Archive for the ‘Creamware’ Category

The Name of the Game

August 20, 2017

Suppose your pottery shop has a pretty good reputation. Suppose your neighborhood is full of pretty good pottery shops, maybe 30 or so. Suppose you all make pretty much the same stuff. And suppose you all even formed a collective of sorts to help everyone manage business. Now suppose that “neighborhood” covers only 2 or 3 city blocks. And suppose that “reputation” means an entire continent eagerly standing in line to buy your neighborhood’s handiwork.

About 340 years ago those “neighborhood potteries” were in the town of Delft. That “collective” was the Guild of St. Luke. And that “reputation” ruled Europe for almost a hundred years.

A question arises. Why didn’t those Dutch potteries sign their work? With such high demand, and in such tight quarters – 2 or 3 city blocks! – why did they opt for anonymous group identity over individual recognition? Today we immediately imagine signing our work as basic marketing. Branding. A signature on a pot seems the most obvious way of saying: “Hey! I’m over here!” But that’s just our perspective.

Delft potteries did ultimately sign their work. Their dominance in Europe, begun during a vacuum left by a prolonged civil war in China with its curtailing of export porcelain production, was being challenged. The war had ended, and Chinese porcelain was back. Also, other European potteries were getting serious about their own faience, porcelain, and creamware. This competition threatened delftware’s very existence. It was sink or swim, so they signed – and most ultimately sank.

But another reason why they began signing pots tells us perhaps as much about ourselves as about them. A faint but fundamental shift had happened. The delftware craze required a consistent commercial ceramic materials supply network. Nobody could do that much production while digging their own clay. Standardized materials ultimately meant easy replication of anything, anywhere, anytime. “Style” as a defining aspect of “tradition” in pottery would no longer be understood as a local distinction, tied to a specific geographic (and geologic) place with unique, communally shared values. Style would now become a showcase for individual expression based, essentially, on looks.

What does all this mean? Maybe not much. These events weren’t the beginning of that change in perception, nor its end. Still, the beginnings of the factory system in ceramics was a “writing on the wall” moment that, ironically, propelled individual fame over collective expression.

Reading:
Delffse Porceleyne, Dutch delftware 1620 – 1850. Jan Daniel van Dam. Wanderers Publishers/Amsterdam, NL. 2004.

Advertisements

Dinner with George Washington

June 30, 2013

Being George Washington meant dealing with a constant stream of visitors.  Some were invited, many were not.  Some stayed an hour, others stayed several days.  A true gentleman required sufficient accouterments to properly entertain such hoards.  Washington kept up appearances with the latest fashions from England – except during those years when imports from London dropped off dramatically.

Washington bought hefty batches of fashionable English salt glazed white stoneware through his purchasing agent Thomas Knox in Bristol long before an independent America took top spot in the Chinese porcelain trade.  One order alone was for 6 dozen “finest white stone plates,” 1 dozen “finest dishes in 6 different sizes,” 48 “patty pans” in 4 sizes, 12 butter dishes and 12 mustard pots, plus mugs, teapots, slop basins, etc.

Salt glazed white stoneware appeared during the 1730’s, once the necessary materials were available.  Specifically, rock salt from Cheshire (after 1670), white ball clays from Devon and Dorset (after 1720) and calcined flint.  Just as this fine grained clay body came into use, so too did plaster molds.  By 1740 press molded salt white stoneware was all the rage.  It was cheaper than porcelain and sturdier than delft.  Salt white soon toppled delftware’s predominance – and was just as quickly supplanted by creamware

Thus marked the inception of the “dinnerware set” and the quantum leap from craft pottery to factory production.  Once cracks appeared in porcelain’s allure, China’s fortunes also waned.

Back at Mt. Vernon Washington’s order arrived, leading him to fire off a note to Knox on January 8, 1758:  “The Crate of Stone ware don’t contain a third of the pieces I am charg’d with, and only two things broke, and every thing very high charg’d.”  Despite this, another order followed:  “½ doz’n dep white stone Dishes sort’d” and “3 doz’n Plates deep and Shallow.”  (Deep = soup bowl, shallow = dinner plate.)

The January 8 note hints at another, more practical, reason for such large orders.   Pots jammed into wooden crates and tossed into ships’ holds for transatlantic shipment could suffer considerable breakage.  Buyers needed plenty of ‘spare parts.’

Salt white’s history is interesting, but that last comment gives pause for thought.  If potters today didn’t go bubble wrap crazy when packing for UPS, how would that affect our average order size?

  Salt White Plate

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

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

Salt Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  Janine Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2009.

 

The Era of Good Feelings

March 10, 2013

Raise your hand if you can name all the presidents.  And if memorizing them made you sleep through every history class from then on? 

The uses to which we put history determines it’s shelf life.  This adage is blatantly visible in English transfer print export pottery to America (ie; show me the money).  Take the first five presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (of course).  Their shelf life varied.

Everybody loved George Washington (president from 1789-1797).  Shelves full of English export ware commemorated his administration.  Perhaps that’s to be expected of any revolution’s central “founding father.”

There is practically no English export ware commemorating John Adams (1797-1801).  Maybe Adams was just too dour for the English.  But he’d have to be pretty dour to trump the English  love of commerce.

Things got somewhat back to normal with Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).  Even if many of his likenesses were really just “clip art” portraits with his name pasted under them.  No matter, as long as the name sold.

James Madison (1809-1817) held his own, though he declared a fairly pointless war against England in 1812.  But by then English pottery firms knew the extent of the American market and were prepared to go the distance in catering to popular demand.

Which brings us to James Monroe (1817-1825).  He too had his day.  But presidential portrait pottery had begun it’s decline.  Not so much because of the Monroe Doctrine, but because English firms were catching on to what American potters already knew.  Politics as decoration can be a hard sell.  Practically no American pottery company bothered with political imagery until the election of 1840.  Landscapes, flowers, and famous places were partisan neutral.

The irony is that Monroe’s Democratic-Republican party had wiped out the opposition Federalists.  George Washington’s original ideal of a ‘party-less’ government was within reach. 

The country was still wracked by economic crises, but the opposition party had imploded from it’s own colossal intransigence and a major war was over.  People called the time “The Era Of Good Feelings.”  Yes, people once actually spoke like that about American national politics.   

To those who warn that we risk repeating the past, I say “I wish.”

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

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

 

Flow Blue

August 19, 2012

History never repeats itself.  It just rhymes.  Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery.  Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware.  When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal.  Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor.  Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.”  Then to whiter “Pearlware.”  Then to even whiter “Ironstone.”  (An abridged history, but there it is.)

Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy.  What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone.  At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable.  Intensity incarnate.  “Flow Blue.”

Was this just a happy accident?  Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful.  But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries.  That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared.  Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow.  There was nothing accidental about it.  But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.

Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all.  Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism.  The result?  A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.

Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.”  But price lists of the time belie this notion.  Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s.  Flow Blue stood out from the crowd.  It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values.  (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)

Post script:

The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850).  Super cheap because of the cracks.  But they are addictive.  I feel their presence without even looking at them.  They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.

Flow Blue Plate

Readings:
Flow Blue.  A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values.  Jeffery Snyder.  Schiffer/Atglen PA.  2004.

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

 

41°43 55″N 49°56 45″W

October 15, 2011

Chamber pots elicit more interest from historians than almost any other pottery type.  Maybe it’s just that “potty humor” is so hard to resist, even for professionals.  Historians and especially archeologists would counter that chamber pots provide excellent dating of sites.  Entire chronologies of occupation can be built on the progression of chamber pot styles found at any given location.

The general picture (as relating to England’s North American Colonies) goes sort of like this:

  • Early 17th century, Westerwald grey stoneware chambers are common;
  • Around 1660, Westerwald with manganese decoration begins;
  • After 1689, Rhenish salt glazed chambers arrive  thanks to the co-regency of William and Mary (The sheer volume of German stoneware chambers found here conjures up curious images of ships loaded with chamber pots thrashing their way across the Atlantic.);
  • Around 1700, Delft gets into the market;
  • By the 1740’s, English white salt fired chambers take over;
  • By 1770, Scratch blue is all the rage;
  • Very soon thereafter comes transfer print Creamware;
  • Of course, Chinese export porcelain and local production season the mix.

Chamber pots made very practical – and popular – wedding gifts.  This can be borne out by various endearing sayings written on them such as “Each morning I salute you with a loving caress.”  Or, “When it’s time for you to piss, think of one who gave you this.”  For the biblically minded “Lot’s wife looked back.”  And who could resist a political dig once in a while?  Not Josiah Wedgwood.  While he personally agreed with Prime Minister William Pitt on American independence, he nevertheless saw the profit potential from chambers inscribed “We will shit on Mr. Pitt.”  The list goes on.  And on…

…OK, potty humor.

For me, though, the most powerful emotion that chamber pots elicit is sadness.  I think of the most tragic pot I’ve ever come across.  It’s an ironstone chamber pot.  White, plain, no frills or decorations.  Machine molded probably just before 1912.

By itself, there would be nothing remarkable about this chamber pot.  Except it’s location.  It is sitting perfectly upright on the floor of the Atlantic ocean.  It’s last, and quite probably only user was a passenger on the ill fated RMS Titanic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Devon Pottery and its Export to America in the 17th Century.  C. Malcolm Watkins.  Smithsonian Inst./Wash DC.  1960.

Clay in the Hands of the Potter, An exhibition of pottery manufacture in the Rochester and Genesee Valley Region c. 1793-1900.   Rochester Museum and Science Center.  1974.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

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.