Lady’s Slippers

A great thing happens on the hills overlooking my town in early June.  The lady’s slippers blossom.  These ‘slipper’ or lung shaped orchids grow wild here.  Years of avid lady’s slipper appreciation has made them almost extinct.  They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.  But in the mid 1800’s they grew outside many a potter’s door.  They were a favorite of the stoneware slip decorators.  Or maybe they were just a safe bet.

Just about anything could be – and was – fodder for decoration.  Nautical scenes, imaginary animals, sarcastic cartoons, brazen political sloganeering.  Many of these had that “keep me” look, saving them from the trash pit.  But specialized motifs could backfire.  Maybe the crock would travel inland where nautical scenes wouldn’t make sense.  Maybe the bizarre animal or the sarcasm would fall flat or insult.  Who would want that in their kitchen?  Even the Bald Eagle, symbol of the United States, could rub the wrong way.  Perhaps the party in office was a bungling, corrupt monstrosity seeking refuge behind the flag…

But flowers were safe.  Lady’s slippers were (and are) a visually distinct form, masterfully executed by various decorators whose names are now forgotten.  Mostly.  The Smith Pottery in Norwalk, CT, employed a man named Chichester who’s slip trailed penmanship was renowned.

And it wasn’t uncommon for potters to employ their daughters as decorators.  Trailing tools could be passed down to next in line when a girl ‘reached age.’  Some even hold that Maria Crafts Kellog, niece of Thomas Crafts, only decorated jugs and crocks made in Whately MA (because “women didn’t make pottery…”).

Another “in house” arrangement was to own the decorators.  Many southern plantation potteries employed male slaves for throwers and female slaves for decorators.  The plantation owner was the ‘potter’ – he owned the pottery.

In other parts, itinerant decorators might have followed itinerant throwers.  As late as the 1930’s vagrant throwers stayed long enough to fill the shop, earn enough to buy a bottle, and move on.  I’ve only seen passing mention of itinerant decorators.  But their existence can be inferred in the uniformity of design on pots from a variety of places.

Of all the possible decorating methods, I feel the itinerant slippers present the most intimate definition of genuine folk art expression.  Something spanning time and space.  I like that image.

Readings:
Lura Woodside Watkins.

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

American Stonewares. Georgeanna Greer.  American Stonewares.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

A Guide to Whately Potters. Henry Baldwin.  Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA.  1999.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Raised in Clay. Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

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3 Responses to “Lady’s Slippers”

  1. popodepok Says:

    interesting, i learn something new today

  2. Danielle Elliott Says:

    Thanks for the informative post. It helped me a lot. May the Force be with you.

  3. The Era of Good Feelings | This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] Which brings us to James Monroe (1817-1825).  He too had his day.  But presidential portrait pottery had begun it’s decline.  Not so much because of the Monroe Doctrine, but because English firms were catching on to what American potters already knew.  Politics as decoration can be a hard sell.  Practically no American pottery company bothered with political imagery until the election of 1840.  Landscapes, flowers, and famous places were partisan neutral. […]

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