Archive for the ‘Albany slip’ Category

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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Adam Smith Wasn’t Always Right

February 23, 2014

In economics, success and growth walk hand in hand.  Except when they don’t.  George Henderson’s Dorchester Pottery Works in Dorchester, MA started as a large industrial stoneware factory but ended up flourishing as a small family run pottery.

George started the business in 1885.  His factory employed 28 workers who turned out “industrial” salt fired stoneware crocks, acid jars, etc.  George built a gigantic newfangled gas fired downdraft kiln in 1914.  It cost a whopping $250,000 and was one of only two of it’s kind in the nation at the time.

This situation presented George with a choice: continue with salt firing (and what salt would do to his phenomenally expensive kiln) or switch to glazed work.  Glazing meant either an Albany slip or a feldspathic Bristol glaze.  George opted for the Bristol glaze.

The British invented the Bristol glaze as an alternative to both lead and salt.  The off-white Bristol glaze used zinc oxide, calcium, feldspar, and china clay to create the world’s first eutectic “trick.”  That is, by mixing zinc and calcium (both requiring very high temperatures to melt), their combined melting point becomes dramatically lower.  Thus, Bristol glazes matured at low temperatures, speeding up firing time and lowering fuel usage.

America imported Bristol glazes since their creation in the early 19th century.  But potters at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884 were especially impressed.  Before 1920 Bristol was generally used in combination with the black Albany slip glaze.  After 1920, it was pretty much Bristol all the way.

When George Henderson died in 1928, his son Charles struggled with the albatross his dad left him. Demand for industrial wares plummeted during the Great Depression.  In 1940, Charles’ wife Ethel took charge.  Ethel scaled everything way back and switched to just tableware.  In the process, Dorchester became the first American pottery to fully develop the Bristol glaze’s potential for precise detail and extreme control of painted decoration.

For the next 40 years Dorchester turned out decorative tableware.  Many of their most popular designs came from customer suggestions.  Ethel and George were even able to retain a few of the Italian potters George’s dad had imported to work in the factory, including their principle thrower Nando Ricci.

Fire destroyed the building and the business in 1979.  But the Dorchester Pottery Works left behind a reassuring legacy; It’s ok to be small.

Readings:

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

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

 

NASCAR

June 16, 2013

“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.