Archive for November, 2014

River Gods

November 16, 2014

A discussion about collecting delftware in 18th century Deerfield, MA titled “River Gods” might seem flirty given that religion and politics are ‘safe’ conversation topics only while lolling about on a sunny beach with close friends.  But who wants to talk religion and politics on a sunny beach?

“River Gods” (the Deerfield River being a major artery of travel and commerce) along with “Mansion People” was a nick-name for Deerfield’s most powerful citizens.  The upper crust.  The one percent. Knowing if these appellations were their idea or everybody else’s might offer telling insight into the personalities of this small group.

The River Gods certainly acted the part of virtual deities.  They rose to prominence during the French And Indian War when necessities of military patronage resulted in consolidated economic clout.  The River Gods came to project an aura of civic righteousness.

Except when it came to delftware.  Delftware was a major status symbol in New England from the beginning of the French And Indian War until the Revolutionary War – precisely when the River Gods held sway.  Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled.  No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a round or two of punch, egg pop, sullibub, or other such alcoholic concoction.

The River Gods favored Dutch delftware over English delftware.  Maybe this was because Dutch delftware painting, being directly inspired by Italian faience, was more refined.  Or maybe the Dutch allure stemmed from its unique method of dusting additional layers of glaze over the painted pots, giving an extra glossy veneer.  English delftware by comparison was quirky, less refined, more playful.  This was ironic because the English delftware industry was largely begun by immigrant Dutch potters.

Various parliamentary Navigation Acts dictated that transactions between England’s colonies and the outside world be done via the East India Company.  This assured that non-English goods (Dutch delftware) were either impossible or prohibitively expensive to acquire.  But the River Gods used their own ships for business transactions in the Caribbean.  They simply bypassed the East India Company and purchased Dutch pottery directly in the West Indies.  In legal terms this is called customs fraud, ie: smuggling.

To be a River God was to be the law.  But the adage that nobody is perfect must be applied universally.  Even, or perhaps especially, to River Gods.

Readings:

Delftware at Historic Deerfield 1600 – 1800.  Amanda Lange.  Historic Deerfield/Deerfield MA.  2001.

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What They Were Thinking

November 2, 2014

“Where does your clay come from?” is a common question asked at historical pottery demonstrations. Answer: “The ground.”  Another common inquiry, relating to the widespread use of lead glazes by early potters, is “Didn’t they know lead is toxic?  What were they thinking?”

Lead glazes give people the creeps.  But lead was fairly easy to obtain, it was cheap, it had a wide firing range, and it offered a wonderful variety of glaze colors.  Lead is actually one of the world’s greatest glaze materials – except, of course, exposure to it destroys your central nervous system.

So lead glazes require further comment.  Most early American potters didn’t have access to higher firing stoneware clays, which don’t use lead glazes.  It wasn’t until the early 19th century spread of canals and toll roads that shipping prices lowered enough for stoneware to blossom.

A common glaze recipe in the early US had about 10 parts lead to 3 parts loam or sand.  The best lead source came from sheets used to seal tea – tea chest lead – reduced to a white powder by soaking in vinegar.  But most potters went to dry goods merchants who sold imported lead as a paint ingredient.

People knew of lead’s toxicity by the 18th century.  It was called “potter’s rot.”  But end users weren’t immune.  In 1783, a Connecticut doctor blamed a recent “bilius colic”epidemic on all the local lead glazed redware flooding the market during the English embargoes of the time.

Philadelphia and New York newspapers issued challenges to develop alternative glazes.  Federal and State agencies issued periodic warnings against lead use.  But lead glazing persisted well into the 19th century.

Why were people so obstinate?

Insight to that question can be gained by posing a similar set of questions.  Imagine a visitor from 200 years into the future asking people on the street today:  “Didn’t you known nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay?”  “Why did you dump all that garbage into the ocean and rivers?”   “Didn’t you know about global warming?”  “What on Earth were you thinking?”

Readings:

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.