Archive for the ‘Staffordshire’ Category

The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

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Progress

September 30, 2012

Post-holiday winter means plunging income and skyrocketing expenses.  Short cold days.  Long cold nights.  Not good for difficult or depressing stories.  Those are best left for warmer days…

And so (before it gets too cold) the tale of Jabez Vodrey.  His biography runs as follows; 1797, born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent; Worked lathes in the Stoke potteries and in Derbyshire; 1827, emigrated to the US; Worked in several places; Produced America’s first Mocha ware; 1860, died.  Sons carried on the trade. 

So far so good.  But the devil is in the details.  Imagine leaving everything you’ve known, knowing you’ll never see it again.  Leaping into the unknown.  This was Jabez Vodrey’s lot.  Many English potters had emigrated to the US with varying success.  The clay was rumored to be fine.  The market certainly was.  Why not move closer to the action, bypass those who drove you from your job?

Jabez and his wife Sarah (a decorator) first went to Pittsburgh.  But finding the right materials to make “fineware” (anything resembling English imports) proved impossible.  Besides, imports ruled.  Serious local competition was quickly squashed.  Start over again. 

An offer came from Jacob Lewis in Louisville, KY in 1829.  Shipping imports up past the Ohio Falls and into town was difficult and expensive.  And Louisville had tantalizingly good raw materials.  This could be the place to finally produce American fineware, safely away from cheap, soul-crushing imports. 

Still, without internet or consistent supply systems it was no easy task to produce even the little that Jabez’s group did.  But all evidence indicates they successfully produced American’s first  fineware Mocha.

A canal opened in 1834, allowing large freighters to bypass the falls.  A marvel of modern progress!  So where was Jabez when he read the headlines?  Coming soon, Stoke’s finest!  At the lowest prices ever!

Jabez probably saw it coming.  But how many times can a person pack up and move on?  He had been chased to the edge.  Imports always won.  Why bother anymore?  Jabez eventually landed in the next great pottery boom town, East Liverpool, OH.  There he and his family, like many others, would make their last stand.

But on that day in 1834 he surely felt he had lost everything he knew.  Again.  All in the name of pottery. 

Readings
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  University Press of New England/Hanover NH.  2001.

Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

 

The Potter’s Examiner; “Wisconsin Or Bust”

April 29, 2012

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  As when the Dragoons were called out to encircle the town of Berslem, Staffordshire, in January 1837.  Their mission – to keep the “Great Strike” of the recently formed National Union of Operative Potters from spreading to the other 5 towns of Stoke-on-Trent.

The potters’ organizing effort had been, as usual, a long painful journey.  (For details just follow any current labor struggle, which you should do anyway.)  In the end, a splintered Potters Union collapsed after extracting some weak half-measures from factory owners.

William Evans ran a radical, pro union Stoke-on-Trent newspaper called “The Potter’s Examiner.”  When the strike failed he began pushing an idea that had been gurgling around the edges of the issue.  To hell with this place!  Let’s all move to Wisconsin where we can make pots in peace:

“Fly to the most liberal institution of present man; to the untaxed plains, rivers, and lakes of a free country…”

The territory of Wisconsin (present day Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa) was America’s frontier.  The outer fringe of civilization.  But America was marching westward.  Individual potters had been emigrating to the promised land for over a century.  Then came the union wars.  Enough was enough!

The Potters’ Joint Stock Emigration Society and Savings Fund was set up in 1844.  In a tizzy over the idea of emigration, newborn children were named “America” and “Freedom.”  Potters renamed their streets “America,” “Madison” and “Washington.”   In 1847 the first group made it to Wisconsin.  Their raw, undeveloped tract was dubbed “Pottersville.”  They had to start from scratch – and ultimately ended up with as much.  The last vestiges of Pottersville, northeast of Pardeeville, WI., were torn down in 1989.

Those that stayed home eventually did get their union.  Just as demand began dropping precipitously.  Just as a gazillion ex-patriot factories started up in America…

Readings:

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.  John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

Pie in the Sky

September 25, 2011

The police came for Julius Norton in New York City.  It didn’t matter that Julius was wealthy.  Intelligent.  Well read.  A gifted musician.  It certainly wasn’t in his nature to commit acts of vice or violence.  As owner of the famous Norton Pottery in Bennington, VT., Julius was in New York on business.  So being clapped in irons must have infuriated him.  Regardless of the charge against him, he surely knew by then the real reason he was stewing in that cell.  He had violated a fundamental principle of good business practice –

Never team up with in-laws.

In those days, a person could be jailed for a business partner’s personal debts.  Julius’ erstwhile partner, and brother in law, Christopher Webber Fenton owed money to lots of people.

Julius inherited a successful stoneware business from his father Luman Norton in 1840.  Julius was slowly growing the business when Christopher  married his sister and burst on the scene in 1845.  Christopher was a scion of another talented pottery family.  His father, Jonathan Fenton, had even written a poem to him as a child about their “pedigree,” prodding him to aim high.

Grow the business you say?  Why not take over the world!  Porcelain!  Agate wareParian sculpturesRockinghamYellow ware!  Anything Staffordshire does we can do better!

For a time, Christopher’s fertile imagination paid off.  Bennington became “the Staffordshire of America.”  The frantic pace during their brief three year collaboration (1845-47) must have been something to witness.  But ideas – and bills – piled up.  To keep it rolling, Julius put in overtime on marketing.  Like his ill fated New York City trip.

In the end, Julius was still a Norton.  Respectability and stability mattered.  The arrest was the last straw.  But others came before.  For example, Julius’ employees were solid neighborhood fellows.  Christopher brought in all sorts of characters to realize his dreams.  Some, like the Englishman Daniel Greatbatch, were amazing.  But many were rabble rousers, often prone to drunken reverie.  One, Alexander Stephens, ended up as Vice President of the Confederate States of America.

After the partnership ended Julius kept some ideas and abandoned others.  He died in 1861.  Christopher continued hatching schemes across the country.  He died in 1865.

But whatever their differences while alive, they’re both equal now.

Julius Norton                  Christopher Webber Fenton

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 University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

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

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

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