Archive for the ‘Moravian Potters’ Category

Woodstock

October 13, 2013

The Moravian community of Salem NC, founded in the mid 18th century, believed in austere living and strict religious observance.  But it shouldn’t be surprising that a group this stodgy would produce flowery and exuberant earthenware.  It was all part of their world view.

Then again, as with adherents to any doctrine, Moravian potters were not always above reproach.  Rudolf Christ was the most talented and successful apprentice of Salem’s first master potter Gottfried Aust.  Rudolf also proved to be one of Aust’s more “arrogant and rebellious” charges.  He was a “stupid ass, like other children in the Community.”  And as with unsupervised children anywhere at any time, Rudolf was given to vague but ominous  “evil doings.”

The Moravian Lovefeast perhaps added fuel to the fire.  Lovefeast was (still is) a popular Moravian institution.  Goodwill and congeniality combined to break down social barriers and celebrate fellowship.  Its roots trace back to the beginnings of Christianity.  But congeniality and lack of social barriers are a potent combination.  The early church dropped Lovefeast in favor of stability.

The Moravians brought Lovefeast back in the mid 1770’s.  A large coffee urn by Rudolf Christ bears an inscription on its bottom referencing one such event.  This  Lovefeast would be Rudolf’s last.  He retired from pottery making two months later.

Today we celebrate Lovefeast.
That you can tell by the good turnout.
When this urn is full of coffee
How few are missed.
And when it’s full, then I’m right there.
And when it’s empty, then we’ll sing Hallelujah.
March 12, 1821.

The rebellious, unconventional Rudolf loved a good party, replete with large crowds and stimulating refreshments.  It sounds like he went out with a bang.  Woodstock move over!

Readings:
The Moravian Potters in North Carolina.  John Bivins.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill.  1972.

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

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2009.

 

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Communist Vagabond Troublemakers

November 12, 2012

Swashbuckling tales replete with sword play and intrigue are sure-fire crowd pleasers.  But most pottery histories avoid that sort of thing.  Well…

First, the sword play.  Turn-of-the-19th-century Moravian potters of Salem NC employed colorful slipware patterns and playful forms quite in contrast to their strict religious estheticism.  Accounts of Salem market days tell of unruly mobs lunging for anything they could grab from the Moravians’ stalls.  At times the local militia had to come out – swords drawn – to keep the peace.  Moravian pottery was that good.

It all began (more or less) back in 1530.  Catholic zealots chased Protestant artisans out of Faenza Italy.  These artisans ended up in Moravia, southern Germany.  By century’s end they had either split into several groups or their pottery skills spread to other radical communist anabaptist protestant sects also sheltering in Moravia.  These migrant artisan groups, collectively known as “Habaners,” believed in strict  religious communal living and shared property ownership.

But the birth of European Capitalism was a messy thing.  The powers that be reacted savagely to religious deviants and peasant protests.  Trouble hounded the Habaners causing them to fan out across Franconia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Austria, Hungary,  Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and elsewhere.  Some such groups abandoned Europe altogether in favor of North Carolina (the “Moravians”) and elsewhere in America.

Haban pottery was originally limited to a narrow range of shapes, shunning superfluous and “unseemly” decoration.  But income from pottery sales outside the community proved too lucrative.  The bare Haban aesthetic adapted to the temperament of local cultures as the Habaners were buffeted about.  This interplay resulted in colorful slipware for the masses and majolica for the wealthy.   Haban majolica eventually became synonymous with Central European folk pottery between the 17th – 19th centuries.

The austere American Moravians similarly adapted to local raw materials and markets.  Thus the creative slipware defended by militia swords.

Depth of experience and motivation can sometimes be hard to discern in pottery as well as in people.  That’s something to keep in mind when looking at flowery painted pottery from long ago.

Readings:
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2009.

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2010.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.   Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

How To Drink Switzel

February 5, 2012

It sounds disgusting but it really isn’t that bad.  Water, ginger, vinegar, and molasses.  Switzel.  Think of it as an early Gatorade.  Especially when chilled.  But we’ll get back to that…

The “switzel ring” was just one of a long line of usages for the ring shaped jug.  This jug was essentially a disc shaped canteen

Ring Jug by Stephen Earp

with usually two but sometimes four loop handles along its shoulders.  Certain types, like the marbled “Pilgrim Jugs” from Northern Italy and eastern France (circa 15-17th century), had an attached base.  Others, like the  English “Costrel Jug,” (circa 15 – 17th century) were simply two plates fused together.  But most were a thrown hollow ring.  The ring could be short and thick, like those of the North Carolina Moravians.  Or extremely wide and thin.  Some were glazed redware, some salt fired stoneware.  Some were highly ornate, others plain.

This unusual shape could be found as far away as Russia and Ukraine, where ice was packed in the middle to dispense chilled vodka or kvass (rye beer).  Far away from Europe and long after these times, some modern Cubans use unglazed pedestaled rings filled with water and put in front of fans as a sort of passive air conditioner.  But anything this unusual and somewhat difficult to throw was (and is) as much an excuse to show off one’s potting skills as to provide any particular function.

And of course, some early American farmers drank switzel from it.  But why use a hollow ring, and not just a regular jug?  You might imagine it was so they could be slung through the arm and stuffed in the hot,  grimy, sweaty armpit of the farmer on his way to mow his hay fields – unless you’ve actually tried to do that.  Awkward, yes.  But mostly just gross.

Very soon you’ll come to agree that it’s far better to find a shady spot along a creek, lay the ring jug in it, and put a stick through it’s circle into the mud to keep it from floating away.  The enormous amount of surface area of the switzel ring in the water will keep it cool until break time.

…Nice cool switzel.  Just the way it should be drank.

The Great Road

October 30, 2011

Seemingly inconsequential moments sometimes result in life long lessons.  In an episode of the 1960’s colonial frontier TV series “Daniel Boone,” his son gets lost for a time.  When the son realizes he’s stumbled into the Cumberland Gap, he finds his way home.  The Cumberland Gap.  A geography lesson about an important colonial passageway across the Appalachian Mountains that a certain kid growing up in Des Moines, IA never forgot.

Many years later, when I became interested in early American pottery, I heard of another famous route.  The Great Wagon Road, also called The Great Road, sprawled from Philadelphia PA, to Augusta, GA (1770 – 1880).  Like the Appalachians that it traversed, different sections of The Great Road had different names.  It was The Valley Pike in the Shenandoah Valley.  Farther south it was The Carolina Road.  And of course the whole thing developed along a pre-existing Indian route (some parts of Virginia even called it The Great Warrior’s Trail).  The Great Road brought all the contemporary comforts to the local inhabitants – at least in areas where wagons could actually use it.

Several potteries existed along The Great Road.  Wythe and Washington Counties, VA, and Sullivan and Carter Counties, TN were particularly active.  These were mostly redware potters.  Historians today generally lump them together as “Great Road Pottery.”

A Great Road Pottery exhibit would reveal differences between potters and areas.  Some of the more southern potters were influenced by the North Carolina Moravians (domed lids and wavy green and white slip trailed decoration).  More northerly potters reflected the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon communities of the mid-Atlantic region (large looped handles with stamped ends and either daubs or trailed imagery in manganese).  But overall, the forms were basic work-a-day items intended for heavy use around the farm.

It makes sense to consider Great Road potters as a distinct group even though they were working in fairly isolated conditions.  They all used similar raw materials to serve similar rural communities in similar ways.  This insular context constitutes a core definition of what used to be called “style.”

It would be hard to apply that definition to any random area today.  Even though we also work in isolated studios using similar commercial materials to serve similar art market communities.  Then again, we shouldn’t confuse “style” with individualized “flair” – however expressive the latter might be.

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

Eleazer Orcutt

January 2, 2011

If I could travel back in time to speak with any 19th century American potter, Eleazer Orcutt would make the short list.  He wouldn’t be alone on that list, but few others were so involved with so many potteries in so many places.

A handful of individuals can be credited with transforming pottery making in certain areas.  Athens, NY potter Nathan Clark almost single handedly trained enough potters to make New York the “Stoneware State.”  Bennington’s Norton family left their mark by setting standards nearly impossible to duplicate.  Moravian Rudolf Christ left a unique body of work that continues to astound.  But stoneware potter Eleazer Orcutt belongs to that small group who played a direct, personal role in pottery development across a vast geographic expanse.

There was a surprising amount of mobility during Eleazer’s lifetime.  Many potters worked in multiple places.  Immigrant English masters like Staffordshire’s Daniel Greatbatch were in great demand from Vermont to South Carolina to Illinois.  Sometimes entire families, like the Crafts’ of Whately MA, would fan out across several states to take advantage of local markets.  Orcutt’s family, also from Whately, followed this path.  They were not only friends and often times business partners with the Crafts,’ but in-laws as well.  Imagine those family reunions!

Family dynasties were common.  The Osborne family of Quaker potters was active throughout New England during the 18th century.  The Bell family seems to have dominated Virginia and Maryland in the 19th century.  Various pottery clans of Georgia and the Carolina’s continue to produce master potters to this day.

Then there were the drifters.  They’d blow into town, fill your shop with pots, earn some cash, buy some whiskey, and be gone.  They seem to have been a particularly common sight in many late 19th – early 20th century southern rural jugtowns – although Christopher Webber Fenton attracted his share of ‘less savory’ folks to the Norton Pottery in Bennington during his tenure there in the mid 1840’s.

Eleazer Orcutt’s resume places him at either the beginning or the height of several major pottery regions in the Northeastern US.  Whately and Ashfield, MA. Portland, ME. All over New York, from Troy to Poughkeepie, Lasingburgh and Albany…  Not as a vagrant potting drifter.  He was instrumental in establishing potteries in many of these places.

The wealth of experience Eleazer Orcutt carried with him must have been amazing.  But he is gone now.  And we’re left with just the internet.

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

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

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

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

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

A Guide to Whately Pottery and the Potters. Henry Baldwin.  Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA.  1999.

The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine. M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

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

American Redware. William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./NY.  1991.