Archive for the ‘Maine’ Category

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.

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.


February 19, 2012

Benjamin Dodge began a redware pottery shop in Portland, ME in 1798 at 24 years of age.  Other Maine potters of the time sought to build huge manufacturing empires.  Benjamin took a more creative path.

His specialty was elaborately decorated jars and pitchers.  He would often incorporate the initials of the person ordering the item into it’s decoration.  Apparently his work made quite an impression.  According to a later (anonymous?) reminiscence:

“Busts of people received more care.  Most of these were in profile.  After the pieces were finished they were set in another room to dry, and it was a favorite amusement with some bad boys, whom the good man tolerated notwithstanding, to disfigure the human faces by drawing down the corners of the mouths to produce a ludicrous expression.  This disfiguring, the potter did not observe until it was too late to mend, and it was fired in the kiln with the others, set away on the shelf, and sold at reduced prices.”

The 1825 U.S. tour of the Marquis de Lafayette inspired potters across the country to commemorative themes.  When Lafayette passed through Portland, Benjamin made pieces sporting “what purported to be a likeness of Lafayette.”

Dodge’s artistic talents kept the pottery going long enough to pass it on to his son, Benjamin Junior.  Sadly, the old man began suffering what was then called “melancholy” and ultimately killed himself on June 1, 1838.

Benjamin Jr ‘took the wheel’ as the stoneware industry was carving out huge slices of the market, ultimately swamping most redware potters.  But Benjamin Jr saw opportunity where others saw a dead end.  He minimized the type of work offered and exploited qualities of earthenware unavailable in stoneware; exotic glazes.  A particularly striking green glaze earned him a diploma in 1839 at the Second Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association.  Some of his flower pots with this glaze can still be seen at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.  Terms included the de riguer “Country produce taken in exchange for ware.”

One of the longest lived and most creative redware potteries in Maine closed upon Benjamin Jr’s death in 1875.  Like his father, Benjamin Jr died by his own hand.

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.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.