Archive for the ‘tea pot’ Category

The One Common Denominator

April 30, 2017

What do a bowl, a pitcher, and a teapot have in common?  A spittoon, of course!

OK, as a joke this is ridiculous.  But it makes perfect sense when studying 19th century Rockingham glazed pottery in the United States.  Every potter today knows – or should know – that making pottery is only half the story.  Using pots brings them to life.  When we trace ownership and function from kiln to cabinet, some interesting patterns come to light – like the connectivity of spittoons in the Rockingham market.

Of all ceramic types made in the US during the 19th century, Rockingham best held it’s ground against the flood of British factory work, infatuation with Chinese porcelain, attempts at copying English styles, etc.  Rockingham, with scratch blue stoneware as a close second, is the most truly iconic American pottery style of that, or any, era.

In 2004, author Jane Perkins Claney decided to take a closer look at Rockingham to understand it’s longevity and attraction.  Initially, potters plastered all sorts of items with this glaze.  But as time and market observations marched on, a clearer understanding of who wanted what, and why, developed.  Production eventually narrowed down to these principle items.

Teapots tended to be favored by middling class women aspiring to a higher afternoon tea circuit rank, but couldn’t quite afford imported finery.  Pitchers were most popular among bar lounging men.  But not just any pitchers.  A molded pitcher with perforated spout predominated.  A fashion of the day was to guzzle brew straight from these pitchers.  The perforated spout kept the foamy head in place, and not all down the shirt of the sot or dandy swigging away (more sedate patrons simply liked that the spout kept the foam out of their mugs while pouring).

Rockingham bowls were found on most farmhouse dinning tables.  Farm families, and usually their farm hands, ate together at the same time.  Massive quantities were easiest served direct from large bowls, buffet style.  If you’re polite you go hungry!  Most rural households were too far apart to encourage a ‘tea circuit,’ so the next best thing was to serve huge meals in the finest bowls within the farmhouse price range: Rockingham.

So, where did the spittoon fit in?  Everywhere.  It was the single commonest Rockingham form (for obvious reasons) throughout Rockingham’s entire production history.  Spittoons were simply everywhere.  Tea parlors, public houses, homes, courthouses, trains, lady’s bathrooms.  Everywhere.

Reading:

Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830-1930.  Jane Perkins Claney.  University Press of New England/Hanover.  2004.

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The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

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.

Readings:

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

 

High Tea

July 22, 2012

Modern potters interested in the Japanese tea ceremony know that the truly great early tea wares came from Japanese (and Korean) farmer potters working with materials at hand for a rice economy.

North American farmer potters worked with materials at hand for a dairy economy.  A Tea Master critique of American redware would be interesting. Of course, Sen no Rikyu and the early Masters’ mining efforts ultimately turned their farmer potters into National Living Treasures.  American farmer potters ended up making drain pipe.

But the West did develop its own ‘tea ceremony.’  Time, place and conversation were prescribed – as in Japan – albeit with differences.  Sculpted Asian tea rites derived from ancient meditative disciplines.  Western tea rites derived from parlor etiquette.

The 17th century introduction of tea and its sibling coffee enormously impacted Western society.  Men huddled in coffee houses, debating reality and plotting revolution.  Women sipped tea in parlors, discovering strength in numbers and life beyond their husbands’ dictates.  Cafes and parlors eventually morphed into the salon culture.

This may seem frivolous compared to the solemn atmosphere of chanoyu.  But it managed to loosen the shackles imposed by hyper conservative Christian Orthodoxy just enough for later historians to call that brief time period “The Age of Reason.”  The Western ‘tea ceremony’ even developed its own sculpted discipline of balancing a dish on one’s knee while politely holding an annoyingly teeny handled cup between thumb and forefinger.

Tea propelled pottery to the forefront of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, modifying pottery along the way.  Westerners liked their tea hot (to dissolve sugar in) and served individually.  Thus, by 1760, necessitating that teeny handled cup.  A full tea set eventually consisted of 41 ceramic items: 12 teacups with saucers, 6 coffee cups with saucers, a teapot with stand, a slop “bason,” a sugar “bason,” and a cream ewer.  A two person “tete-a-tete” could be as few as 8 items.  Distinct foods, like crumpets and scones, accompanied the tea.

And it all centered on the tea pot.  Before radio, families gathered around their “brown betty.”  Watch any old English melodrama and notice how much activity occurs near the teapot.  Your tea set’s quality set the tone of your gathering, and helped establish your spot on the afternoon tea circuit hierarchy.

Then again, concern for hierarchy was equally reflected on both sides of the globe.

Readings:

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

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

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

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

The Book of Cups.  Garth Clark.  Cross River Press/New York, NY.  1980.

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