Archive for October, 2012

On The Road Again

October 28, 2012

potter

You arrive after a nine hour drive.  Your spot is half taken over by another vendor, unwittingly moved there by promoters with too much going on to know better.  Your new spot puts you right where the wind hits hardest and the sun blasts down on you all day.  The promoters schedule all sorts of musicians, games and other “family friendly” activities to make the show “more attractive.”  This strategy works: parents flock to the show looking only to cheaply entertain their kids.  The few actual buyers are equally distracted by all the fun…

Anyone who scratches out a living selling pots at craft fairs can tell this story.  Booth fees, hotel expenses, gas, food, several days away from the shop.  And for what?

Selling pots was a different game in the early 18th century.  Peddlers strapped wooden boxes full of pots on their backs and walked from town to town until everything was sold.  Rain or shine.  In England, both makers and buyers had a name for these particular peddlers.  “Potters” of course.  It was an excruciatingly limited career.  English “potters” disappeared with the rise of toll roads, canals and trains.

But those days aren’t really past.  Women potters in rural Central America still do this.  They balance pots atop their heads and set out on foot to the nearest market town, often several hours away.  Once there they walk the streets hoping to sell.  They can’t be out too late or the walk home will be in the dark.  Very dangerous.  They’re exhausted, with many pots often unsold.  Just then “middle men” in trucks appear out of nowhere.  They offer pennies for the unsold pots.  Everybody knows these guys will drive to much better market areas and make far greater profits.  But what choice is there?

The daughters of these potters see how hard the work is.  How dirty it is.  How little pay there is.  Various “free trade” agreements flood market towns (their life blood) with cheap plastic stuff from China.  It’s no surprise that pottery, once a defining aspect of the local culture, is rapidly fading.  The loss is staggering.

…Back at that silly “family friendly” show, one ponders the arc of progress over the course of years and miles.

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

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

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Jugtown, USA

October 14, 2012

“Get big or get out.”
Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, Nixon Administration.

They say potters make good cooks.  Some do.  More to the point, for ages having things to put things in was crucial to subsistence survival.  (Not that anything’s changed, we just don’t think about it as such).  Obviously diet dictates the containers we need for processing, storing and eating food.  Just as obviously potters across the globe have made these containers for centuries – thus the cooking assumption.

Potters used to congregate where clay deposits and transportation routes coincided to best accomplish their work.  Early on in the US such communities were called “jugtowns.”  Imagine a US map with a shot gun blast through it.  That would be a jugtown map.  They were scattered everywhere.  Some big, many small.  They began in places like Yorktown VA to Charleston MA and beyond.

Some jugtowns got bigger and more organized as time went by and pottery technology evolved.  Particularly in pottery neighborhoods of Bennington VT, Utica and Albany, NY, Portland, ME, Trenton, NJ, and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

But all that was prologue.  The big break out followed the westward migration across Indian lands.  Gigantic jugtowns – factory towns really – sprouted up, pushed west by the railroads.  East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.  After Redwing, new jugtowns were unnecessary.  By then railroads could deliver crockery just about anywhere.

But something else was at play.  Advances in glass, canning and refrigeration radically changed food preparation, storage and even menus.  The need for things to put things in was forever altered.  Big proved fatal.  Pottery faded to irrelevance.

The food industry certainly made pottery important.  But food almost killed pottery as well.  Interest in hand made pottery was just barely kept alive through China painting, the Arts and Crafts movement, and (later) even the GI Bill.  But then Ray Kroc and his ilk whacked us with “fast food.”  There’s little need for a plate or even a paper bag when eating a sandwich, burger or wrap.

About all that’s left for potters today is the ‘moral high ground’ of aesthetics.  This was evident even in the founding of “Jugtown” NC back in 1922.  Nice, but not critical to most household budgets.

Of course many modern potters can eloquently defend their existence.  Still, without a clear idea of where we’re coming from how do we know where we’re going to?

Readings:
American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

Clay in the Hands of the Potter.  Rochester Museum and Science Center.  An exhibition of pottery manufacture in the Rochester and Genesee Valley Region c. 1793-1900.  1974.

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts.  Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

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

Turners and Burners.  Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Prerss/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.