First Prize

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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3 Responses to “First Prize”

  1. Legacy « This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] unavailable in stoneware; exotic glazes.  A particularly striking green glaze earned him a diploma in 1839 at the Second Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association.  […]

  2. Rock Will Cover It « This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] these shores, Rockingham by James Bennett of Pittsburg PA won the 1845 Franklin Institute pottery diploma.  Trenton NJ was an epicenter of production, with (émigré) Daniel Greatbatch as perhaps […]

  3. Never Do This | This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] was a “must see” stop on visitors’  itinerary for Philadelphia.  Tucker even won medals in 1827 from the Franklin Institute and in 1831 from the American […]

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