Archive for June, 2014

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

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Hervey to Some

June 15, 2014

What’s in a name?  Everything, obviously.  Especially when it’s your own name.

This was particularly true for Goshen, CT redware potter Hervey Brooks (1779-1873).  As a child, his parents referred to him as ‘Harvey.’  When his sister Clarissa moved to Missouri Territory in the 1830’s, she addressed her letters to ‘Harvey.’  When he tried to go west like Clarissa and so many others, his mom wrote to him as ‘Harvey.’  (He only got as far as Granville, NY before eventually returning to Goshen.)  Back home his brother John called him ‘Harvey.’  Surviving letters in Old Sturbridge Village’s research library indicate pretty much his whole family called him ‘Harvey’ his entire life.

Of course, spelling was an iffy art form in the early 19th century.  Standardization came later, thanks in great part to Noah Webster.  But its a fair bet to assume intention with spelling that consistent.  And ‘Harvey’ isn’t such an odd name after all – if a bit rare for the time. 

Yet he wrote ‘Hervey’ on every document he ever signed.  He presented himself to the world as "Hervey" his entire adult life.  Again, consistency.

Why ‘Hervey?’  One theory (supported only by the above mentioned observations) imagines him as an adolescent.  Young and rearing to go.  This was the era between the Revolution and the War of 1812 when the entire country was redefining itself.  Creating the new out of the known.  Maybe youth culture expressed itself then, as it so often does, with slang vocabulary and nick-names unique to that atmosphere.  Maybe ‘Hervey’ was one such nick-name.  Maybe he proudly wore it the rest of his life like an old hippy’s long hair.

But none of his relatives seemed to buy into the ‘Hervey’ thing.  Ever. 

So imagine this scenario.  He died.  His family had to arrange his funeral.  They had to pick out a head stone.  They had to instruct the mason what name to carve onto the stone. 

This was their chance.

What would it be?  ‘Hervey’ or ‘Harvey?’

Hervey Brooks Headstone

Readings:

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

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860. Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta, New York.  1969. 

 

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.