Archive for May, 2014

Arson, Politics, and Pottery for the Masses

May 18, 2014

Talk long enough to most potters today and the topic of pyromania will eventually arise.  But talk is cheap.  18th and 19th century redware potters were among the best at torching their shops.  Urban potters could take down large neighborhood swathes as well.  Especially in ports and towns along major waterways.

Of course all that damage was unintentional.  Every spark from barely controllable bottle kilns was a disaster waiting to happen – not to mention the health hazards of lead glazed fumes spewing across densely populated areas.  And the waterfront was prime real estate for potters.  Water was the cheapest way to transport heavy raw materials and bulky, fragile wares.

Town fathers tolerated this situation because many potters did a fair bit of trade.  And many potters were town fathers.

But there were limits.  Pottery was eventually zoned away from the docks and toward less populated areas.  An 1838 provision in the Laws and Ordinances of the Common Council of Albany, NY, an important Hudson River transport hub, stipulated that potteries “upon any lane or street which might be deemed noxious or unwholesome shall be removed upon notice given by the Police Justice or any Alderman.”  Offending potters were also fined $25.

Interestingly, the last major pottery related conflagration in Charleston, MA wasn’t due to pottery making at all.  Not directly, anyway.  Bombardment from British warships in 1775 drove the inhabitants, particularly the dock-side potters, away.  Nobody was around to put out the fires.  Charleston burned to the ground.

Pottery had been a major occupation in Charleston.  But the potters didn’t return.  The British action scattered redware production across New England.  The Redcoats effectively brought pottery to the masses.

The Royal Navy wasn’t aiming at potters per se.  Their operation was against the Sons of Liberty.  The fiery appeal of that raucous, self-ordained band of revolutionary self-determination zealots drew in many Bay area artisans, including Charleston’s potters.

Much later, a similar group with similar motives burst on the scene.  This new group named themselves after the Sons’ signature act on Boston’s Long Wharf during the night of December 16th, 1773.

Both groups became famous for their passionate stand against entrenched oligarchs.  But while one group (obliquely) disseminated pottery and democracy, the other was (quickly and quite concretely) co-opted by the highest bidder.

Readings:
Bunker Hill, A City, A Siege, A Revolution.  Nathaniel Philbrick.  Viking Press/New York.  2013.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

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

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

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World Class Connoisseurs of Salt-Fired German Stoneware

May 4, 2014

They say Germany’s two greatest contributions to Western Civilization were the Reformation and hops in beer.  And both happened at about the same time.

As condensed history, so it goes.  But hops also radically impacted pottery history.  Everybody wanted beer once early 16th century brewers, village housewives mostly, began producing it.  Kids even got their diluted “little beer” for breakfast.  And the best beer containers, before mass produced glass, were stoneware bottles.  Demand skyrocketed.  Germans had been tinkering with stoneware since the 10th century.  But 16th to 18th century salt-fired German stoneware became world renowned because of beer.

Unfortunately Germany’s Rhineland district, where the best work was made, was a playground of war for centuries.  Whole communities were continually uprooted by chronic warfare.  Rhennish potters from Raeren, Freshcen and Siegburg ultimately ended up in the somewhat calmer Westerwald region.

Along the way they picked up improvements in clays, sprig decorations, and brilliant manganese and cobalt highlights.  Their work spawned off-shoots, reproductions, fakes and revivals long after their dominance had passed.

German stoneware was so popular, English potters couldn’t prevent caveats from diluting their July 22, 1672 Parliamentary Order in Council meant to insulate local markets.  The final bill prohibited imports of “any kind or sort of Painted Earthen Wares whatsoever except those of China, and Stone bottles and Juggs.”

Tons of German stoneware, literally, were shipped to England’s North American colonies during the 18th century.  Ironically beer bottles and beer mugs, “krugen” and “cannen,” were not the top imports.  Chamber pots were.  But drinking vessels were close behind.  And they were scattered almost as far.

Colonists weren’t the only admirers of salt-fired German stoneware, however.  Many Native American burial sites included Westerwald jugs.  When pottery is done well, there are no boundaries to how far it will be collected.

a_westerwald_stoneware_pewter-mounted_armorial_jug_17th_century

Readings:
Stoneware in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.