Archive for May, 2010

Kublai Khan

May 23, 2010

In 1271 Kublai Khan, grandson of the legendary Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, invaded China, ended the Northern Sung Dynasty, and set up his own Yuan Dynasty.  And if you look on your kitchen shelves today, you might well see cans of soups, beans and other food items.

Admittedly, the ubiquitous modern tin can would probably have been invented regardless of the activities of rampaging Medieval horsemen from the Asian Steppes.  But seen through the lens of pottery history, the tin can embodies a curious echo of that far distant past.

Here’s how it went (pared down to four easy paragraphs):
1)  Apart from conquering and pillaging, the Mongols excelled in organizing vast stretches of territory.  Among other things, they exported Chinese pharmacological lore to the far reaches of their empire, in this case Arabia.  These medicinal herbs were stored in ceramic cylinders, often ‘wasp waisted’ for easy withdrawal from shelves (the Chinese originally used bamboo containers) and indented near the rim to facilitate a fabric tied around the top.

2)  The Arabs knew a good thing when they saw one, or two; the medicine and the jars.  They made their own versions of both, which in turn became popular in Renaissance Italy.  Once again, various Italian cities formed an entire industry around these “Albarelos.”  The Victoria Albert Museum in London has a fabulous collection of Italian tin glazed, enameled drug jars.

3)  Albarelos spread throughout Europe.  They spawned the Delftware industry in Holland.  And they eventually arrived in England as “gallipots,” named, some believe, after the manner of their transport – on large Venetian Galleys, or perhaps as containers commonly found in ships’ galleys.  (Others used the term to denote Delftware, others still just took it to mean anything made out of clay…)  Anyway, the English took gallipots to their new colonies in North America, where they were made well into the 19th century.

American Gallipot by Stephen Earp Redware4)  Being such a generic, therefore useful, shape, the American gallipot took on many roles, from storing drugs, to cooking, to preserving.  Ultimately, the mid 19th century expansion of the glass jar industry replaced the gallipot, or “corker” as it was called by then.  And from the glass jar, it was a short walk to the nearest dry goods grocer for the late century tin can revolution…

…I suppose you could say that the modern re-useable yogurt container is the latest incarnation of this journey begun by Kublai Khan.

But that would be ridiculous.

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

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Press/Boston.  1968.

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics. 13th through 19th Cenuries.  Florence and Robert Lister ed.s.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

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Drinkers, Dunkards, Kettles and a Robin.

May 9, 2010

Throughout the history of polite conversation, the spouting off of unorthodox religious ideas has sometimes led to awkward moments where eyes stray to other parts of the room.  Likewise, any reference to obscure religious heresies while discussing pottery making ought to be, well, irrelevant.  Except when those topics crossed paths in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts.

Case in point; Phillip Drinker.  Phillip was the first recorded potter in the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Charlestown, across the bay from Boston.  He arrived in 1635 on the ship “Abigail” when he was 39 years old.  Being the only local potter at the time, his services were needed.  Eventually, Phillip’s son Edward joined the business.  The Drinker Pottery thrived.

Edward’s apprentice James Kettle proved talented.  So much so that James’ own pottery became a sort of finishing school.  Charleston soon became the single most important center for redware production in the New England colonies.  Included in the Kettle roster was Ann MacDugale, the first documented woman potter in colonial America.  Also in that roster was James’ nephew Samuel who boasted another first: probate records made at his death included the earliest known reference of a slave in New England owned specifically for use as a potter.  The slave’s name was Robin.

Later, in Goshen, CT, another scion of the Kettle family trained Jonathan Norton.  Young Jonathan promptly left for Vermont and war.  Norton’s eventual return to pottery forever changed the face of ceramics in America.

But what about the Drinkers?  Edward and his dad made the mistake of believing in the wrong kind of religious freedom.  Their kind didn’t include infant baptism.  Despite the Drinker’s position in town, they were labeled “Anabaptists” by a local chapter of the Dunkards.  This diehard little band of total submersion baptismal fanatics even got Phillip jailed for a time.  They eventually chased the Drinker family out of Charlestown.

All because of a disagreement over when people should be baptized.

So during the Drinkers’ ditching by the Dunkards, the Kettles kept their cool and cleaned up with Robin.  Go figure.

Readings:
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.