arching through Italy, central Europe and Germany.  They eventually met up again in the British Isles.  There they made some major additions to Stonehenge, turning it more into what we know it as today.  Then they faded into obscurity.

Not much else is known about these people.  Except that they seemed to be good potters.  That is, their principle calling card (for modern archeologists anyway) was a distinct type of pottery with horizontal bands of geometric patterns.  Their most recognized form was a pitcher, or “beaker,” with a somewhat oversized but functional spout shaped like the lower mandible of a parrot’s beak.  The parrot beak spout survived long after its makers faded away.  It was not uncommon even on early Italian maiolica ewers.  The spout decanted wines from Bordeaux and followed the wine trade from that region into 14th century Plantagenet England.

The prevalence of those pre-historic beakers, and the continued association of their distant offspring with wine and alcohol, led some archeologists to speculate that they may have been used in rituals “dedicated to some fermented drink.”   If that was so, the theory continues, then perhaps their makers peddled intoxicating brews – served in those beakers – as one method of subjugating invaded populations.

Who knows?  In any event, to this day we that’s how we identify them: as the “Beaker People.”

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Kids at Bay

April 11, 2010

Potteries have always been gathering spots.  The timeless wonder of watching someone throw is hypnotic.   And anyone who’s taken part in a wood firing knows the communal atmosphere of those events.  Back in the day, kiln firings also meant free heat.  Potters often advertised, word of mouth or otherwise, to “bring your beans to bake in exchange for small favors.”  Usually garden produce, eggs, or whatnot.

The amount of mindless jobs needed to keep a shop going (then and now) made curious kids easy prey for grunt labor.  Ebenezer Corliss founded the largest pottery in Yarmouth, ME in 1806 and turned it over to his son-in-law David Cleaves in 1850.  In the 1930’s Augustus Corliss fondly looked back on life around the pottery:

“Uncle David’s shop was a favorite resort for the small boys, although at times he made it very lively for them with the hoop used by the potters in carrying their ware from the wheel to the drying board.  The boys used to be paid one cent to sit upon the sweep of the clay mill and keep the horse going while the clay was being ground, which took about an hour, – During the burning of the ware it became necessary to keep up the fire for several days and nights, and it was the custom of the young men to collect there every night and play old sledge, raffle for turkeys, or hustle for coppers.”

But sometimes the hanging on could take a different turn.  The Norwich Pottery Works of Norwich, CT was located in such a way that kids could come barreling through the shop with arms outstretched, wreaking as much havoc as possible before running out the other end.

Then there was Joseph Proctor of Glouster, MA.  Joseph was a descendant of John Proctor, executed during Salem Witch Trials.  Joseph had big ambitions (and a big dowery).  Besides a sizeable pottery (operating from 1766-1799) he ran a cooper shop and mills for chocolate, corn, and wheat.  His fleet of schooners traded pottery and dried fish in the West Indies for the cocoa for his mill.  Joseph played violin in a local band and he loved a good joke.  These attributes only added to the lure of going down to watch his workmen throw.  But how to keep the kids at bay?  Joseph’s solution was to put the word out that his property was haunted.  The spirit even had a name; Uncle Suts.

It was a different time…

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

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