Archive for the ‘pottery’ Category

Fist Fights

January 26, 2014

A question arises when pondering the utter chaos currently unfolding in war torn areas across the globe: Where did they get all those guns?  The modern world is flooded with weaponry.  Narrowly defined Second Amendment arguments notwithstanding, a gigantic (and barely regulated) weapons industry makes a damned good profit off of death and destruction.  It wasn’t always like this… 

Anyway, once upon a time an intense rivalry existed between potters in the port city of Vila Nova, Portugal.  Vila Nova was home to a booming tin glazed pottery export industry about 100 years before northern European ‘delftware’ swept all before it.

Not much is written in English about Portuguese pottery.  Lisbon was the first and biggest production center.  As Lisbon’s reputation grew, potters in other areas got in on the trade.  Just before Portuguese independence from Spain in 1635 a huge spike in popularity occurred.  Suddenly all Portuguese, rich and poor, used tin glazed ware.  Most of it was plain, and much of that was intended for convents (Portugal had lots of convents).  But the blue and white stuff was the best in the world at the time.

Vila Nova was well suited for shipping pottery to other places, so potters there wanted in.  The trouble was, they had no clay.  They imported clay from Lisbon.  Vila Nova potters seem to have had no mutually accepted way of dividing up the shipments, except one.  It was not uncommon for fist fights to break out at the docks.  The biggest fists got first in line.

Quality tanked once tin glazing spread to the rest of Europe.  From then on Portugal’s potters basically copied whatever was popular at the time.  And after the rise of Delft, Portuguese wares were mostly directed to their own rural market.

Back on the Vila Nova docks, the potters could have resorted to the courts to settle their differences had they thought to draw up legal contracts for purchasing clay.  But lawyers often get short shrift for hawking their peculiar ‘wares.’ Still, I’d prefer a lawyer’s method of conflict resolution over fist fights.  Even more so over today’s facile method of simply blowing someone’s head off.

Reading:

Portuguese Faience in England and Ireland (British Archaeological Reports International Series).  Tania Manuel Casimiro.   British Archaeological Reports/London.  2011.

 

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Fate

January 13, 2014

Instead of ranting on the travails of redware mugs, and by extension all pottery,we offer the musings of a guest contributor.  Benjamin Franklin’sA Meditation on a Quart Mugg” was originally posted on July 19, 1733.  (Presented here in redacted form because Ben could go on once he got up to speed.  For the brave of heart, see this entry’s Comments for the full Meditation.)

Wretched, miserable, and unhappy Mug! I pity thy luckless Lot, I commiserate thy Misfortunes, thy Griefs fill me with Compassion, and because of thee are Tears made frequently to burst from my Eyes.

How often have I seen him compell’d to hold up his Handle at the Bar, for no other Crime than that of being empty; then snatch’d away by a surly Officer, and plung’d suddenly into a Tub of cold Water: Sad Spectacle, and Emblem of human Penury, oppress’d by arbitrary Power!

How often is he hurry’d down into a dismal Vault, sent up fully laden in a cold Sweat, and by a rude Hand thrust into the Fire!

How often have I seen it obliged to undergo the Indignities of a dirty Wench; to have melting Candles dropt on its naked Sides, and sometimes in its Mouth, to risque being broken into a thousand Pieces, for Actions which itself was not guilty of!

How often is he forced into the Company of boisterous Sots, who say all their Nonsence, Noise, profane Swearing, Cursing, and Quarreling, on the harmless Mug, which speaks not a Word!

…And yet, O Mug! if these Dangers thou escapest, with little Injury, thou must at last untimely fall, be broken to Pieces, and cast away, never more to be recollected and form’d into a Quart Mug. Whether by the Fire, or in a Battle, or choak’d with a Dishclout, or by a Stroke against a Stone, thy Dissolution happens; ’tis all alike to thy avaritious Owner; he grieves not for thee, but for the Shilling with which he purchased thee!

If thy Bottom-Part should chance to survive, it may be preserv’d to hold Bits of Candles, or Blacking for Shoes, or Salve for kibed Heels; but all thy other Members will be for ever buried in some miry Hole; or less carefully disposed of, so that little Children, who have not yet arrived to Acts of Cruelty, may gather them up to furnish out their Baby-Houses: Or, being cast upon the Dunghill, they will therewith be carted into Meadow Grounds; where, being spread abroad and discovered, they must be thrown to the Heap of Stones, Bones, and Rubbish; or being left until the Mower finds them with his Scythe, they will with bitter Curses be tossed over the Hedge; and so serve for unlucky Boys to throw at Birds and Dogs; until by Length of Time and numerous Casualties, they shall be press’d into their Mother Earth, and be converted to their original Principles.

Reading

http://www.historycarper.com/1733/07/19/a-meditation-on-a-quart-mugg/

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.

Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

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.

 

We Make Earthenware Fast

May 5, 2013

There was a conversation between two 19th century redware potters that never actually happened.  Their little ‘chat’ was just a letter to a friend and a newspaper ad written in two different states several decades apart.

Norman Judd worked in Rome, NY starting in 1814.  Rome was a frontier boom town at the time,  catering to fortune seekers on their way to the Western Reserve (preset day Ohio).  In such a place people cared only about cheap, instant access to the necessities of life.  Anyone willing to mass produce tableware could make a quick buck.  Bennington trained Judd was just the guy for the job.  He described his life to a friend:

“We make Earthenware fast – have burned 8 kilns since the 8th of last May – amtg to $1500 – Ware here is ready cash.  It is now 8 o’clock at night, I have just done turning bowls – I rest across my mould bench while writing – no wonder if I do make wild shots…”

James Grier faced a very different situation.  When he started his Mount Jordan Pottery in Oxford, PA in 1828, the competition was fierce and growing fiercer.  Grier, and his son Ralph who took over the shop in 1837, followed the (by then) common path of advertising their talents in local newspapers to set themselves apart from the crowd.  Most 19th century pottery ad language tended to the ‘best there ever was’ sort of hyperbole.  But Ralph Grier took a slightly different tack.  An 1868 notice in the “Oxford Press” read:

“EARTHENWARE of all kinds of the very best quality.  No poor ware ‘cracked up’ and foisted upon the public.”

What potter has not at one time or another teetered into the depths of the chasm exposed between these two sentiments?

Readings
American Redware.  William Ketchum Jr.  Holt & Co./Ney York.  1991.

 

The Potter Makes Everything

January 20, 2013

Nobody messed with Johannes Neesz and got away with it.  Or maybe he just had a peculiar sense of humor.  Once upon a time a minister invited Johannes to lunch to discuss an order of dishes the minister wanted, adorned with pious sayings.  Johannes arrived promptly but was kept waiting for 2 hours.  One of the plates finally delivered read, “I have never been in a place where people eat their dinner so late.  Anno in the year 1812.”

Enigmas, or inside jokes, defined  late 18th – early 19th century Bucks and Montgomery County PA Germanic “tulip wares.”  Flowers, people and animals that no sane person could ever tire of looking at were paired with commentary (maybe or maybe not arcanely reflecting religious sentiments) around the rim.   A plate with a beautiful peacock surrounded by vined flowers by Georg Hübener (active 1785 – 1798) read, “Surely no hawk will seize this bird because the tulips bend over it.  The kraut is well pickled but badly greased, Master Cook.” Other oddities included “I am very much afraid my naughty daughter will get no man” (Henry Roudebuth, 1813).  “Early in the morning I fry a sausage in sour gravy” (Michael Scholl, c.1811).  “To consume everything in gluttony and intemperance before my end makes a just testament” (Jacob Scholl).

German emigration beginning in the 1680’s brought a well developed sgraffito style with copper green highlights (unlike English counterparts) to the area.  But the late 18th century uniquely American development of the fruit pie caused an explosion in decorated dishes.  Dishes by Johannes Neesz (sometimes spelled Nase, or Nesz, as on his 1867 gravestone) stood out.  He experimented with black backgrounds for his sgraffito.  He combined sgraffito with colored slips.

More importantly, he carried sgraffito beyond just pie plates and onto all sorts of thrown works, from tea sets to pickle jars, shaving basins, and more.  Others previously had dallied with this.  Others since would go further.  But Johannes purposefully pushed the boundaries of what was possible in tulip ware.

That last point is a godsend for modern redware potters.  It’s how we justify our ‘interpretive drift’ of splashing sgraffito on just about anything.  Because of Johannes, we can substitute “historically accurate” for “this is what I prefer to do.”

Johannes Neesz might respond with another popular sgraffito adage, “Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”

Readings:
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

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

On The Road Again

October 28, 2012

potter

You arrive after a nine hour drive.  Your spot is half taken over by another vendor, unwittingly moved there by promoters with too much going on to know better.  Your new spot puts you right where the wind hits hardest and the sun blasts down on you all day.  The promoters schedule all sorts of musicians, games and other “family friendly” activities to make the show “more attractive.”  This strategy works: parents flock to the show looking only to cheaply entertain their kids.  The few actual buyers are equally distracted by all the fun…

Anyone who scratches out a living selling pots at craft fairs can tell this story.  Booth fees, hotel expenses, gas, food, several days away from the shop.  And for what?

Selling pots was a different game in the early 18th century.  Peddlers strapped wooden boxes full of pots on their backs and walked from town to town until everything was sold.  Rain or shine.  In England, both makers and buyers had a name for these particular peddlers.  “Potters” of course.  It was an excruciatingly limited career.  English “potters” disappeared with the rise of toll roads, canals and trains.

But those days aren’t really past.  Women potters in rural Central America still do this.  They balance pots atop their heads and set out on foot to the nearest market town, often several hours away.  Once there they walk the streets hoping to sell.  They can’t be out too late or the walk home will be in the dark.  Very dangerous.  They’re exhausted, with many pots often unsold.  Just then “middle men” in trucks appear out of nowhere.  They offer pennies for the unsold pots.  Everybody knows these guys will drive to much better market areas and make far greater profits.  But what choice is there?

The daughters of these potters see how hard the work is.  How dirty it is.  How little pay there is.  Various “free trade” agreements flood market towns (their life blood) with cheap plastic stuff from China.  It’s no surprise that pottery, once a defining aspect of the local culture, is rapidly fading.  The loss is staggering.

…Back at that silly “family friendly” show, one ponders the arc of progress over the course of years and miles.

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

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

Jugtown, USA

October 14, 2012

“Get big or get out.”
Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, Nixon Administration.

They say potters make good cooks.  Some do.  More to the point, for ages having things to put things in was crucial to subsistence survival.  (Not that anything’s changed, we just don’t think about it as such).  Obviously diet dictates the containers we need for processing, storing and eating food.  Just as obviously potters across the globe have made these containers for centuries – thus the cooking assumption.

Potters used to congregate where clay deposits and transportation routes coincided to best accomplish their work.  Early on in the US such communities were called “jugtowns.”  Imagine a US map with a shot gun blast through it.  That would be a jugtown map.  They were scattered everywhere.  Some big, many small.  They began in places like Yorktown VA to Charleston MA and beyond.

Some jugtowns got bigger and more organized as time went by and pottery technology evolved.  Particularly in pottery neighborhoods of Bennington VT, Utica and Albany, NY, Portland, ME, Trenton, NJ, and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

But all that was prologue.  The big break out followed the westward migration across Indian lands.  Gigantic jugtowns – factory towns really – sprouted up, pushed west by the railroads.  East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.  After Redwing, new jugtowns were unnecessary.  By then railroads could deliver crockery just about anywhere.

But something else was at play.  Advances in glass, canning and refrigeration radically changed food preparation, storage and even menus.  The need for things to put things in was forever altered.  Big proved fatal.  Pottery faded to irrelevance.

The food industry certainly made pottery important.  But food almost killed pottery as well.  Interest in hand made pottery was just barely kept alive through China painting, the Arts and Crafts movement, and (later) even the GI Bill.  But then Ray Kroc and his ilk whacked us with “fast food.”  There’s little need for a plate or even a paper bag when eating a sandwich, burger or wrap.

About all that’s left for potters today is the ‘moral high ground’ of aesthetics.  This was evident even in the founding of “Jugtown” NC back in 1922.  Nice, but not critical to most household budgets.

Of course many modern potters can eloquently defend their existence.  Still, without a clear idea of where we’re coming from how do we know where we’re going to?

Readings:
American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

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

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

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

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

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

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts.  Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

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

Turners and Burners.  Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Prerss/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

Readings:
Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.