Archive for the ‘Thomas Crafts’ 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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Teapot as Teapot

April 10, 2011

Traveling south on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, just past Exit 23 for Whately (near mile marker 32.2), you can see on the right at the end of a frontage road an old farmhouse facing the highway.  Originally, this house faced north, perpendicular to the road.  It was moved sideways to avoid demolition when I 91 was built.  Somebody knew who used to live there and didn’t think the place should be razed, it’s history forgotten.  At the beginning of the 19th century it was the home of Thomas Crafts. Thomas Crafts Portrait

Here in 1806 Thomas Crafts began a lead glazed earthenware  “Tea  Pot Manufactory.”  He, a younger brother and a boy employed to wedge clay threw 2,067 dozen teapots a year for 27 years.  Some sold locally, but most went to New York and Pennsylvania, at $1.00/doz. wholesale.  That a rural potter in the early 1800’s could successfully compete with English “Brown Betty” teapots was remarkable.

Anyone lucky enough to have held a Crafts teapot can understand the feat.  His teapots were impeccable.  Paper thin.  Their super glossy jet black glaze needed two firings, unusual for any redware pottery at the time.  Sanford Perry, another Whately potter, developed the technique in1805, basing it on the “Jackfield” glaze originally from Shropshire, England.

Rumor had it that Crafts stole the Jackfield recipe, then muscled Perry out of town in 1822.  The actual record is more honorable (and amiable).  Perry voluntarily sold the recipe to Crafts (they may have been partners) and moved back to Troy NY, his hometown, to get into the more profitable stoneware business.

The Crafts manufactory marked the transition from rural pottery to factory.  Thomas certainly saw it that way.  He trained several brothers, sons, nephews, and at least one niece in the trade.  He probably also trained Stephen Orcutt, head of the Orcutt potting clan.  Crafts switched to stoneware when river and canal transportation allowed shipping of Amboy, NJ stoneware clay to Whately in 1833.  Soon thereafter he exported his pots and his progeny all over New England.

A curious window into the mentality of the Crafts family during that time can be seen in a bizarre “grotesque” pitcher they made at the beginning of the stoneware business in 1833.  An ugly face was applied to the front and “United We Stand Divided We Fall, 1833” stamped on the back.

But a Crafts teapot is, for me, the quintessential expression of a classic form.  Every element necessary to the pot’s function and precisely proportioned.  Absolutely harmonious.  No superfluous decoration.  No attempt to be anything but a teapot.  Teapot as teapot.  Perfection.

Crafts Teapot

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

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts. Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

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.

Lady’s Slippers

June 6, 2010

A great thing happens on the hills overlooking my town in early June.  The lady’s slippers blossom.  These ‘slipper’ or lung shaped orchids grow wild here.  Years of avid lady’s slipper appreciation has made them almost extinct.  They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.  But in the mid 1800’s they grew outside many a potter’s door.  They were a favorite of the stoneware slip decorators.  Or maybe they were just a safe bet.

Just about anything could be – and was – fodder for decoration.  Nautical scenes, imaginary animals, sarcastic cartoons, brazen political sloganeering.  Many of these had that “keep me” look, saving them from the trash pit.  But specialized motifs could backfire.  Maybe the crock would travel inland where nautical scenes wouldn’t make sense.  Maybe the bizarre animal or the sarcasm would fall flat or insult.  Who would want that in their kitchen?  Even the Bald Eagle, symbol of the United States, could rub the wrong way.  Perhaps the party in office was a bungling, corrupt monstrosity seeking refuge behind the flag…

But flowers were safe.  Lady’s slippers were (and are) a visually distinct form, masterfully executed by various decorators whose names are now forgotten.  Mostly.  The Smith Pottery in Norwalk, CT, employed a man named Chichester who’s slip trailed penmanship was renowned.

And it wasn’t uncommon for potters to employ their daughters as decorators.  Trailing tools could be passed down to next in line when a girl ‘reached age.’  Some even hold that Maria Crafts Kellog, niece of Thomas Crafts, only decorated jugs and crocks made in Whately MA (because “women didn’t make pottery…”).

Another “in house” arrangement was to own the decorators.  Many southern plantation potteries employed male slaves for throwers and female slaves for decorators.  The plantation owner was the ‘potter’ – he owned the pottery.

In other parts, itinerant decorators might have followed itinerant throwers.  As late as the 1930’s vagrant throwers stayed long enough to fill the shop, earn enough to buy a bottle, and move on.  I’ve only seen passing mention of itinerant decorators.  But their existence can be inferred in the uniformity of design on pots from a variety of places.

Of all the possible decorating methods, I feel the itinerant slippers present the most intimate definition of genuine folk art expression.  Something spanning time and space.  I like that image.

Readings:
Lura Woodside Watkins.

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

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

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

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Raised in Clay. Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

Women Who Didn’t Make Pottery

August 7, 2009

Women didn’t make pottery.

Or rather, an Interpretive Staff Director of an early American life museum once told me that.  His argument?  Lack of evidence.  No solid documentation shows women making pottery in this country before the “Art Pottery” revival of the 1870’s.  No tax rolls, no signed pots, no probate records, no diaries.

Pottery was rarely classed as a distinct occupation.  Furthermore, some “potters” owned large manufactories, while others were just rural door to door sales people.  Actual pottery makers could alternately be noted as “laborers,” “mechanics” (they worked with machines), or “farmers.”  Hardly anyone wrote about it.  So, women potters?  Where is the evidence?

Some bits and pieces include; Ann Mackdugle, apprenticing to William Kettel in Charleston, MA until 1712; a woman listing herself as an “Earthen Ware Potter Maker” upon disembarking from Ireland in 1716 (Ireland lost it’s only female potter at that time?);  Catharine Bowne, inheriting a shop in Middlesex, NJ and operating it from 1813 into the 1820’s.

More is known of Grace Parker.  She and her husband Isaac made redware from 1713 to 1742 in Charlestown, MA.  By all accounts they did pretty well.  In 1742, they asked for support from the colonial government to attempt stoneware.  They got funding.  While soliciting information from southern stoneware potters, Isaac suddenly died.  Grace carried on.  She was the first potter to make stoneware in New England.  She continued until 1754, when the French Indian War ruined her business and small pox ruined her.   (Some, however, believe Grace was just a manager – because women didn’t make pottery.)

Nobody denies that Maria Crafts Kellog made stoneware in Whately, MA in the 1850’s.  Slip decorated crocks of hers can be seen at the Whately Historical Society.  Crafts Avenue in nearby Northampton was named after the Crafts family.  Thomas Crafts, her uncle and Whatley’s most famous potter, apparently favored Maria.  He, like many potters, farmed out his relations to various locales, establishing new potteries to increase his market.  He sold each of his sons the plot of land of his they settled on.  Only Maria was given a homestead for free.

In indigenous societies, of course, women did make pottery.  It was “part of their domain”.  Even Colono Ware, native pottery for the Anglo market, was made by women.  Still, to this day in many parts of rural Meso America, women potters might rather be called “comalleristas” (cooking dish makers).  It wasn’t until the Spanish introduced the potter’s wheel and all its attendant gadgetry in the 1500’s, that men got involved (or so the evidence suggests).

It is reasonable, even sane, to deny a theory where no evidence exists.  Lots of grief could be avoided by applying this simple rule.  Case in point; our current involvement in Iraq.  But to successfully maintain a pottery culture, it takes a community.

Readings:

Ceramics in America. Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

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.

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

Pottery of the American Indians. Helen Stiles.  E.P. Dutton & Co./New York. 1939.