Archive for the ‘Pottery and Religion’ Category

The Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.

Readings:

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

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

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The Shiny Little Tile

August 17, 2014

Who could walk away from The Alhambra in Granada, Spain feeling anything but awe?  This vacation palace of the last European Islamic Caliphate was the crown jewel of tin-glazed tile decoration.  All those shiny little Spanish tiles occupy a storied corner of pottery history.

Interior and exterior glazed tiles dominated Iberian architectural styles for centuries.  One wonders why Iberians focused on tiles instead of carved stonework as in so much contemporaneous architecture elsewhere in Europe?  Did Nasrid Moors and later Spaniards not have enough quality stone or qualified masons?   Or did they simply play to their ceramic strength when looking for visually stunning ways to compete with French and Italian stained-glass wonders?

The Iberian tile tradition traveled to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) during Christian Spain’s ‘golden years.’  Tiles were initially imported, as ship’s ballast, until a sufficiently capable tin glazed industry was established in Puebla, Mexico City, and elsewhere.

Particular attention was lavished on the wealthy Viceroyalty’s church buildings.  As a result, Mexico boasts many unique baroque tiled gems, including a convent’s kitchen.  A local bishop commissioned the decoration to honor the kitchen nuns of Puebla’s Santa Rosa Convent in recognition of their spicy new chocolate sauce called mole poblano.

Then there’s Puebla’s “Casa de Muňecos,” or “Figurine House.”  A cursory description might not place this edifice on the short list of “Mexican baroque tiled gems.”  It wasn’t even a church building.  It was built in 1792 as the home of Augustín de Ovando y Villavicencio, a local grandee.

One curious feature made the Casa stand out – it’s height.  In a move intended to make a not so subtle point, the Casa was taller than the nearby Alcaldía, or local municipal building.  This situation was either the cause or result of a spat between Ovando and his former cohorts on the local governing council.

A series of large tiled images along the length of the Casa’s facade didn’t help matters.  Each image depicted a grotesquely distorted human figure – thus the building’s name.  Legend has it these figures were intentionally designed to represent Ovando’s impression of each individual member of the town council.  For all to see.  Forever.

Ouch!

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce, and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque, NM.  2003.

The Alhambra.  Robert Irwin.  Harvard University Press/MA.  2004.

Rose Windows.  Painton Cowen.  Thames and Hudson Press/London.  1984.

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/

The Potter Makes Everything

January 20, 2013

Nobody messed with Johannes Neesz and got away with it.  Or maybe he just had a peculiar sense of humor.  Once upon a time a minister invited Johannes to lunch to discuss an order of dishes the minister wanted, adorned with pious sayings.  Johannes arrived promptly but was kept waiting for 2 hours.  One of the plates finally delivered read, “I have never been in a place where people eat their dinner so late.  Anno in the year 1812.”

Enigmas, or inside jokes, defined  late 18th – early 19th century Bucks and Montgomery County PA Germanic “tulip wares.”  Flowers, people and animals that no sane person could ever tire of looking at were paired with commentary (maybe or maybe not arcanely reflecting religious sentiments) around the rim.   A plate with a beautiful peacock surrounded by vined flowers by Georg Hübener (active 1785 – 1798) read, “Surely no hawk will seize this bird because the tulips bend over it.  The kraut is well pickled but badly greased, Master Cook.” Other oddities included “I am very much afraid my naughty daughter will get no man” (Henry Roudebuth, 1813).  “Early in the morning I fry a sausage in sour gravy” (Michael Scholl, c.1811).  “To consume everything in gluttony and intemperance before my end makes a just testament” (Jacob Scholl).

German emigration beginning in the 1680’s brought a well developed sgraffito style with copper green highlights (unlike English counterparts) to the area.  But the late 18th century uniquely American development of the fruit pie caused an explosion in decorated dishes.  Dishes by Johannes Neesz (sometimes spelled Nase, or Nesz, as on his 1867 gravestone) stood out.  He experimented with black backgrounds for his sgraffito.  He combined sgraffito with colored slips.

More importantly, he carried sgraffito beyond just pie plates and onto all sorts of thrown works, from tea sets to pickle jars, shaving basins, and more.  Others previously had dallied with this.  Others since would go further.  But Johannes purposefully pushed the boundaries of what was possible in tulip ware.

That last point is a godsend for modern redware potters.  It’s how we justify our ‘interpretive drift’ of splashing sgraffito on just about anything.  Because of Johannes, we can substitute “historically accurate” for “this is what I prefer to do.”

Johannes Neesz might respond with another popular sgraffito adage, “Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”

Readings:
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

Communist Vagabond Troublemakers

November 12, 2012

Swashbuckling tales replete with sword play and intrigue are sure-fire crowd pleasers.  But most pottery histories avoid that sort of thing.  Well…

First, the sword play.  Turn-of-the-19th-century Moravian potters of Salem NC employed colorful slipware patterns and playful forms quite in contrast to their strict religious estheticism.  Accounts of Salem market days tell of unruly mobs lunging for anything they could grab from the Moravians’ stalls.  At times the local militia had to come out – swords drawn – to keep the peace.  Moravian pottery was that good.

It all began (more or less) back in 1530.  Catholic zealots chased Protestant artisans out of Faenza Italy.  These artisans ended up in Moravia, southern Germany.  By century’s end they had either split into several groups or their pottery skills spread to other radical communist anabaptist protestant sects also sheltering in Moravia.  These migrant artisan groups, collectively known as “Habaners,” believed in strict  religious communal living and shared property ownership.

But the birth of European Capitalism was a messy thing.  The powers that be reacted savagely to religious deviants and peasant protests.  Trouble hounded the Habaners causing them to fan out across Franconia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Austria, Hungary,  Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and elsewhere.  Some such groups abandoned Europe altogether in favor of North Carolina (the “Moravians”) and elsewhere in America.

Haban pottery was originally limited to a narrow range of shapes, shunning superfluous and “unseemly” decoration.  But income from pottery sales outside the community proved too lucrative.  The bare Haban aesthetic adapted to the temperament of local cultures as the Habaners were buffeted about.  This interplay resulted in colorful slipware for the masses and majolica for the wealthy.   Haban majolica eventually became synonymous with Central European folk pottery between the 17th – 19th centuries.

The austere American Moravians similarly adapted to local raw materials and markets.  Thus the creative slipware defended by militia swords.

Depth of experience and motivation can sometimes be hard to discern in pottery as well as in people.  That’s something to keep in mind when looking at flowery painted pottery from long ago.

Readings:
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2009.

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2010.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.   Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

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.