Archive for July, 2011

Intellectual Property Rights

July 31, 2011

The music industry is currently awash in copyright battles.  New technologies force everyone to protect their slice of the pie.  The Grateful Dead was one band that addressed this issue early on.  Their ‘open door’ policy of encouraging a cult of bootlegging and brand recycling broadened their reach and helped propel their success.  Many bands today explore similar paths.

But navigating the maze of intellectual property rights issues has never been simple.  Over two centuries ago new technologies in pottery making changed the Decorative Arts landscape.  The use and abuse of patent laws led to an equally complex slate of responses.  Many potters relied on patents and copyrights to assure recognition and appropriate compensation for their discoveries.  Some avoided patents, feeling the required detailed description of a particular technique would only make that technique easier to steal.  The most far-sighted saw the possibilities of a bigger picture.

This situation offers a rare chance to liken Josiah Wedgwood to the Grateful Dead.

In a 1789 letter to Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood wrote:

“So far from being afraid of other people’s getting our patterns we should Glory in it, throw out all the hints we can and if possible have all the Artists in Europe working after our models… With respect to myself, there is nothing relating to business I so much wish for as being released from these degrading slavish chains, these mean selfish fears of other people copying my works.”

Wedgwood never sought patents for his Queen’s Ware.  His logic was interesting.  “Instead of 100 manufacturers selling to the world, it would have been just one amusing England…”

…But he did sue people for stealing his process information.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potters.  John Thomas.  Adams & Dart/London.  1971.

Master Potters of the Industrial Revolution: the Turners of Lane End.  Bevis Hillier.  The Born & Hawes Publishing Co./London.  1965.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Clement Wedgwood.  S. Low, Marston & Co. Ltd/London.  1913.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.  Dennis McNally.  Broadway/New York.  2002.


Mummychung Chowder

July 17, 2011

The Norwich Pottery Works was a popular spot.  Folks in the Bean Hill section of Norwich, CT would remember for years the days spent watching the workmen throwing or helping grind their clay (or in more nefarious activities).  Sidney Risley founded the shop on September 4, 1836.  He was good at promoting his business.  The wagon he sent around the district to peddle his wares always had two big Newfoundland dogs hitched ahead of the horses.  (He also generally paid his workers in shoes, shirts, molasses, potatoes, etc. like many pottery owners at the time – but that’s another story.)

The shop was particularly crowded during firings.  Local lads came around at night to play cards or ‘hustle coppers.’  By day hordes of bean pot wielding neighbors came seeking free heat…

The bean pot was an absolute necessity for the style of cooking then coming into vogue.   A deluge of cook books detailed the many new ways to prepare food as open hearths gave way to Franklin stovesLydia Maria Child’s 1829 “The American Frugal Housewife” was a top seller (until Fanny Farmer’sBoston Cooking-School Cook Book” swept the field in 1896).  Lydia Maria Child was also known for her abolitionism, women’s rights advocacy and anti-expansionist views.  Her book included not just recipes but remedies, advice, and tips for housekeepers.   Bean Pots and Kiln

Nothing tasted the same if not baked in a bean pot.  Potters happily promoted the notion, for obvious reasons.  And many, like the Risley’s, encouraged neighbors to bake their beans near the kiln fire mouth.  Notices to that effect were common in local newspapers.  From a Norwich Packet ad of November 21, 1788: “Baking done as usual and the smallest favors gratefully acknowledged.”  A popular Norwich recipe was Mummychung chowder, made with fish caught in the Yantic River that ran next to the Pottery Works.

…But everything changed on the morning of December 24, 1881.  George Risely, Sydney’s son who had taken over the shop in 1856, came in to turn up the boiler.

The boiler exploded.  All that was left was a crater where the shop used to be.

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.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790 – 1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper and Row/NY.  1989.

The Ghost of Arturo Machado

July 3, 2011

(a brief autobiographical detour)

I worked with Potters for Peace in Nicaragua, Central America, in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.  One of my assignments was in Somoto near the Honduran border, with the Taller de Ceramica Porcelanizada Arturo Machado (The Arturo Machado Porcelaneous Ceramic Studio).  Somoto was for a time hotly contested during the Contra War.  The pottery was a municipal training project for evacuees brought into town to create “free fire zones” in the surrounding countryside.

The Somoto shop made stoneware, utilizing abundant local raw materials particularly suited to high fired work.  The shop was run by Lucilla Figueroa.  Lucilla was the first (and only?) female stoneware potter in the region.  She grew up in nearby Mozonte where she was the only girl accepted into a pottery training project run by a man named Arturo Machado.  Arturo had died prior to my arrival.  Lucilla named the shop in his honor.

Whenever I was in town, I stayed in an apartment attached to the shop.  One night during a firing, Lucilla began talking about Arturo.  She said his ghost often came around at night during firings.  Once he scattered the kindling used to preheat the kiln.  Another night he gave Lucilla electric shocks every time she opened doors.  “So what about him?”  I asked.  “He’s here.  I just heard him,” she said.  Where?  In your room.  Bumping around.

It was about midnight.  I always kept my room locked.  “Yeah, right.”  I went to my door, outwardly disbelieving, but inwardly…

I survived the night (and the year that followed).  Arturo is still probably out there, checking out firings.  Lucilla had a rougher time, but she’ll be the one to tell that story.

The only reason for relating this tale, is as an example of just how deep these people’s roots went into their soil.  They seemed to spring up from the clay they used.  In comparison, I knew practically nothing about the culture that brought me into the world.  I don’t mean it’s history – presidents, wars, TV shows, etc. – I mean the point of it all.  What about my roots?

From time to time we should all ask ourselves that question.