Archive for April, 2012

The Potter’s Examiner; “Wisconsin Or Bust”

April 29, 2012

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  As when the Dragoons were called out to encircle the town of Berslem, Staffordshire, in January 1837.  Their mission – to keep the “Great Strike” of the recently formed National Union of Operative Potters from spreading to the other 5 towns of Stoke-on-Trent.

The potters’ organizing effort had been, as usual, a long painful journey.  (For details just follow any current labor struggle, which you should do anyway.)  In the end, a splintered Potters Union collapsed after extracting some weak half-measures from factory owners.

William Evans ran a radical, pro union Stoke-on-Trent newspaper called “The Potter’s Examiner.”  When the strike failed he began pushing an idea that had been gurgling around the edges of the issue.  To hell with this place!  Let’s all move to Wisconsin where we can make pots in peace:

“Fly to the most liberal institution of present man; to the untaxed plains, rivers, and lakes of a free country…”

The territory of Wisconsin (present day Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa) was America’s frontier.  The outer fringe of civilization.  But America was marching westward.  Individual potters had been emigrating to the promised land for over a century.  Then came the union wars.  Enough was enough!

The Potters’ Joint Stock Emigration Society and Savings Fund was set up in 1844.  In a tizzy over the idea of emigration, newborn children were named “America” and “Freedom.”  Potters renamed their streets “America,” “Madison” and “Washington.”   In 1847 the first group made it to Wisconsin.  Their raw, undeveloped tract was dubbed “Pottersville.”  They had to start from scratch – and ultimately ended up with as much.  The last vestiges of Pottersville, northeast of Pardeeville, WI., were torn down in 1989.

Those that stayed home eventually did get their union.  Just as demand began dropping precipitously.  Just as a gazillion ex-patriot factories started up in America…


The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.  John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

A Greedy Cup

April 15, 2012

It was grotesque.  It was a curio.  A whimsy.  It was any odd ball ceramic item (using these descriptive terms) that didn’t easily fit into otherwise serious functional categories.  Humor often had something to do with it.  Such items seemed to proliferate in the 18th -19th centuries; the puzzle jug, the face jug, the toby jug, mugs with a model frog or lump of shit in the bottom, whistles, ring jugs, toy figures, fuddling cups (somewhat earlier), etc.  Perhaps clay just brings out a particular sense of humor in people…

These “grotesqueries” tended to be made by and for the unwashed masses.  The upper crust had it’s own selection of  “follies.”   These were in no way limited to extravagances like the entire rooms of porcelain made for Augustus the Strong – or even ceramic items at all.  The 14th century Count Robert of Artois excelled in bizarre garden statues that squawked like parrots at passers by and conduits that “wet the ladies from below,” etc. etc. etc.

But back to pottery.  The penchant for curiosity was, of course, universal to every culture with a ceramic history.   Nor was production of such whimsies confined by era.  During the Greek Classical era (500bc) a unique drinking cup was made on the island of Samos.  The intent, seemingly, was to discourage over consumption of wine.

This was the “Greedy Cup.”  It had a tube running up the length of its stem and into the bowl of the cup.  A hollow column in the bowl covered the tube.  A small hole was pierced in the column.    If the cup was filled too full, the pierced column and inner tube design would allow enough hydrostatic pressure to create a siphon, sucking out the entire contents of the cup (onto the lap of the poor sot holding it).

Some believe that anything this ingenious had to be designed by a mathematician.  The most famous mathematician of Samos was Pythagoras, so the cup was also credited to him.

Pythagoras as potter specializing in practical jokes?  That’s a curious, maybe even grotesque, notion.


If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century.  Barbara Tuckman.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1978.

A Dozen Dozen Dozen

April 1, 2012

Early 19th century price sheets often sported ornate headers, flowing script, fancy borders and detailed images of items being offered.  Some almost have the feel of ‘rock concert posters’ of the time.  Prices were generally listed by the dozen.  We understand this today to mean 12 per item.

It wasn’t always like that.  In colonial and Federalist times a rural potter might instead sell by the pound.  Selling by the pound evolved (mostly) from a (mostly southern) English unit called a “cast” – the amount of clay used to make a certain quantity of pots.  As Peter Brears describes it, “a single 18 inch flowerpot made up one cast, as did 72 2½ inch or 60 3 inch plant pots.”  One only need specify how many casts one wanted and how much to pay per cast.  Simple.

Selling by capacity was another way to do business (ie; so many gallons of crocks).  Once again this counting method derived (mostly) from the (mostly northern) English “dozen.”  Dr. Robert Plot, a 17th century chronicler of English potteries, explained in 1686 that a “dozen” referred to the number of pots which, combined, held a dozen quarts.  So 24 pint vessels counted as a dozen, as did 6 two pint vessels.  This method of counting was used into the early 19th century.

At some point counting by capacity of pots gave way to counting by quantity of pots.  Robert Copeland’s thrilling late night read “Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” states, “‘The count to the dozen’ was determined by the number of a given size that would fit on a standard size of work board.”

You had to have been there.

The ‘count to the dozen’ further morphed into a long dozen, a short dozen, a sea dozen, a land dozen, etc., etc., etc.  As even these terms varied between potteries the original concept of “a dozen” meaning “12″ was set adrift.  Again, in the words of  Peter Brears, “the dozen ceased to be a rational standard unit.”

Prices today are based on a more precise mathematical formula: Cost doubled = wholesale.  Wholesale doubled = retail.  (Of course this is just a rule of thumb, even then not entirely shared by everybody….)


Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg, VA.  2011.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.