Archive for April, 2011

First Prize

April 24, 2011

Describing pottery as “playing with mud” indicates an obliviousness to the amount of work and worry a small business owner puts in daily.  Almost everything we make is far more cheaply available through virtual slave labor in far away places like China, Bangladesh and El Salvador.  Who, besides those with an uncomfortable inkling that we’re really just adrift on a sea of plunder, cares?

Likewise, a common characterization of early pottery emphasizes secondary or seasonal work.  Hardly worth mentioning, even by those who did it.  “Playing with mud.”  But seasonal occupations were diversification.  If the crops failed, then what?  More to the point, the dismissive notion doesn’t jibe with the numerous awards, medals and “diplomas” dispensed to entrants of regional and national competitions throughout the 19th century.

Many of these events were essentially County Fairs – a popular ‘mania’ of the age.  Potters like James Holmes who won the 1852 Yates County, NY Agricultural Fair diploma for “Best Stoneware” eagerly participated.  But even entering one’s ‘seasonal handiwork’ indicates a level of pride in making that anyone today should recognize.

Other competitions were considerably more prestigious.  The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the  American Institute of New York City issued diplomas for outstanding efforts in the arts and sciences (and continue to do so).  Several states had similar Institutes.  Other organizations, like the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic’s Association functioned as sort of self-help groups.

Some potters tried to leverage their successes for broader aims.  Philadelphia’s William Tucker won the Franklin Institute’s 1827 gold medal and the American Institute’s 1831silver medal for his hard-paste porcelain. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to convince President Jackson to establish favorable tariff terms on French porcelain.

While these competitions spurred artisans to their best efforts, the results weren’t always clear.  The 1826 Franklin Institute gold medal went to Jersey City Porcelain for “best china made from American materials.”  Jersey City Porcelain was the only entrant.  In 1841 Barnabas Edmands and Charles Collier were the sole entrants for the Franklin Institute’s stoneware diploma.

In presenting the diploma, the Institute added “…the covers to the articles were not made with that care and fitness which they deem highly necessary; and they felt surprised that the articles showing such a high state of improvement in the art, should not have met with a greater share of attention in this respect.”

In short, they won the prize but the lids didn’t fit.

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

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.  1939.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

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

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

Southern Folk Art.  Cynthia E. Rubin (ed.).  Oxmoor House/Birmingham AL.  1985.

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Teapot as Teapot

April 10, 2011

Traveling south on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, just past Exit 23 for Whately (near mile marker 32.2), you can see on the right at the end of a frontage road an old farmhouse facing the highway.  Originally, this house faced north, perpendicular to the road.  It was moved sideways to avoid demolition when I 91 was built.  Somebody knew who used to live there and didn’t think the place should be razed, it’s history forgotten.  At the beginning of the 19th century it was the home of Thomas Crafts. Thomas Crafts Portrait

Here in 1806 Thomas Crafts began a lead glazed earthenware  “Tea  Pot Manufactory.”  He, a younger brother and a boy employed to wedge clay threw 2,067 dozen teapots a year for 27 years.  Some sold locally, but most went to New York and Pennsylvania, at $1.00/doz. wholesale.  That a rural potter in the early 1800’s could successfully compete with English “Brown Betty” teapots was remarkable.

Anyone lucky enough to have held a Crafts teapot can understand the feat.  His teapots were impeccable.  Paper thin.  Their super glossy jet black glaze needed two firings, unusual for any redware pottery at the time.  Sanford Perry, another Whately potter, developed the technique in1805, basing it on the “Jackfield” glaze originally from Shropshire, England.

Rumor had it that Crafts stole the Jackfield recipe, then muscled Perry out of town in 1822.  The actual record is more honorable (and amiable).  Perry voluntarily sold the recipe to Crafts (they may have been partners) and moved back to Troy NY, his hometown, to get into the more profitable stoneware business.

The Crafts manufactory marked the transition from rural pottery to factory.  Thomas certainly saw it that way.  He trained several brothers, sons, nephews, and at least one niece in the trade.  He probably also trained Stephen Orcutt, head of the Orcutt potting clan.  Crafts switched to stoneware when river and canal transportation allowed shipping of Amboy, NJ stoneware clay to Whately in 1833.  Soon thereafter he exported his pots and his progeny all over New England.

A curious window into the mentality of the Crafts family during that time can be seen in a bizarre “grotesque” pitcher they made at the beginning of the stoneware business in 1833.  An ugly face was applied to the front and “United We Stand Divided We Fall, 1833” stamped on the back.

But a Crafts teapot is, for me, the quintessential expression of a classic form.  Every element necessary to the pot’s function and precisely proportioned.  Absolutely harmonious.  No superfluous decoration.  No attempt to be anything but a teapot.  Teapot as teapot.  Perfection.

Crafts Teapot

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

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts. Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware. Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.