Archive for the ‘Norton Pottery’ Category

William Fives

September 22, 2013

“…a small brown jug bears his name, in slightly uneven letters, W. Fives.” – M. Lelyn Branin.

In 1834, scions of Whately MA pottery families Orcutt and Crafts began a shop ultimately known as the Portland Stoneware Company of Portland, ME.  They churned out huge amounts of ware, mostly 1 to 4 gallon jugs.  Orcutt dropped out in 1837.  Caleb Crafts took William Fives as a partner.  Their partnership ended a few years later.  Caleb left town.  William stayed on, but never again as owner.

It seems William Fives had talent.  Many potteries traded owners during the 19th century.  But William continued at this shop through a succession of owners.  Almost like a tacit agreement that he ‘come with the shop.’

He rented an apartment on Green Street with several fellow potters.  William eventually married, bought a house and had children.  He quietly passed away on Dec 5, 1849.

In the words of genealogist Susan Hoffman, William Fives “led a very quiet life.”  Normally, that would be commendable – though somewhat dull.  In William’s case “quiet” was amazing.  His family had emigrated from Ireland in 1803.   William was Irish in the mid 19th century northeastern United States.

The Irish were roundly despised even before a mid century deluge of ragged Irish immigrants broke on these shores.  They were considered even lower than the black population at the time.  After all, white folk ‘knew’ the blacks.  Blacks spoke the same language, had the same religious beliefs, ate the same foods and, while often poor, they did not generally live in abject squalor.  Gaelic speaking Irish arrived with absolutely nothing.  They were starving, stinky, sickly and destitute.  They tended to radicalism due to past experience.  Worst of all, they were papists! Catholic!  The Irish didn’t become ‘white’ until well after the Civil War.

William Five’s Green Street apartment seemed to be a focal point for Portland Stoneware Company potters.  Their surnames suggest an eclectic work environment.  Clough (Welsh), Aliff (Breton), Vankleek (Dutch).  ‘Melting pot’ potteries might not have been rare, although it is known that some – the Norton’s of Bennington most notably – strictly favored local boys.  The Portland roster indicated a fairly open-minded environment in the midst of wide spread xenophobia and anti-Irish sentiment.

Open minds are to be treasured even in the best of times.  For that alone William Fives and his cohorts deserve notice.

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

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

How the Irish Became White.  Noel Ignatiev.  Routledge/New York, London.  1995.

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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.

 

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.

Drinkers, Dunkards, Kettles and a Robin.

May 9, 2010

Throughout the history of polite conversation, the spouting off of unorthodox religious ideas has sometimes led to awkward moments where eyes stray to other parts of the room.  Likewise, any reference to obscure religious heresies while discussing pottery making ought to be, well, irrelevant.  Except when those topics crossed paths in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts.

Case in point; Phillip Drinker.  Phillip was the first recorded potter in the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Charlestown, across the bay from Boston.  He arrived in 1635 on the ship “Abigail” when he was 39 years old.  Being the only local potter at the time, his services were needed.  Eventually, Phillip’s son Edward joined the business.  The Drinker Pottery thrived.

Edward’s apprentice James Kettle proved talented.  So much so that James’ own pottery became a sort of finishing school.  Charleston soon became the single most important center for redware production in the New England colonies.  Included in the Kettle roster was Ann MacDugale, the first documented woman potter in colonial America.  Also in that roster was James’ nephew Samuel who boasted another first: probate records made at his death included the earliest known reference of a slave in New England owned specifically for use as a potter.  The slave’s name was Robin.

Later, in Goshen, CT, another scion of the Kettle family trained Jonathan Norton.  Young Jonathan promptly left for Vermont and war.  Norton’s eventual return to pottery forever changed the face of ceramics in America.

But what about the Drinkers?  Edward and his dad made the mistake of believing in the wrong kind of religious freedom.  Their kind didn’t include infant baptism.  Despite the Drinker’s position in town, they were labeled “Anabaptists” by a local chapter of the Dunkards.  This diehard little band of total submersion baptismal fanatics even got Phillip jailed for a time.  They eventually chased the Drinker family out of Charlestown.

All because of a disagreement over when people should be baptized.

So during the Drinkers’ ditching by the Dunkards, the Kettles kept their cool and cleaned up with Robin.  Go figure.

Readings:
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.

Fire on the Mountain

January 3, 2010

For people of a certain age, enumerating the many wars the US instigated throughout the 19th century in the Caribbean and Central America should come as no surprise.  Our meddling in this region is not typically taught in schools.  But during the 1980’s Central American Solidarity groups tried to make that story more recognized.

Even less known are the various wars fought between the colonies, and later between individual states in this country.  Sticking to pottery history, the war between New Hampshire and New York will do.

On Jan 3, 1749 New Hampshire’s Royal Governor Benning Wentworth obtained a land grant from King George III for territory between the Merrimac and Hudson Rivers.  Bennington, the territory’s first settlement, was named in the governor’s honor.  Kith and kin were called to populate the territory after the French Indian War.

By then, New York also successfully petitioned for roughly the same territory.  Both colonies now felt they had sole rights to this real estate.  Imagine the looks on everyone’s face when New Yorkers stumbled into Bennington, claiming it as theirs!  (Somehow, the Abenaki, Mahican and Pennacook Indians never entered the equation.)

The issue soon came to blows.  Each side now called on kin to defend their land from the invader.  Official, quasi-official, and semi-quasi-official militias roamed the country, burning rival settlements.  New Hampshire’s top militia leader Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were particularly good at their job.

Things would have escalated, had not the Revolutionary War intervened.  A compromise was reached.  “The Republic of Vermont” would be independent, but eventually folded into the United States.  Both sides could now focus on evicting the redcoats…

…This is where pottery history comes in.  A nephew of Allen’s living in Goshen CT heeded the call and marched north.  But after the “shots heard round the world” in Lexington and Concord, Jonathan Norton enlisted in the Continental Army.  Jonathan was promoted to captain after the Battle of Bennington.  Later, he was a guard at the execution of Major Andre, the British handler of turncoat Benedict Arnold.  After the war Captain John Norton settled in Bennington, founded the Norton Pottery, and became wider than he was tall.  Ethan Allen died on a British prison ship never knowing this.

If there’s a point here, it is simply that the story of how things got to be the way they are can be instructive.  In this case, it’s the difference between a sound bite image of patriots defending their homes, and a saga of people who would have killed each other were it not for a common enemy.  Two very different images indeed.

Readings:
How the States Got Their Shapes. Mark Stein.  HarperCollins Publishers/New York.  2009.

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

Luman Norton’s Barn

October 25, 2009

John Spargo was a big fan of the Nortons.  The Norton family of Bennington VT, was a powerhouse pottery dynasty from 1793 to almost to the end of the 19th century.  They initiated or excelled in virtually everything being made at the time; Redware (at first), Rockingham, Yellow ware, Sponge ware, Parian sculptures, Flint Enamel, Agate (“Scroddled”) ware, Granite ware, Porcelain, and of course, that quintessential American classic: salt-fired cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Begun at the foot of a mountain named after Susan B. Antony’s family,  the Nortons were one of a very few American pottery firms to successfully compete with the post-Revolutionary War British pottery invasion.  Bennington was even for a time called “The Staffordshire of America.”

Only the first few generations of Nortons were actual potters, though.  Captain John Norton, his son Luman, and Luman’s son Julius.  Most of the rest were content being local Brahmins, sitting atop the wealth created by their pottery making progenitors.  Except Edward, who tried to revive the then flagging pottery in the late 1880’s.  But he died young.  From then till today, the Norton name became affixed to their refractories and abrasives businesses.

Anyway, John Spargo was a Marxist agitator turned pottery collector (really).  He wrote several books early in the 20th century about American ceramics.  His “The Potters and Potteries of Bennington” is a landmark text.  It’s also a hagiography.  A paean to the Norton family.  The book is peppered with glowing accounts of the Nortons by their friends and neighbors.  The Nortons were gregarious, true enough.  They regularly strolled through the pottery, top hat in hand, chatting with the workers.

Luman, the second of the line, wasn’t as gifted as his father or his son.  But he put the Pottery on a solid footing.  So what a scandal when somebody burned down his barn in 1812!  Shortly after, someone tried to burn the rebuilt barn.  Luman posted night guards to protect it.  This was the very eve of the War of 1812.  A tense time.  Sitting under the stars, I wonder what the guards talked about.  Soon armies would rage across their countryside, possibly directly into their homes…

Luman Norton was, according to Spargo, well liked and well respected.  How ironic, then, that the arsonist wasn’t a British agent or an interloper from any number of rival potteries.  It was one of the trusted boys guarding his barn.

There must be a story here.

Norton Pottery workers

Norton Pottery workers

Readings:
The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton, NY.  1926.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

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

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

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