Archive for the ‘pottery prices’ Category

Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

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We Make Earthenware Fast

May 5, 2013

There was a conversation between two 19th century redware potters that never actually happened.  Their little ‘chat’ was just a letter to a friend and a newspaper ad written in two different states several decades apart.

Norman Judd worked in Rome, NY starting in 1814.  Rome was a frontier boom town at the time,  catering to fortune seekers on their way to the Western Reserve (preset day Ohio).  In such a place people cared only about cheap, instant access to the necessities of life.  Anyone willing to mass produce tableware could make a quick buck.  Bennington trained Judd was just the guy for the job.  He described his life to a friend:

“We make Earthenware fast – have burned 8 kilns since the 8th of last May – amtg to $1500 – Ware here is ready cash.  It is now 8 o’clock at night, I have just done turning bowls – I rest across my mould bench while writing – no wonder if I do make wild shots…”

James Grier faced a very different situation.  When he started his Mount Jordan Pottery in Oxford, PA in 1828, the competition was fierce and growing fiercer.  Grier, and his son Ralph who took over the shop in 1837, followed the (by then) common path of advertising their talents in local newspapers to set themselves apart from the crowd.  Most 19th century pottery ad language tended to the ‘best there ever was’ sort of hyperbole.  But Ralph Grier took a slightly different tack.  An 1868 notice in the “Oxford Press” read:

“EARTHENWARE of all kinds of the very best quality.  No poor ware ‘cracked up’ and foisted upon the public.”

What potter has not at one time or another teetered into the depths of the chasm exposed between these two sentiments?

Readings
American Redware.  William Ketchum Jr.  Holt & Co./Ney York.  1991.

 

Nothing Too Good For America

February 2, 2013

Those who say punctuation is everything really mean context is everything.  For example, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”  Or is it “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”  Hmmm.

This game has been played for centuries.  Josiah Wedgwood once wrote in a letter to his partner Thomas Bentley “we can sell nothing too good to America.”

The American market had grown exponentially since independence.  English pottery firms amassed huge fortunes from the insatiable American cash cow.  And Wedgwood, with his “almost American love for the extension of business” was one of the first to the trough.

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so demanding, that his firm had to aspire to the heights of quality to stand out from the crowd.  Wedgwood learned how to create a buzz through years of marketing experience at home.  He pandered to American nouveau riche with high-end goods which the middle classes could only drool at.  Furthermore, there was enough money in America to sustain even these inflated price points.  How else could he survive in such a competitive market…

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so profitable, that his firm could get away with selling anything scraped off the shop floor.  Wedgwood pioneered the concept of unloading merchandise whose sole virtue was a rock bottom price tag (“seconds”) to America.  Even these showed a tidy profit.  So why bother with sending anything better…

Of course.

Readings:
If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

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.

On The Road Again

October 28, 2012

potter

You arrive after a nine hour drive.  Your spot is half taken over by another vendor, unwittingly moved there by promoters with too much going on to know better.  Your new spot puts you right where the wind hits hardest and the sun blasts down on you all day.  The promoters schedule all sorts of musicians, games and other “family friendly” activities to make the show “more attractive.”  This strategy works: parents flock to the show looking only to cheaply entertain their kids.  The few actual buyers are equally distracted by all the fun…

Anyone who scratches out a living selling pots at craft fairs can tell this story.  Booth fees, hotel expenses, gas, food, several days away from the shop.  And for what?

Selling pots was a different game in the early 18th century.  Peddlers strapped wooden boxes full of pots on their backs and walked from town to town until everything was sold.  Rain or shine.  In England, both makers and buyers had a name for these particular peddlers.  “Potters” of course.  It was an excruciatingly limited career.  English “potters” disappeared with the rise of toll roads, canals and trains.

But those days aren’t really past.  Women potters in rural Central America still do this.  They balance pots atop their heads and set out on foot to the nearest market town, often several hours away.  Once there they walk the streets hoping to sell.  They can’t be out too late or the walk home will be in the dark.  Very dangerous.  They’re exhausted, with many pots often unsold.  Just then “middle men” in trucks appear out of nowhere.  They offer pennies for the unsold pots.  Everybody knows these guys will drive to much better market areas and make far greater profits.  But what choice is there?

The daughters of these potters see how hard the work is.  How dirty it is.  How little pay there is.  Various “free trade” agreements flood market towns (their life blood) with cheap plastic stuff from China.  It’s no surprise that pottery, once a defining aspect of the local culture, is rapidly fading.  The loss is staggering.

…Back at that silly “family friendly” show, one ponders the arc of progress over the course of years and miles.

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

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

Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

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

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.

I Should Have Been A Potter

May 13, 2012

As stoneware potters go, Absalom Stedman wasn’t the most colorful  (practically nothing is written about him), nor the most prolific (his pots never seem to have made it into pottery history books).  Absalom made salt-glazed, incised, cobalt decorated stoneware in New Haven, CT during the 1820s -30’s.  But he was capable enough to do some fine work, at Stedman Jugleast now and then.

The three gallon jug to the right is proof of that last comment.  Absalom threw this jug sometime between 1825-30.  Its steady and purposeful form speaks to a lifetime of confidently pursuing the potter’s craft.  The jug is a beautifully proportioned masterpiece of early American stoneware.

The jug is adorned with an incised eagle with shield and Masonic symbol, clutching an American flag and arrows in its talons.  The shielded eagle was a popular motif of the time.  But potters – and many others – hadn’t yet worked out the details of their young country’s icon.  Many eagle depictions were awkward and clumsy (then again, some potters just weren’t that good of draftsmen).  But this sprawling bird gracefully wraps itself around the jug’s shoulder, occupying the space in a most successful manner.

Such a jug would probably have sold for around 16 cents in the mid 1820’s.  Of course, the “dollar” was a different beast then.  It would be difficult to give a relative value of that price today.  Still, 16 cents was pretty cheap even by 1825 standards…

On May 5th, 2012, Absalom’s jug came up for auction by the antiques dealers Pook and Pook.  The winning bid: $402,900.00.  This was a world record for 19th century American stoneware.

Absalom Stedman, where are you now?

Readings:

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1.  Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860.  David and Linda Arman.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.  1998.

American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.