Archive for March, 2011

The Sweep Of History

March 27, 2011

George Brooks was one of the signers of a 1783 petition to John Hancock seeking to establish a settlement at Orrington, ME (then still part of Massachusetts).  He set up a pottery shop there and built the town’s first wind-powered gristmill before 1800.  One of his sons, John Brooks, moved to Cincinnati Ohio shortly thereafter and claimed to have built the first steam powered boat on the Ohio River.

Harrison Nash Brooks began working in great grandpa George’s pottery when he was 7.  He would guide the horse that powered the clay sweep, grinding a batch of clay in about an hour.  He was paid a penny for each batch.  Harrison eventually took over the shop.  By 1873 the shop employed 5 men.  They dug their clay from a nearby riverbank. The shop operated about 10 months out of the year, and annually turned out about $3,500 worth of ware, a small to middling enterprise.

Harrison was never himself a professional potter, but he did like puttering about in the shop.  Some time around the turn of the century he retired and moved to Brewer, ME.  There he set up a little pottery in his garage, where he made a few things and sort of offered pottery classes to friends.

Harrison wasn’t very good with glazes and the several kilns he built over the years never worked very well.  His last project was a huge, newfangled “electric kiln,” costing him over $3,000.  His wife and friends implored him to dismantle the beast before he electrocuted himself.  He finally did without ever having used it.

The pottery he personally made tended to be rather heavy.  His glazes were equally thick and problematic.  His one success was his “Laminated Glaze,” a sort of tiger-striped glaze he made up from scratch.

It seems the only thing that really mattered to Harrison Nash Brooks was just being able to play with clay.  Well, that’s good enough for me.

The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

For Those Who Hated Benjamin Franklin

March 13, 2011

Everybody loves Ben Franklin.  Big, sassy, jovial, quick witted.  In England, many loved and admired his inquisitive mind.  In France he was the friendly face of the American Revolution who, along with dour John Adams, convinced the French to join the cause.  Today, well, everybody just loves him.

English pottery firms scrambled to reclaim the American market after the War of 1812.  They favored American independence – as independent customers, not competitors.   And what better way to regain lost ground than by hyping all the wonderful things about the US on cheap transfer print whitewares?  Popular generals, victorious battles, famous places – it was all grist for the mill.  And of course, a sure fire top seller would be old Ben himself.  Because everybody loved Ben Franklin.

Small whiteware drinking cups and plates with Ben’s sayings plastered all over them were everywhere.  These items seem to have been intended primarily for children.  Much like the “collectible” Star Wars junk that appeared in fast food kids meals from the 1990’s onward.

These dishes sported such Franklinesque pearls as “If you would know the value of money try and borrow some,” “What maintains one vice brings up two children,” “Lost time is never found again,” and “It is easier to suppress the first desire than to gratify all that follow.”

A generation of children grew up staring down at these moralistic lectures.  Seeing them day in and day out must have been a visual equivalent to being told to eat your spinach.  Remember children, Ben knows best.  And besides, everybody loves Ben Franklin…

American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.