NASCAR

“War is hell.”  – William Tecumseh Sherman.

Automobiles excited speed freaks from the beginning.  But Prohibition bumped things up a notch.  Young men raced bootleg whiskey to backwoods delivery points.  When Prohibition ended the drivers didn’t want to stop.  One thing led to another and racing became a “sport.”  They raced each other for small stakes.  Once money got involved it became NASCAR.

The whiskey those early daredevils drove around came in salt-fired stoneware jugs.  This scenario was officially sanctioned a few brief decades before, with far reaching consequences for everyone involved.

The Civil War had ravished farms across the South.  Barns were burned and cattle herds were decimated.  Reconstruction efforts like the 1870’s Farm Alliance Program promoted corn production as a cash crop for whiskey distillation.  There simply wasn’t much livestock to feed.  Whiskey boomed.  So did the need for jugs to put it in.

One immediate consequence was that local potters couldn’t keep up with demand.  Quality predictably declined when so many newcomers flooded the market.  Many of these new potters were itinerants.  The very best were called “500 gallon men” due to the quantity they could produce in a day.  But many others were just “whiskey heads” who breezed into shops, made a few bucks, blew it all on whiskey, and drifted off again.

The stoneware whiskey jug boom also impelled several important technical innovations.  Albany slip came into common use, sealing somewhat porous jugs and protecting their precious contents.  As production grew, kilns evolved.  Some potters stayed true to their old groundhog kilns but others needed more stacking space and more consistent firing.  Kilns got shorter, taller and more fuel efficient.

During Prohibition, revenue officers looking for bootleggers would see shops filled with jugs one day and empty the next.  “Where did those jugs go?”  “I didn’t catch his name…”  Cleater Meaders of White County, Georgia remembers “Most of the liquor ended up in Atlanta or Athens – university people got most of it.”

After Prohibition, visitors from cities like Atlanta and Athens sought out rustic ceramic ‘tourist items.’  The stage was set for Jugtown and all that followed.  Meanwhile the young bootlegging drivers sped off to their own destiny.

OK, so it can’t be said that pottery alone created NASCAR.  But pottery was a crucial ingredient there at the beginning.

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

Turners and Burners.  Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

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3 Responses to “NASCAR”

  1. Susan Skinner Says:

    And so it goes….Potters stil drive the economy. More like a NASCAR crash. Well thats just bad Sue, very very bad.

    But those days are gone for us local potters. Pottery has become a “quality of life” product. Competition is still rugged and tough. Now our main competition is hobbyist potters flooding the market, driving prices down. Decorating trends driven by mass media.
    Now more than ever quality and honesty in trade is important to stand out and stay afloat.

    • Steve Earp Says:

      Boy, you said it! At a show a while ago someone asked me why my prices were so much higher than another (part time, hobbyist) potter’s a few aisles over. A few days later, I thought of a good answer. Look at both of them, and honestly ask yourself “which one will find itself in the attic before next summer, and which one will stay on your shelf?” A bit esoteric maybe but that’s what it comes down to.

      • Susan Skinner Says:

        Our society does have the spontaneous purchase still. Its cheap cheap cheap. Joe had someone tell him while holding an armload of probably a hundred dollars of dried flowers, i love your stuff, but I can throw this away next season, yours I would want to keep forever….WHAT! Trust me, we don’t care if you throw it away and buy a new one next season. Matter of fact its a trend we should really initiate.
        I do like your response you thought of.

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