Archive for March, 2013

20 Million Flower Pots

March 24, 2013

Everybody loves an underdog, as the saying goes.  But whenever a rural occupation confronts an industrial revolution, doom results. 

In this regard, early American redware potters were singularly marked.  They might marry the tavern keeper’s daughter (lots of business was transacted in taverns) or open a dry goods store (another reliable outlet) to avoid their fate.  Some switched to stoneware.  Some quit altogether.

Others found salvation in flowerpots

Abraham Hews of Weston MA wasn’t thinking this when he opened a redware shop in 1765.  He relied on ‘word-of-mouth’ sales within walking distance of Weston instead of the huge nearby Boston market.  Still, probate records at his death put him solidly in the middle income bracket.  In fact his was to be one of the few redware potteries to remain active, from father to son, until 1871. 

Abraham Hews II had big plans for the shop.  He actually listed himself in tax roles as “potter” (Abraham I only ever called himself “yeoman”).  Things went well, even though Abraham II phased out extraneous slip decoration after 1800 like most New England redware potters would.

But the writing was on the wall by the 1860’s.  The Hews family began the switch to flowerpots, both molded and hand made, to stay alive.  They relocated next to clay pits shared by North Cambridge MA brick makers in 1871. 

The Panic of 1893 erased  North Cambridge’s brick industry, leaving all that clay to A.C. Hews & Co.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the dawn of the 20th century Hews could boast an output of over 20 million flowerpots. More than anyone.  Anywhere.  Ever. 

Plastics finally slew the Hews clay flowerpot business in the 1960’s.  One family’s 200 year involvement in clay ended.  It might date me, but it’s a personal thrill to think that one small slice of redware pottery history saw it’s closing chapter in my own lifetime. 

It’s nice to feel connected.

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

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

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

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper Perennial/New York.  1989.

 

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The Era of Good Feelings

March 10, 2013

Raise your hand if you can name all the presidents.  And if memorizing them made you sleep through every history class from then on? 

The uses to which we put history determines it’s shelf life.  This adage is blatantly visible in English transfer print export pottery to America (ie; show me the money).  Take the first five presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (of course).  Their shelf life varied.

Everybody loved George Washington (president from 1789-1797).  Shelves full of English export ware commemorated his administration.  Perhaps that’s to be expected of any revolution’s central “founding father.”

There is practically no English export ware commemorating John Adams (1797-1801).  Maybe Adams was just too dour for the English.  But he’d have to be pretty dour to trump the English  love of commerce.

Things got somewhat back to normal with Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).  Even if many of his likenesses were really just “clip art” portraits with his name pasted under them.  No matter, as long as the name sold.

James Madison (1809-1817) held his own, though he declared a fairly pointless war against England in 1812.  But by then English pottery firms knew the extent of the American market and were prepared to go the distance in catering to popular demand.

Which brings us to James Monroe (1817-1825).  He too had his day.  But presidential portrait pottery had begun it’s decline.  Not so much because of the Monroe Doctrine, but because English firms were catching on to what American potters already knew.  Politics as decoration can be a hard sell.  Practically no American pottery company bothered with political imagery until the election of 1840.  Landscapes, flowers, and famous places were partisan neutral.

The irony is that Monroe’s Democratic-Republican party had wiped out the opposition Federalists.  George Washington’s original ideal of a ‘party-less’ government was within reach. 

The country was still wracked by economic crises, but the opposition party had imploded from it’s own colossal intransigence and a major war was over.  People called the time “The Era Of Good Feelings.”  Yes, people once actually spoke like that about American national politics.   

To those who warn that we risk repeating the past, I say “I wish.”

Readings:
American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.