Archive for the ‘William Copeland’ Category

A Dozen Dozen Dozen

April 1, 2012

Early 19th century price sheets often sported ornate headers, flowing script, fancy borders and detailed images of items being offered.  Some almost have the feel of ‘rock concert posters’ of the time.  Prices were generally listed by the dozen.  We understand this today to mean 12 per item.

It wasn’t always like that.  In colonial and Federalist times a rural potter might instead sell by the pound.  Selling by the pound evolved (mostly) from a (mostly southern) English unit called a “cast” – the amount of clay used to make a certain quantity of pots.  As Peter Brears describes it, “a single 18 inch flowerpot made up one cast, as did 72 2½ inch or 60 3 inch plant pots.”  One only need specify how many casts one wanted and how much to pay per cast.  Simple.

Selling by capacity was another way to do business (ie; so many gallons of crocks).  Once again this counting method derived (mostly) from the (mostly northern) English “dozen.”  Dr. Robert Plot, a 17th century chronicler of English potteries, explained in 1686 that a “dozen” referred to the number of pots which, combined, held a dozen quarts.  So 24 pint vessels counted as a dozen, as did 6 two pint vessels.  This method of counting was used into the early 19th century.

At some point counting by capacity of pots gave way to counting by quantity of pots.  Robert Copeland’s thrilling late night read “Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” states, “‘The count to the dozen’ was determined by the number of a given size that would fit on a standard size of work board.”

You had to have been there.

The ‘count to the dozen’ further morphed into a long dozen, a short dozen, a sea dozen, a land dozen, etc., etc., etc.  As even these terms varied between potteries the original concept of “a dozen” meaning “12″ was set adrift.  Again, in the words of  Peter Brears, “the dozen ceased to be a rational standard unit.”

Prices today are based on a more precise mathematical formula: Cost doubled = wholesale.  Wholesale doubled = retail.  (Of course this is just a rule of thumb, even then not entirely shared by everybody….)

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg, VA.  2011.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

 

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