Archive for the ‘New England’ Category

The Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.

Readings:

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

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

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

Advertisements

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

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.

 

20 Million Flower Pots

March 24, 2013

Everybody loves an underdog, as the saying goes.  But whenever a rural occupation confronts an industrial revolution, doom results. 

In this regard, early American redware potters were singularly marked.  They might marry the tavern keeper’s daughter (lots of business was transacted in taverns) or open a dry goods store (another reliable outlet) to avoid their fate.  Some switched to stoneware.  Some quit altogether.

Others found salvation in flowerpots

Abraham Hews of Weston MA wasn’t thinking this when he opened a redware shop in 1765.  He relied on ‘word-of-mouth’ sales within walking distance of Weston instead of the huge nearby Boston market.  Still, probate records at his death put him solidly in the middle income bracket.  In fact his was to be one of the few redware potteries to remain active, from father to son, until 1871. 

Abraham Hews II had big plans for the shop.  He actually listed himself in tax roles as “potter” (Abraham I only ever called himself “yeoman”).  Things went well, even though Abraham II phased out extraneous slip decoration after 1800 like most New England redware potters would.

But the writing was on the wall by the 1860’s.  The Hews family began the switch to flowerpots, both molded and hand made, to stay alive.  They relocated next to clay pits shared by North Cambridge MA brick makers in 1871. 

The Panic of 1893 erased  North Cambridge’s brick industry, leaving all that clay to A.C. Hews & Co.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the dawn of the 20th century Hews could boast an output of over 20 million flowerpots. More than anyone.  Anywhere.  Ever. 

Plastics finally slew the Hews clay flowerpot business in the 1960’s.  One family’s 200 year involvement in clay ended.  It might date me, but it’s a personal thrill to think that one small slice of redware pottery history saw it’s closing chapter in my own lifetime. 

It’s nice to feel connected.

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

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

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

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper Perennial/New York.  1989.