Archive for the ‘Pottery and Economics’ Category

Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

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Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

The Hit Parade #4: Ceramic Insulator for Low Tension Power Lines

April 5, 2015

Insulator Are David and Goliath stories true?  Can a humble insulator be considered among the ceramic greats?  To answer, consider who made this specific insulator, when, and why. 

During the 1980’s in Sandinista-led Nicaragua, the “Organizacion Revolucionario de Descapacitados,” or “Revolutionary Organization of Handicapped Veterans,” (ORD), ran a stoneware pottery shop as part of their rehabilitation training program.

Their clay came from a deposit near the village of El Sauce (“El Sow-se”) that displayed, along the length of a long gully, the entire erosion process from feldspathic rock, to white primary clay, to secondary ball clay, then to earthenware.  Their glaze consisted primarily of dust from Momotombo, Nicaragua’s largest volcano. 

Potters for Peace helped the ORD develop a project to produce ceramic insulators for a fraction of the price of existing insulators bought from Brazil.  (I built a kiln with the ORD for this project). 

A US-created coalition of political parties (an open reality in Nicaragua that included some bizarre bedfellows) electorally ousted the Sandinistas in 1990.  An application for US Agency for International Development (AID) funds was quickly granted.  The AID package included funds to purchase (only) US made insulators at four times the ORD’s price.  With a stroke of a pen, the ORD contract was broken.  Their pottery shop faced closure.

Potters for Peace mounted an awareness/fund-raising campaign featuring various elementary schools in the US asking the AID to amend their package to include ORD insulators.  The kids raffled insulators and wrote letters to their representatives and to the AID.  The campaign worked!  The contract was (partially) renewed.

So once upon a time, a humble little clay object found itself smack in the middle of the Cold War.  A small, impoverished country’s war wounded unwittingly found their gesture of self-determination pitted against an antagonistic super power’s economic might.  With this ceramic insulator as their icon, the underdog won. 

The moral of the story:  Truly progressive, “politically inspired” ceramics efforts encompass projects well beyond the flash and glitz of protest, criticism, and confrontation.  These powerful efforts can be found in the most unlikely of places. 

This beautiful little ceramic insulator, my friends, is the real deal.

The Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790.  Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans).  It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD.  Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and  England’s Industrial Revolution.

Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase.  But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line.  That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase. 

Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.)  And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans.  And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions.   And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig.  And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up).  And the sprig didn’t deform or crack.  And it stayed on during drying and firing.  And the entire process was made to be repeated.  And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?).  And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”

Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery. 

Perhaps.  But there’s a flip side.  Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics.  It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure.  But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people.  Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.

Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.

If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…

Reading:

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

The Map That Changed The World.  Simon Winchester.  Harper Perennial/London.  2009.

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

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

 

Adam Smith Wasn’t Always Right

February 23, 2014

In economics, success and growth walk hand in hand.  Except when they don’t.  George Henderson’s Dorchester Pottery Works in Dorchester, MA started as a large industrial stoneware factory but ended up flourishing as a small family run pottery.

George started the business in 1885.  His factory employed 28 workers who turned out “industrial” salt fired stoneware crocks, acid jars, etc.  George built a gigantic newfangled gas fired downdraft kiln in 1914.  It cost a whopping $250,000 and was one of only two of it’s kind in the nation at the time.

This situation presented George with a choice: continue with salt firing (and what salt would do to his phenomenally expensive kiln) or switch to glazed work.  Glazing meant either an Albany slip or a feldspathic Bristol glaze.  George opted for the Bristol glaze.

The British invented the Bristol glaze as an alternative to both lead and salt.  The off-white Bristol glaze used zinc oxide, calcium, feldspar, and china clay to create the world’s first eutectic “trick.”  That is, by mixing zinc and calcium (both requiring very high temperatures to melt), their combined melting point becomes dramatically lower.  Thus, Bristol glazes matured at low temperatures, speeding up firing time and lowering fuel usage.

America imported Bristol glazes since their creation in the early 19th century.  But potters at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884 were especially impressed.  Before 1920 Bristol was generally used in combination with the black Albany slip glaze.  After 1920, it was pretty much Bristol all the way.

When George Henderson died in 1928, his son Charles struggled with the albatross his dad left him. Demand for industrial wares plummeted during the Great Depression.  In 1940, Charles’ wife Ethel took charge.  Ethel scaled everything way back and switched to just tableware.  In the process, Dorchester became the first American pottery to fully develop the Bristol glaze’s potential for precise detail and extreme control of painted decoration.

For the next 40 years Dorchester turned out decorative tableware.  Many of their most popular designs came from customer suggestions.  Ethel and George were even able to retain a few of the Italian potters George’s dad had imported to work in the factory, including their principle thrower Nando Ricci.

Fire destroyed the building and the business in 1979.  But the Dorchester Pottery Works left behind a reassuring legacy; It’s ok to be small.

Readings:

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

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

 

Erin Go Bragh

February 9, 2014

Ireland might not be the first stop on most people’s tour of historic tin-glazed pottery centers.  But surprises await even on the byways of pottery history…

Irish delftware production began in Belfast around 1697.  Coincidentally, a large deposit of particularly well suited high lime content clay was easily accessible at nearby Carrick Fergus.  This Carrick Fergus clay was so well suited to the job that most English delftware potteries imported it for their own work.  Delft potters (in Holland, that is) imported clay from Norwich, England and mixed it half and half with their own deposits.  But Delft prohibited exportation of it’s own clay to other places.

Delftware potters of Lambeth, England saw an opportunity in the early 1700’s to cut into Belfast’s market.  They hired John Bird to set up a delftware shop in Dublin.  His first kiln load failed, by all accounts, in a particularly “spectacular” fashion.  Given the history of kiln failures, this must have been quite a failure.  John was immediately fired.

John Bird had developed a special firebox design for his kilns, using coal as fuel.   John promised to freely share his coal firing technology as part of his original deal with his backers.  John’s patent is the first recorded use of a coal fired kiln.  The technology rapidly spread throughout England and beyond.

Irish delftware sales agents travelled with England’s mercenary armies, virtual mobile towns, operating in the North American colonies during the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War).  A large number of Scottish and Irish mercenaries were drafted for the war effort.  Once on American soil, these mercenaries were told to stay (England wanted them out of the way back home).  The ex-pats turned to Ireland for their pottery needs when they settled into villages after the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg ended the war in 1763.  What marketing!

The Scotch Irish mercenaries hated England as a result of their abandonment by the crown.  Their presence in the colonies added considerable fuel to the growing revolutionary fervor.  But that, as they say, is another story altogether…

Erin Go Bragh!

Reading:
English & Irish Delftware.  1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.

Fist Fights

January 26, 2014

A question arises when pondering the utter chaos currently unfolding in war torn areas across the globe: Where did they get all those guns?  The modern world is flooded with weaponry.  Narrowly defined Second Amendment arguments notwithstanding, a gigantic (and barely regulated) weapons industry makes a damned good profit off of death and destruction.  It wasn’t always like this… 

Anyway, once upon a time an intense rivalry existed between potters in the port city of Vila Nova, Portugal.  Vila Nova was home to a booming tin glazed pottery export industry about 100 years before northern European ‘delftware’ swept all before it.

Not much is written in English about Portuguese pottery.  Lisbon was the first and biggest production center.  As Lisbon’s reputation grew, potters in other areas got in on the trade.  Just before Portuguese independence from Spain in 1635 a huge spike in popularity occurred.  Suddenly all Portuguese, rich and poor, used tin glazed ware.  Most of it was plain, and much of that was intended for convents (Portugal had lots of convents).  But the blue and white stuff was the best in the world at the time.

Vila Nova was well suited for shipping pottery to other places, so potters there wanted in.  The trouble was, they had no clay.  They imported clay from Lisbon.  Vila Nova potters seem to have had no mutually accepted way of dividing up the shipments, except one.  It was not uncommon for fist fights to break out at the docks.  The biggest fists got first in line.

Quality tanked once tin glazing spread to the rest of Europe.  From then on Portugal’s potters basically copied whatever was popular at the time.  And after the rise of Delft, Portuguese wares were mostly directed to their own rural market.

Back on the Vila Nova docks, the potters could have resorted to the courts to settle their differences had they thought to draw up legal contracts for purchasing clay.  But lawyers often get short shrift for hawking their peculiar ‘wares.’ Still, I’d prefer a lawyer’s method of conflict resolution over fist fights.  Even more so over today’s facile method of simply blowing someone’s head off.

Reading:

Portuguese Faience in England and Ireland (British Archaeological Reports International Series).  Tania Manuel Casimiro.   British Archaeological Reports/London.  2011.

 

Fate

January 13, 2014

Instead of ranting on the travails of redware mugs, and by extension all pottery,we offer the musings of a guest contributor.  Benjamin Franklin’sA Meditation on a Quart Mugg” was originally posted on July 19, 1733.  (Presented here in redacted form because Ben could go on once he got up to speed.  For the brave of heart, see this entry’s Comments for the full Meditation.)

Wretched, miserable, and unhappy Mug! I pity thy luckless Lot, I commiserate thy Misfortunes, thy Griefs fill me with Compassion, and because of thee are Tears made frequently to burst from my Eyes.

How often have I seen him compell’d to hold up his Handle at the Bar, for no other Crime than that of being empty; then snatch’d away by a surly Officer, and plung’d suddenly into a Tub of cold Water: Sad Spectacle, and Emblem of human Penury, oppress’d by arbitrary Power!

How often is he hurry’d down into a dismal Vault, sent up fully laden in a cold Sweat, and by a rude Hand thrust into the Fire!

How often have I seen it obliged to undergo the Indignities of a dirty Wench; to have melting Candles dropt on its naked Sides, and sometimes in its Mouth, to risque being broken into a thousand Pieces, for Actions which itself was not guilty of!

How often is he forced into the Company of boisterous Sots, who say all their Nonsence, Noise, profane Swearing, Cursing, and Quarreling, on the harmless Mug, which speaks not a Word!

…And yet, O Mug! if these Dangers thou escapest, with little Injury, thou must at last untimely fall, be broken to Pieces, and cast away, never more to be recollected and form’d into a Quart Mug. Whether by the Fire, or in a Battle, or choak’d with a Dishclout, or by a Stroke against a Stone, thy Dissolution happens; ’tis all alike to thy avaritious Owner; he grieves not for thee, but for the Shilling with which he purchased thee!

If thy Bottom-Part should chance to survive, it may be preserv’d to hold Bits of Candles, or Blacking for Shoes, or Salve for kibed Heels; but all thy other Members will be for ever buried in some miry Hole; or less carefully disposed of, so that little Children, who have not yet arrived to Acts of Cruelty, may gather them up to furnish out their Baby-Houses: Or, being cast upon the Dunghill, they will therewith be carted into Meadow Grounds; where, being spread abroad and discovered, they must be thrown to the Heap of Stones, Bones, and Rubbish; or being left until the Mower finds them with his Scythe, they will with bitter Curses be tossed over the Hedge; and so serve for unlucky Boys to throw at Birds and Dogs; until by Length of Time and numerous Casualties, they shall be press’d into their Mother Earth, and be converted to their original Principles.

Reading

http://www.historycarper.com/1733/07/19/a-meditation-on-a-quart-mugg/