Archive for December, 2012

Practical Anthropology

December 23, 2012

It’s been asked a million times about a million things when studying the past.  Why did they do it that way?  What were they thinking?

When it comes to 17th –18th century Western European tea, coffee and chocolate pots (as it so often does) why did only the teapots have long spouts?  Only the coffee pots have elongated bodies?  Only the chocolate pots have a pinched spout like a pitcher?  Perhaps the safest answer would be ‘you just had to have been there.’

But there are other interpretations.  Chocolate was a thick liquid compared to coffee and tea.  It simply didn’t pour well from a long skinny spout.  Coffee used a substantial amount of grounds to brew.  The pot’s body had to compensate for that.  And of course tea only required a strainer to decant the thin liquid.  Here there was much more liberty of form.

Great.  So why did Western European chocolate mugs sport handles long before coffee or tea cups?  We know this in large part through research on the excavated remains of the VOC Geldermarlsen which sank in the straights of Malacca on January 3, 1752 on it’s return voyage to The Netherlands from Canton, China.  Cross referenced invoices back in Rotterdam clearly specified handled chocolate mugs decades before handles appeared on tea or coffee cups.

The answer?  Maybe chocolate (unlike tea, anyway) was understood to be drunk hot.  Maybe tea and coffee were destined more for public houses where bowls were (at least initially) commonly passed around.  Maybe everything could have had handles – or not – and further inference shouldn’t be extrapolated from one smashed up old ship.

Or maybe it’s just best to stick with ‘you had to have been there.’  The debate rages on.

Readings:

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain.  CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

 

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Cheesequake

December 9, 2012

Cheesequake potters were lucky.  The little village lay next to a massive deposit of excellent stoneware clay in the Amboy region of New Jersey.  The Morgan family in Cheesequake owned the deposit.  These master potters, along with their allies the Warne and Letts families, dominated Jersey markets during the late Colonial era.

Potters near navigable waterways throughout the Colonies could purchase Morgan’s clay.  The combined Crolius and Remmey clans of New York City were particularly important customers.  These two long standing pottery families intermarried, with shops always next to each other.  Their territory significantly overlapped that of the Morgans.  But unlike Morgan, they did not sit atop hectares of superlative clay.  A previous source on “Potbakers Hill” in lower Manhattan had been swallowed up by the fast growing metropolis.  Today that spot is called “City Hall.”

So the New York Crolius/Remmey’s were dependent on the New Jersey Morgans.  Maybe their relationship was amicable.  But why was William Crolius lurking about on 1786-90 Amboy NJ tax roles?  Poking around for an exposed seam off of Morgan’s property?

The British, ever aware of the value of a good pot shop, sent a raiding party on August 8, 1777, to ransack Continental Captain (later General) James Morgan’s stoneware shop during the Revolutionary WarJohn Crolius lost his pottery to the Red Coats a year earlier due to his patriot proclivities.

After the war, thanks to canals and (eventually) railroads, Morgan’s clay almost single handedly supplied the 19th century avalanche that became The Age of American Stoneware.  The Remmey/Crolius clan withered on it’s lofty perch in Manhattan.

But the Crolius/Remmeys seem to have not given up easily.  Joseph Henry Remmey owned the Morgan pottery for a time in 1820.  In 1822 Catherine Bowne, James Morgan’s granddaughter, obtained the shop and ran it until 1835.  Clay supply success eventually eclipsed the Morgan’s own pottery business.  Potters everywhere now worked with their clay.

About all that remains of the Morgan, Werne and Letts potteries, the Crolius and Remmey potteries, and the Amboy pits themselves is archeological interest.  You can still study mute examples of this fabled material – thrown, fired and salted – in museums and Historical Societies.  But if you took a Morgan jug out from a glass case today and put it’s mouth to your ear, like a sea shell, maybe you could hear the battles that once raged over those clay pits.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland Vt.  1971.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

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

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

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