Archive for the ‘Bucks County’ Category

Spartacus

July 19, 2015

Militia units from surrounding towns faced the angry crowd.  The militia captain demanded, “Who is your leader?”  The entire crowd shouted, “I’m the leader!”  This confrontation might bring to mind a famous scene from the 1960 film Spartacus.  But it actually took place on March 7, 1799 in Easton, PA., during what is known as the Fries Rebellion.

The Fries Rebellion was one of many, like the Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions, that immediately followed the Revolutionary War.  These uprisings rose from tensions between Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian self-determination, and problems of nation building with a centralized power structure.  In post-Revolutionary terms: (egalitarian) Republicanism vs. (centralized) Federalism.

The Fries Rebellion occurred in German communities of Pennsylvania’s Northampton,  Montgomery, and Bucks counties.  German immigrants had been near the bottom of the social ladder since establishing themselves in the area several decades earlier.  They were drawn to the fringes of colonial society by the allure of freedom from impoverished servitude back home.  Pennsylvanian Anglicans and Quakers, however, considered them ignorant, lawless, and alien.

Along came the Revolutionary War and it’s egalitarian promise.   Here was a chance to socially advance by joining the cause, enlisting in the Continental Army, and proving themselves as patriotic – and equal – citizens.

The Fries Rebellion, like Spartacus’ slave revolt, was quickly put down.  Unlike Spartacus, who was nailed to a pole by the Roman army, the Fries Rebellion’s nominal Republican leader John Fries (the whole point was that there should be no ‘leaders’) got a presidential pardon by Federalist John Adams.  Furthermore, the status of German communities continued to grow.

As Germans fought to secure a place in the new order, they began proudly displaying their ‘German-ness’ for all to see through quilting, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, and other decorative arts.

This was the heady environment that witnessed the flowering of Pennsylvania sgraffito redware pottery, or “Tulip Ware” as it has become affectionately known.  Yes, Tulip Ware is flowery, ornate, and pretty.  It also denotes pride and determination in the face of discrimination and disrespect.  There was no need for individual leaders in that effort, either.

2 dove heart

Reading:

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

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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.

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.