Archive for the ‘Absalom Day’ Category

Pony Up The Cash

August 5, 2012

Amazingly, there are still people who think 18th – 19th century pottery is boring. But under that pottery’s constrained veneer is a rich quirky vein. One powered mostly by anonymous potters. While historians can discern individuals’ handiwork, local contemporaries most likely knew exactly who they were.

Norwalk CT excelled at this genre (and this conundrum). Norwalk was one of New England’s busiest pottery towns. It straddled the traditions of (relatively restrained) New England and (relatively ornate) mid Atlantic pottery.

Asa Hoyt was potting in Norwalk by 1790. Asa did simple slip-trailed sunburst patterns until he hired New Jersey potters with elaborate trailing backgrounds. Hoyt was succeeded by Absalom Day and his wife Betsy Smith. Absalom threw, Betsy fired. The Smith family inherited the pottery and kept it going long into the 19th century, defining the quintessential “Norwalk” style. They even won a diploma at the American Institute’s 17th annual fair in 1844 for “superior earthen spitoons.”

Norwalk’s slip trailed, slab molded pie plates were unique. They were shallower than Pennsylvania’s thrown pie plates, and had no corollary in the rest of New England. Most were made before 1850. One hand seems responsible for the best work. This Smith Pottery employee used the Spencerian script learned by every kid until the “i gadget” made hand writing pointless. As it happens, we actually know the guy’s name. Henry Chichester was a master calligrapher. The book “Norwalk Potteries” even has a group photo from 1863 with him in it.

Saying trailed by Chichester and others ran the gamut from generic to off the wall. The majority were pretty straight forward. “Apple Pie.” “Clams and Oysters.” (New Englanders ate a lot of clams and oysters). It’s not hard to guess the motivation for some. “Pony up the cash.” “Cheap Dish.” “Money Wanted.” Or just “Money.” Some were commemorative, like “Mary’s Dish” or “Lafayette.” Some ventured into politics. “Hurrah for Heister Clymer*”  Morality, like “Give Drink to the thirsty,” often veered into ‘you had to have been there’ territory. “Honor the human.” Odd phrase, beautiful sentiment.

And some were downright bizarre. “Why will you die.”

To simply end there would be a bit abrupt. What on earth was the story behind that plate? But pondering the chasm between those potters’ motives and our understanding of the physical remains of what they did is exactly what makes the historical enterprise so fascinating.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries. Andrew and Kate Winton. Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH. 1981.

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

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

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

A Bad Ending

November 14, 2011

One cent reward – runaway from the service of the subscriber on the 7th ult. An indented apprentice to the Potting Business by the name of Jason Merrills, about 17 years of age.  Rather large of his age, stocky built, has a large head, large blue eyes, and lightish hair.  Had on when he went away a blue surtout coat, a blue undercoat, blue mixt satinett pantaloons, and is supposed to have had some other clothes with him.  Whoever will return said apprentice shall be entitled to the above reward and no charges.  All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice on penalty of the law.
Absalom Day
Norwalk March 10, 1824.

“Apprenticeship” is a vague term.  Some believe swapping a few lessons in exchange for studio space counts.  Others consider an in-depth immersion into the daily grunt work of a shop for an extended time to be closer to the mark.  Today, of course, if you pay someone it’s called “employment” (withholding taxes, insurance, overtime, workman’s comp, etc.).

Two centuries ago being an apprentice meant more than just working for someone.  An apprentice became part of the family.  They slept with the kids – usually in the same bed.  They ate at the table.  They worked the farm.  They ‘kept the family secrets.’  They shared the entire life.

Such proximity resulted in all sorts of outcomes.  Some people hit it off.  Some tolerated the situation.  And some hated it.  A fair few of these later sorts, Jason Merrills evidently included, performed some variation of a ‘disappearing act.’

Reading the above Norwalk (CT) Gazette ad one can almost feel the anger Absalom Day felt toward the ‘large headed’ Merrills.  “All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice…”  This kid was rotten.  He was a lump.  He’ll probably turn out no good.  You’ll see.  As like as not spend all his time in ale houses and watching plays.  A sure sign of a bad character.

Despite Day’s threats, potters had few legal options when a badly needed apprentice disappeared, or disappeared at a badly needed time.  The ad was intended as much to malign Jason Merrills publically as anything.

So if Merrills was that bad, why would Day want him back?

Of course, Absalom Day gives us his answer in the first line of the ad.  Bounty hunters, think about it.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries.  Andrew and Kate Winton.  Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH.  1981.