Archive for the ‘Stoneware’ Category

…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history.  But we look at this story backwards, from its results.  How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?

Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments.  Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.

Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value.  Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars.  These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside.  Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market.  They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware.  A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible.  Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others.  Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.

The Arabs began signing their work.  They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes.  The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.

The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!”  But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies.  Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.

The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders.  Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up.  The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.

The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain.  ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.

Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming.  Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion.  And they did all that in only 40 years.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

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The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

The Hit Parade #4: Ceramic Insulator for Low Tension Power Lines

April 5, 2015

Insulator Are David and Goliath stories true?  Can a humble insulator be considered among the ceramic greats?  To answer, consider who made this specific insulator, when, and why. 

During the 1980’s in Sandinista-led Nicaragua, the “Organizacion Revolucionario de Descapacitados,” or “Revolutionary Organization of Handicapped Veterans,” (ORD), ran a stoneware pottery shop as part of their rehabilitation training program.

Their clay came from a deposit near the village of El Sauce (“El Sow-se”) that displayed, along the length of a long gully, the entire erosion process from feldspathic rock, to white primary clay, to secondary ball clay, then to earthenware.  Their glaze consisted primarily of dust from Momotombo, Nicaragua’s largest volcano. 

Potters for Peace helped the ORD develop a project to produce ceramic insulators for a fraction of the price of existing insulators bought from Brazil.  (I built a kiln with the ORD for this project). 

A US-created coalition of political parties (an open reality in Nicaragua that included some bizarre bedfellows) electorally ousted the Sandinistas in 1990.  An application for US Agency for International Development (AID) funds was quickly granted.  The AID package included funds to purchase (only) US made insulators at four times the ORD’s price.  With a stroke of a pen, the ORD contract was broken.  Their pottery shop faced closure.

Potters for Peace mounted an awareness/fund-raising campaign featuring various elementary schools in the US asking the AID to amend their package to include ORD insulators.  The kids raffled insulators and wrote letters to their representatives and to the AID.  The campaign worked!  The contract was (partially) renewed.

So once upon a time, a humble little clay object found itself smack in the middle of the Cold War.  A small, impoverished country’s war wounded unwittingly found their gesture of self-determination pitted against an antagonistic super power’s economic might.  With this ceramic insulator as their icon, the underdog won. 

The moral of the story:  Truly progressive, “politically inspired” ceramics efforts encompass projects well beyond the flash and glitz of protest, criticism, and confrontation.  These powerful efforts can be found in the most unlikely of places. 

This beautiful little ceramic insulator, my friends, is the real deal.

The Life and Times of James Egbert

October 19, 2014

Dedicated to my friends Joe Jostes and Sue Skinner of S&J Pottery, with wishes for a safe and successful move.

There are any number of reasons why a potter would move away from a perfectly good pottery shop.  If the shop were in New York City and the year was 1795, the potter would probably be following hoards of panic stricken people fleeing the plague.

Waves of yellow fever swept through New York City almost annually from 1795 to 1805.  Entire neighborhoods were decimated within weeks.  Whoever could leave town would do so.  Many plague refugees traveled up the Hudson River to sleepy little villages like Poughkeepsie – far enough to be safe but close enough to keep up with city events.

Most refugees returned to New York as each plague episode abated.  But some, potters included, saw advantages in establishing a foothold between the metropolis and the growing hinterland.

One enterprising young stoneware potter, William Nichols, went so far as to set up shop in Poughkeepsie in anticipation of a possible plague outbreak in 1823.  He figured he’d be ready to supply pots to refugees as soon as they arrived.  Unfortunately, yellow fever didn’t strike that year and poor William lost his shirt.

Poughkeepsie’s first potters were also plague refugees.  James Egbert and Durell Williams fled New York City’s initial 1795 yellow fever outbreak.  Durell Williams was a stoneware potter and James Egbert had been a carpenter.  Durell had convinced James to try his hand at the stoneware business.  Durell eventually moved back to New York City.

But James seems to have liked both Poughkeepsie and pottery.  He continued the Poughkeepsie pottery for a while before ‘shopping around:’ working in both stoneware and redware potteries throughout the region.

James apparently had a long and healthy life, according to a June 29, 1842 article about him in the Newburgh Gazette.  But that same article told of disaster.  His kiln collapsed while he was preparing for a firing.  James Egbert survived the plague only to be crushed to death by his own kiln.

Readings:

Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague.  George Lukacs.  Arcadia Publishing/Charleston, SC.  2001.

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

World Class Connoisseurs of Salt-Fired German Stoneware

May 4, 2014

They say Germany’s two greatest contributions to Western Civilization were the Reformation and hops in beer.  And both happened at about the same time.

As condensed history, so it goes.  But hops also radically impacted pottery history.  Everybody wanted beer once early 16th century brewers, village housewives mostly, began producing it.  Kids even got their diluted “little beer” for breakfast.  And the best beer containers, before mass produced glass, were stoneware bottles.  Demand skyrocketed.  Germans had been tinkering with stoneware since the 10th century.  But 16th to 18th century salt-fired German stoneware became world renowned because of beer.

Unfortunately Germany’s Rhineland district, where the best work was made, was a playground of war for centuries.  Whole communities were continually uprooted by chronic warfare.  Rhennish potters from Raeren, Freshcen and Siegburg ultimately ended up in the somewhat calmer Westerwald region.

Along the way they picked up improvements in clays, sprig decorations, and brilliant manganese and cobalt highlights.  Their work spawned off-shoots, reproductions, fakes and revivals long after their dominance had passed.

German stoneware was so popular, English potters couldn’t prevent caveats from diluting their July 22, 1672 Parliamentary Order in Council meant to insulate local markets.  The final bill prohibited imports of “any kind or sort of Painted Earthen Wares whatsoever except those of China, and Stone bottles and Juggs.”

Tons of German stoneware, literally, were shipped to England’s North American colonies during the 18th century.  Ironically beer bottles and beer mugs, “krugen” and “cannen,” were not the top imports.  Chamber pots were.  But drinking vessels were close behind.  And they were scattered almost as far.

Colonists weren’t the only admirers of salt-fired German stoneware, however.  Many Native American burial sites included Westerwald jugs.  When pottery is done well, there are no boundaries to how far it will be collected.

a_westerwald_stoneware_pewter-mounted_armorial_jug_17th_century

Readings:
Stoneware in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.

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.

 

Adam Smith Wasn’t Always Right

February 23, 2014

In economics, success and growth walk hand in hand.  Except when they don’t.  George Henderson’s Dorchester Pottery Works in Dorchester, MA started as a large industrial stoneware factory but ended up flourishing as a small family run pottery.

George started the business in 1885.  His factory employed 28 workers who turned out “industrial” salt fired stoneware crocks, acid jars, etc.  George built a gigantic newfangled gas fired downdraft kiln in 1914.  It cost a whopping $250,000 and was one of only two of it’s kind in the nation at the time.

This situation presented George with a choice: continue with salt firing (and what salt would do to his phenomenally expensive kiln) or switch to glazed work.  Glazing meant either an Albany slip or a feldspathic Bristol glaze.  George opted for the Bristol glaze.

The British invented the Bristol glaze as an alternative to both lead and salt.  The off-white Bristol glaze used zinc oxide, calcium, feldspar, and china clay to create the world’s first eutectic “trick.”  That is, by mixing zinc and calcium (both requiring very high temperatures to melt), their combined melting point becomes dramatically lower.  Thus, Bristol glazes matured at low temperatures, speeding up firing time and lowering fuel usage.

America imported Bristol glazes since their creation in the early 19th century.  But potters at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884 were especially impressed.  Before 1920 Bristol was generally used in combination with the black Albany slip glaze.  After 1920, it was pretty much Bristol all the way.

When George Henderson died in 1928, his son Charles struggled with the albatross his dad left him. Demand for industrial wares plummeted during the Great Depression.  In 1940, Charles’ wife Ethel took charge.  Ethel scaled everything way back and switched to just tableware.  In the process, Dorchester became the first American pottery to fully develop the Bristol glaze’s potential for precise detail and extreme control of painted decoration.

For the next 40 years Dorchester turned out decorative tableware.  Many of their most popular designs came from customer suggestions.  Ethel and George were even able to retain a few of the Italian potters George’s dad had imported to work in the factory, including their principle thrower Nando Ricci.

Fire destroyed the building and the business in 1979.  But the Dorchester Pottery Works left behind a reassuring legacy; It’s ok to be small.

Readings:

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

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

 

William Fives

September 22, 2013

“…a small brown jug bears his name, in slightly uneven letters, W. Fives.” – M. Lelyn Branin.

In 1834, scions of Whately MA pottery families Orcutt and Crafts began a shop ultimately known as the Portland Stoneware Company of Portland, ME.  They churned out huge amounts of ware, mostly 1 to 4 gallon jugs.  Orcutt dropped out in 1837.  Caleb Crafts took William Fives as a partner.  Their partnership ended a few years later.  Caleb left town.  William stayed on, but never again as owner.

It seems William Fives had talent.  Many potteries traded owners during the 19th century.  But William continued at this shop through a succession of owners.  Almost like a tacit agreement that he ‘come with the shop.’

He rented an apartment on Green Street with several fellow potters.  William eventually married, bought a house and had children.  He quietly passed away on Dec 5, 1849.

In the words of genealogist Susan Hoffman, William Fives “led a very quiet life.”  Normally, that would be commendable – though somewhat dull.  In William’s case “quiet” was amazing.  His family had emigrated from Ireland in 1803.   William was Irish in the mid 19th century northeastern United States.

The Irish were roundly despised even before a mid century deluge of ragged Irish immigrants broke on these shores.  They were considered even lower than the black population at the time.  After all, white folk ‘knew’ the blacks.  Blacks spoke the same language, had the same religious beliefs, ate the same foods and, while often poor, they did not generally live in abject squalor.  Gaelic speaking Irish arrived with absolutely nothing.  They were starving, stinky, sickly and destitute.  They tended to radicalism due to past experience.  Worst of all, they were papists! Catholic!  The Irish didn’t become ‘white’ until well after the Civil War.

William Five’s Green Street apartment seemed to be a focal point for Portland Stoneware Company potters.  Their surnames suggest an eclectic work environment.  Clough (Welsh), Aliff (Breton), Vankleek (Dutch).  ‘Melting pot’ potteries might not have been rare, although it is known that some – the Norton’s of Bennington most notably – strictly favored local boys.  The Portland roster indicated a fairly open-minded environment in the midst of wide spread xenophobia and anti-Irish sentiment.

Open minds are to be treasured even in the best of times.  For that alone William Fives and his cohorts deserve notice.

Readings:
The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

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

How the Irish Became White.  Noel Ignatiev.  Routledge/New York, London.  1995.

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.

 

NASCAR

June 16, 2013

“War is hell.”  – William Tecumseh Sherman.

Automobiles excited speed freaks from the beginning.  But Prohibition bumped things up a notch.  Young men raced bootleg whiskey to backwoods delivery points.  When Prohibition ended the drivers didn’t want to stop.  One thing led to another and racing became a “sport.”  They raced each other for small stakes.  Once money got involved it became NASCAR.

The whiskey those early daredevils drove around came in salt-fired stoneware jugs.  This scenario was officially sanctioned a few brief decades before, with far reaching consequences for everyone involved.

The Civil War had ravished farms across the South.  Barns were burned and cattle herds were decimated.  Reconstruction efforts like the 1870’s Farm Alliance Program promoted corn production as a cash crop for whiskey distillation.  There simply wasn’t much livestock to feed.  Whiskey boomed.  So did the need for jugs to put it in.

One immediate consequence was that local potters couldn’t keep up with demand.  Quality predictably declined when so many newcomers flooded the market.  Many of these new potters were itinerants.  The very best were called “500 gallon men” due to the quantity they could produce in a day.  But many others were just “whiskey heads” who breezed into shops, made a few bucks, blew it all on whiskey, and drifted off again.

The stoneware whiskey jug boom also impelled several important technical innovations.  Albany slip came into common use, sealing somewhat porous jugs and protecting their precious contents.  As production grew, kilns evolved.  Some potters stayed true to their old groundhog kilns but others needed more stacking space and more consistent firing.  Kilns got shorter, taller and more fuel efficient.

During Prohibition, revenue officers looking for bootleggers would see shops filled with jugs one day and empty the next.  “Where did those jugs go?”  “I didn’t catch his name…”  Cleater Meaders of White County, Georgia remembers “Most of the liquor ended up in Atlanta or Athens – university people got most of it.”

After Prohibition, visitors from cities like Atlanta and Athens sought out rustic ceramic ‘tourist items.’  The stage was set for Jugtown and all that followed.  Meanwhile the young bootlegging drivers sped off to their own destiny.

OK, so it can’t be said that pottery alone created NASCAR.  But pottery was a crucial ingredient there at the beginning.

Readings:
Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition (1984).  Sweezy, Nancy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.

Turners and Burners.  Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.