Archive for February, 2012


February 19, 2012

Benjamin Dodge began a redware pottery shop in Portland, ME in 1798 at 24 years of age.  Other Maine potters of the time sought to build huge manufacturing empires.  Benjamin took a more creative path.

His specialty was elaborately decorated jars and pitchers.  He would often incorporate the initials of the person ordering the item into it’s decoration.  Apparently his work made quite an impression.  According to a later (anonymous?) reminiscence:

“Busts of people received more care.  Most of these were in profile.  After the pieces were finished they were set in another room to dry, and it was a favorite amusement with some bad boys, whom the good man tolerated notwithstanding, to disfigure the human faces by drawing down the corners of the mouths to produce a ludicrous expression.  This disfiguring, the potter did not observe until it was too late to mend, and it was fired in the kiln with the others, set away on the shelf, and sold at reduced prices.”

The 1825 U.S. tour of the Marquis de Lafayette inspired potters across the country to commemorative themes.  When Lafayette passed through Portland, Benjamin made pieces sporting “what purported to be a likeness of Lafayette.”

Dodge’s artistic talents kept the pottery going long enough to pass it on to his son, Benjamin Junior.  Sadly, the old man began suffering what was then called “melancholy” and ultimately killed himself on June 1, 1838.

Benjamin Jr ‘took the wheel’ as the stoneware industry was carving out huge slices of the market, ultimately swamping most redware potters.  But Benjamin Jr saw opportunity where others saw a dead end.  He minimized the type of work offered and exploited qualities of earthenware 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.  Some of his flower pots with this glaze can still be seen at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.  Terms included the de riguer “Country produce taken in exchange for ware.”

One of the longest lived and most creative redware potteries in Maine closed upon Benjamin Jr’s death in 1875.  Like his father, Benjamin Jr died by his own hand.

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

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

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

How To Drink Switzel

February 5, 2012

It sounds disgusting but it really isn’t that bad.  Water, ginger, vinegar, and molasses.  Switzel.  Think of it as an early Gatorade.  Especially when chilled.  But we’ll get back to that…

The “switzel ring” was just one of a long line of usages for the ring shaped jug.  This jug was essentially a disc shaped canteen

Ring Jug by Stephen Earp

with usually two but sometimes four loop handles along its shoulders.  Certain types, like the marbled “Pilgrim Jugs” from Northern Italy and eastern France (circa 15-17th century), had an attached base.  Others, like the  English “Costrel Jug,” (circa 15 – 17th century) were simply two plates fused together.  But most were a thrown hollow ring.  The ring could be short and thick, like those of the North Carolina Moravians.  Or extremely wide and thin.  Some were glazed redware, some salt fired stoneware.  Some were highly ornate, others plain.

This unusual shape could be found as far away as Russia and Ukraine, where ice was packed in the middle to dispense chilled vodka or kvass (rye beer).  Far away from Europe and long after these times, some modern Cubans use unglazed pedestaled rings filled with water and put in front of fans as a sort of passive air conditioner.  But anything this unusual and somewhat difficult to throw was (and is) as much an excuse to show off one’s potting skills as to provide any particular function.

And of course, some early American farmers drank switzel from it.  But why use a hollow ring, and not just a regular jug?  You might imagine it was so they could be slung through the arm and stuffed in the hot,  grimy, sweaty armpit of the farmer on his way to mow his hay fields – unless you’ve actually tried to do that.  Awkward, yes.  But mostly just gross.

Very soon you’ll come to agree that it’s far better to find a shady spot along a creek, lay the ring jug in it, and put a stick through it’s circle into the mud to keep it from floating away.  The enormous amount of surface area of the switzel ring in the water will keep it cool until break time.

…Nice cool switzel.  Just the way it should be drank.