Archive for the ‘pottery research’ Category

Practical Anthropology

December 23, 2012

It’s been asked a million times about a million things when studying the past.  Why did they do it that way?  What were they thinking?

When it comes to 17th –18th century Western European tea, coffee and chocolate pots (as it so often does) why did only the teapots have long spouts?  Only the coffee pots have elongated bodies?  Only the chocolate pots have a pinched spout like a pitcher?  Perhaps the safest answer would be ‘you just had to have been there.’

But there are other interpretations.  Chocolate was a thick liquid compared to coffee and tea.  It simply didn’t pour well from a long skinny spout.  Coffee used a substantial amount of grounds to brew.  The pot’s body had to compensate for that.  And of course tea only required a strainer to decant the thin liquid.  Here there was much more liberty of form.

Great.  So why did Western European chocolate mugs sport handles long before coffee or tea cups?  We know this in large part through research on the excavated remains of the VOC Geldermarlsen which sank in the straights of Malacca on January 3, 1752 on it’s return voyage to The Netherlands from Canton, China.  Cross referenced invoices back in Rotterdam clearly specified handled chocolate mugs decades before handles appeared on tea or coffee cups.

The answer?  Maybe chocolate (unlike tea, anyway) was understood to be drunk hot.  Maybe tea and coffee were destined more for public houses where bowls were (at least initially) commonly passed around.  Maybe everything could have had handles – or not – and further inference shouldn’t be extrapolated from one smashed up old ship.

Or maybe it’s just best to stick with ‘you had to have been there.’  The debate rages on.


The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain.  CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.



December 11, 2011

Everybody likes to look at pictures.  Especially when the topic is pottery.  So when writing about pottery, a sure way to bore readers is to omit pictures of pots.  Perhaps it’s just difficult for some potters to know what’s going on in the story without a picture every now and then to help them out…

Pictures of broken shards probably don’t count.  Even though quite often more of the ‘big picture’ can be learned about a type, technique or trajectory of development than by looking at just the whole thing.

So what about plain unglazed cylinders?  No bottoms, no tops, just plain, straight sided cylinders.  Pretty boring stuff.  But taking a step back to look at the bigger picture can be instructive.  And hopefully, not always boring.

Some Redware potters, like Hervey Brooks of Goshen CT, kept various sized cylinders about the shop.  On hearing of these, my fist thought was trimming chucks.  But Hervey didn’t trim his pots.

One day it hit me – put a cylinder on a table, fill with a material and scoot into a bucket or quern (grinding stone basin). Seven times for lead, once for “loam,” (clay).  Maybe add a little copper or manganese for extra color (or maybe pigs blood, but that’s another story).  An ingenious way to measure out glaze materials.

Works every time.  Hmm.

Ps.  For those who need pictures, here’s a couple cylinders I keep around my shop.  But these actually are trimming chucks.



Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

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


Lard Pot

May 1, 2011

The lard pot.  In relation to today’s efforts to explore clay’s vast plastic  potential, a momentary glance at this form says it all.  A somewhat curvy cylinder.  Big deal.  But nothing is a big deal if you only take a moment to consider it.

First, some history.  The “pot” in question is differentiated from it’s primordial sibling the “pan” by being taller than it is wide.  “Lard pot” is simply a reference to a specific function; storing festering, fly-covered animal fat for use in baking and cooking.  The form served a wide variety of uses both in the U.S. and its original home in Europe and the British Isles.  Several branches of the ceramic family trace their lineage to this original shape; handles led to pitchers; constricted rims became jugs; lids led to bean pots and ultimately casseroles…  But the ‘lard pot’ as a distinct form continued throughout.

Actually this is one of the oldest items in the Anglo-American potting tradition.   It was among the first forms to be made in England’s North American Colonies.  It’s production lasted two millennia until it’s extinction a mere hundred years or so ago.  So ubiquitous was this form that it’s difficult, by sight alone, to ascribe surviving examples to a particular period, place or maker.

The staying power of such a shape – passing through so many generations of hands, so many clays, so many wheels, so many kilns, so many decorative fads, across so many war-torn country sides, buffeted by so many economic and technological storms – is something remarkable.

The lard pot could be placed in a pantheon of archetypal pottery forms, along with other ‘long-distance runners’ like the Spanish/Muslim ánfora, the African beer pot, the Central American comal, and the Asian rice bowl.

Unfortunately, the lard pot epitomizes the clumsy, pedestrian nature of popular contemporary conceptions of early Redware.  But when executed in the hands of a master, it was a study in control.  With no handles, spouts, lids – or even glaze – to hide behind, proportions were critical.  The relation between base, belly and rim had to swell out enough for storage and ease of content removal, without being squat or dumpy.

To make a “lard pot” today is to converse with all those potters who laid out the path before us.  Feeling the old potters presence is a rare thing.  But when it happens, you’re in good company.

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

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

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

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

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics [13th through 18th Centuries].  Florence and Robert Lister.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

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

A Recipe for Porcelain

September 3, 2009

Past centuries have not seen porcelains, which are merely a certain mass composed of plaster, eggs, scales of marine locusts and other similar kinds, which mass being well united and worked together, is secretly hidden underground by the father of a family, who informs his children alone of it, and it remains there eighty years without seeing daylight, after which his heirs, drawing it out and finding it suitably adaptable for some kind of work, make out of it those precious transparent vases, so beautiful to the sight in form and color that architects find nothing in them to improve upon.”

Thus wrote Guido Pancirolli in the late 1500’s.  At the time, the hunt was on in Europe for the elusive formula of true porcelain.  There were many alchemists and charlatans who boasted of knowing the secret.  Addressing this muddy state of affairs, Pancirolli offered this further bit of wisdom regarding true porcelain to his readers:

Their virtues are admirable, inasmuch as one puts poison into one of these vessels it breaks immediately.  He who once buries this material never recovers it, but leaves it to his children, descendants, or heirs, as a rich treasure, on account of the profits they derive from it; and it is of far higher price than gold, inasmuch as one rarely finds any of the true material, and much that is sold is unreal.

History of Ceramic Art.  Albert Jaquemart.  Sampson, Lowe Marston, and Searle/London.  1873.