Archive for the ‘Franklin Institute’ Category

Never Do This

December 29, 2013

Porcelain’s unique allure through the ages has elicited reactions from rapture to duplicity.  William Tucker of Philadelphia, for example, was very proud of his “China Factory.”  It was America’s first successfully sustained porcelain effort

Tucker began in 1825, as Barber recounts, “with no previous knowledge of the composition of the ware…[he] set to work, wholly unaided by the practical experience of others.  He succeeded in a few years in perfecting from new and untried materials a porcelain equal in all respects to the best which England had produced after 80 years of continual experiment.”

Not bad.  The China Factory was a “must see” stop on visitors’  itinerary for Philadelphia.  Tucker even won medals in 1827 from the Franklin Institute and in 1831 from the American Institute.

William Tucker lobbied President Andrew Jackson for tariffs on rival European porcelain makers.  Henry Clay argued William’s bill in the senate.  The bill failed.  But that turned out to be the least of William’s woes.

There was a particularly nasty stretch where nothing went right.  Glazes shivered.  Bodies bloated.   Pots melted onto shelves.  Handles fell off.  Entire kiln loads wasted.  Any potter who has experienced this peculiar form of hell (or is living it right now) knows the desperation heard in William’s “Why me?” 

A deaf and dumb employee supplied the answer.  As William’s brother Thomas related: 

We discovered that we had a man who placed the ware in the kiln who was employed by some interested parties in England to impede our success.  Most of the handles were found in the bottom of the saggars after the kiln was burned. [The] deaf-dumb man in our employment detected him running his knife around each handle as he placed them in the kiln.  At another time, every piece of china had to be broken before it could be taken out of a saggar. We always washed the round O’s, the article in which the china was placed in the kiln, with silex; but this man had washed them with feldspar, which of course, melted, and fastened every article to the bottom.  But William discharged him and we got over that difficulty.”

Porcelain’s allure eventually scaled back to that of a more personal aesthetic appeal.  It should today be unthinkable to consider sabotaging any poor potter’s business – porcelain or not.  After all, we’re just potters.  Why pick on us?

Peace on Earth.  Happy New Year.

Readings:

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.   Edwin Atlee Barber.   G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  1939.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.

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Rock Will Cover It

June 10, 2012

It wasn’t as if some government agency had written a position paper on post Revolution cultural development – although many individuals did.  Americans believed their arts would flourish once freed from English tyranny.  People were thus urged to favor fancy over purely utilitarian goods.  (“Fancy” meaning an intelligent stimulus toward creative thinking.)

But there’s a funny thing about mercantile capitalism.  Phrases like  “fancy goods” are quickly co-opted by bald-faced mass marketing.  The disappointment of such people as Charles Wilson Peale and Noah Webster was visceral when events turned out differently than expected.

There was probably no clearer, nor more ironic, example of this situation than the trajectory of the Rockingham glaze.

“Rockingham” originally described a rich chocolate brown glaze made on the Marquis of Rockingham’s Swinton estate in Yorkshire, England beginning in 1757.  When the Swinton pottery failed in 1842 the glaze went (quite successfully) to potteries in Derbyshire.  It also went with hordes of emigrating potters to America.

American potters – mostly English émigrés freed from the conventions of their homeland – lost no time in transforming Rockingham into a dripped, splattered, sponged, polychrome marvel.  Pottery from Bennington VT to East Liverpool OH was slathered with it.  Within three years of it’s introduction to these shores, Rockingham by James Bennett of Pittsburg PA won the 1845 Franklin Institute pottery diploma.  Trenton NJ was an epicenter of production, with (émigré) Daniel Greatbatch as perhaps Rockingham’s best practitioner.

Christopher Webber Fenton hoped to mimic Josiah Wedgwood’s nomenclature genius by calling Rockingham he made at the Norton Pottery “Flint Enamel.”  Local potters called Fenton’s nomenclature “humbug.”  Others called Rockingham “Variegated Ware,” “Fancy Ware,” or simply “Rock.”

A discerning eye looking at Rockingham’s finest examples becomes lost in the depths of flowing, layered colors.  At the risk of hyperbole (a common 19th century trait), one could almost see it as a genuine American T’ang glaze.

But most of the tonnage of 19th century Rockingham was quite gaudy.  Therein lay Rockingham’s down side.  The glaze’s overpowering nature could make anything look “fancy.”  So much so that in 1901, years after Rockingham’s craze had run it’s course, James Carr sighed while recounting what might have been a common exchange between pottery owner and shop worker:

“…roughness was the order of the day, and if I made a complaint the answer was: ‘Well boss, Rock will cover it.’”

brown glazed bowl

Readings

Fancy Rockingham Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America.  Diana Stradling.  University of Richmond Museum/Richmond, VA.  2004.

After The Revolution.  Joseph Ellis.  W.W. Norton/New York.  1979.

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 Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

 

First Prize

April 24, 2011

Describing pottery as “playing with mud” indicates an obliviousness to the amount of work and worry a small business owner puts in daily.  Almost everything we make is far more cheaply available through virtual slave labor in far away places like China, Bangladesh and El Salvador.  Who, besides those with an uncomfortable inkling that we’re really just adrift on a sea of plunder, cares?

Likewise, a common characterization of early pottery emphasizes secondary or seasonal work.  Hardly worth mentioning, even by those who did it.  “Playing with mud.”  But seasonal occupations were diversification.  If the crops failed, then what?  More to the point, the dismissive notion doesn’t jibe with the numerous awards, medals and “diplomas” dispensed to entrants of regional and national competitions throughout the 19th century.

Many of these events were essentially County Fairs – a popular ‘mania’ of the age.  Potters like James Holmes who won the 1852 Yates County, NY Agricultural Fair diploma for “Best Stoneware” eagerly participated.  But even entering one’s ‘seasonal handiwork’ indicates a level of pride in making that anyone today should recognize.

Other competitions were considerably more prestigious.  The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the  American Institute of New York City issued diplomas for outstanding efforts in the arts and sciences (and continue to do so).  Several states had similar Institutes.  Other organizations, like the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic’s Association functioned as sort of self-help groups.

Some potters tried to leverage their successes for broader aims.  Philadelphia’s William Tucker won the Franklin Institute’s 1827 gold medal and the American Institute’s 1831silver medal for his hard-paste porcelain. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to convince President Jackson to establish favorable tariff terms on French porcelain.

While these competitions spurred artisans to their best efforts, the results weren’t always clear.  The 1826 Franklin Institute gold medal went to Jersey City Porcelain for “best china made from American materials.”  Jersey City Porcelain was the only entrant.  In 1841 Barnabas Edmands and Charles Collier were the sole entrants for the Franklin Institute’s stoneware diploma.

In presenting the diploma, the Institute added “…the covers to the articles were not made with that care and fitness which they deem highly necessary; and they felt surprised that the articles showing such a high state of improvement in the art, should not have met with a greater share of attention in this respect.”

In short, they won the prize but the lids didn’t fit.

Readings:
The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.  1939.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

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

Southern Folk Art.  Cynthia E. Rubin (ed.).  Oxmoor House/Birmingham AL.  1985.