Archive for September, 2012

Progress

September 30, 2012

Post-holiday winter means plunging income and skyrocketing expenses.  Short cold days.  Long cold nights.  Not good for difficult or depressing stories.  Those are best left for warmer days…

And so (before it gets too cold) the tale of Jabez Vodrey.  His biography runs as follows; 1797, born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent; Worked lathes in the Stoke potteries and in Derbyshire; 1827, emigrated to the US; Worked in several places; Produced America’s first Mocha ware; 1860, died.  Sons carried on the trade. 

So far so good.  But the devil is in the details.  Imagine leaving everything you’ve known, knowing you’ll never see it again.  Leaping into the unknown.  This was Jabez Vodrey’s lot.  Many English potters had emigrated to the US with varying success.  The clay was rumored to be fine.  The market certainly was.  Why not move closer to the action, bypass those who drove you from your job?

Jabez and his wife Sarah (a decorator) first went to Pittsburgh.  But finding the right materials to make “fineware” (anything resembling English imports) proved impossible.  Besides, imports ruled.  Serious local competition was quickly squashed.  Start over again. 

An offer came from Jacob Lewis in Louisville, KY in 1829.  Shipping imports up past the Ohio Falls and into town was difficult and expensive.  And Louisville had tantalizingly good raw materials.  This could be the place to finally produce American fineware, safely away from cheap, soul-crushing imports. 

Still, without internet or consistent supply systems it was no easy task to produce even the little that Jabez’s group did.  But all evidence indicates they successfully produced American’s first  fineware Mocha.

A canal opened in 1834, allowing large freighters to bypass the falls.  A marvel of modern progress!  So where was Jabez when he read the headlines?  Coming soon, Stoke’s finest!  At the lowest prices ever!

Jabez probably saw it coming.  But how many times can a person pack up and move on?  He had been chased to the edge.  Imports always won.  Why bother anymore?  Jabez eventually landed in the next great pottery boom town, East Liverpool, OH.  There he and his family, like many others, would make their last stand.

But on that day in 1834 he surely felt he had lost everything he knew.  Again.  All in the name of pottery. 

Readings
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  University Press of New England/Hanover NH.  2001.

Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

 

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Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

Readings:
Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.

A Different Tale

September 2, 2012

It’s been said that with enough time a cage full of monkeys randomly pounding on typewriters could produce the entire works of Shakespeare.  Sadly, the internet has been around long enough to disprove that theory.  The moral to this story?  One should always look over one’s shoulder when confronting data.

Case in point: the porringer.

Examples of this small, handled, shallow bowl that date from as late as the 15th century could have knobbed feet and one or two flat eared handles.  Examples from the 17th century might have loop handles.  By the 18th century, they generally dropped down to a single looped handle.  From the early 19th century they got a little deeper in capacity.  Porringers have been made in almost every lead-glazed earthenware production center of Europe and (Europeanized) America.

It’s ironic that early cups without handles (bowls) were commonly used for drinking, while bowls with handles (cups) were commonly used for eating.

As to it’s name, Dictionary.com describes the “porringer” as:

“Late 15c., alteration of potynger from potage (see pottage) by influence of porridge, with intrusive -n- by 1530s (cf. passenger, messenger).  1515–25; variant of earlier poddinger, akin to late Middle English potinger, nasalized variant of potager, Middle French.”

Sounds reasonable, if somewhat jargony.  Other names and definitions are possible.  For example, “The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain,” tells a very different tale.  In the Encyclopedia small, shallow porridge bowls with handles are called Bagyne Cups:

“…with two flat ears or handles level with the edge of the bowl and projecting horizontally, so-named from the bagynen or beguines, Roman Catholic lay sisters whose order was founded by Lambert Bague the Stammerer.”

So, to name an old bowl as a derivative of porridge, or as the namesake of a stuttering 12th century Monastic bureaucrat?

Got Monkeys?

303 Porringers, Norwalk

Readings
The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

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