Archive for the ‘Costrel’ Category

A Funny Thing About Agateware

February 24, 2013

Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd.  Maybe curious is a better word.  Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions.  That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note.  Until something else came along…

Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces.  There were, are, two kinds.  Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded). 

John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670’s.  Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate.  When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740’s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose.  By the 1750’s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces.  Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780’s.

Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences). 

Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them.  Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work.  This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.  But China was weakening.  European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.

Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous.  Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away.  Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society?  Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?

Or maybe he thought it up all by himself.  Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous.  Where would be the fun in that?

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2003.  Robert Hunter, Ed.   University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2003.

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

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

 

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How To Drink Switzel

February 5, 2012

It sounds disgusting but it really isn’t that bad.  Water, ginger, vinegar, and molasses.  Switzel.  Think of it as an early Gatorade.  Especially when chilled.  But we’ll get back to that…

The “switzel ring” was just one of a long line of usages for the ring shaped jug.  This jug was essentially a disc shaped canteen

Ring Jug by Stephen Earp

with usually two but sometimes four loop handles along its shoulders.  Certain types, like the marbled “Pilgrim Jugs” from Northern Italy and eastern France (circa 15-17th century), had an attached base.  Others, like the  English “Costrel Jug,” (circa 15 – 17th century) were simply two plates fused together.  But most were a thrown hollow ring.  The ring could be short and thick, like those of the North Carolina Moravians.  Or extremely wide and thin.  Some were glazed redware, some salt fired stoneware.  Some were highly ornate, others plain.

This unusual shape could be found as far away as Russia and Ukraine, where ice was packed in the middle to dispense chilled vodka or kvass (rye beer).  Far away from Europe and long after these times, some modern Cubans use unglazed pedestaled rings filled with water and put in front of fans as a sort of passive air conditioner.  But anything this unusual and somewhat difficult to throw was (and is) as much an excuse to show off one’s potting skills as to provide any particular function.

And of course, some early American farmers drank switzel from it.  But why use a hollow ring, and not just a regular jug?  You might imagine it was so they could be slung through the arm and stuffed in the hot,  grimy, sweaty armpit of the farmer on his way to mow his hay fields – unless you’ve actually tried to do that.  Awkward, yes.  But mostly just gross.

Very soon you’ll come to agree that it’s far better to find a shady spot along a creek, lay the ring jug in it, and put a stick through it’s circle into the mud to keep it from floating away.  The enormous amount of surface area of the switzel ring in the water will keep it cool until break time.

…Nice cool switzel.  Just the way it should be drank.