Archive for the ‘Norwalk’ Category

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.

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Pony Up The Cash

August 5, 2012

Amazingly, there are still people who think 18th – 19th century pottery is boring. But under that pottery’s constrained veneer is a rich quirky vein. One powered mostly by anonymous potters. While historians can discern individuals’ handiwork, local contemporaries most likely knew exactly who they were.

Norwalk CT excelled at this genre (and this conundrum). Norwalk was one of New England’s busiest pottery towns. It straddled the traditions of (relatively restrained) New England and (relatively ornate) mid Atlantic pottery.

Asa Hoyt was potting in Norwalk by 1790. Asa did simple slip-trailed sunburst patterns until he hired New Jersey potters with elaborate trailing backgrounds. Hoyt was succeeded by Absalom Day and his wife Betsy Smith. Absalom threw, Betsy fired. The Smith family inherited the pottery and kept it going long into the 19th century, defining the quintessential “Norwalk” style. They even won a diploma at the American Institute’s 17th annual fair in 1844 for “superior earthen spitoons.”

Norwalk’s slip trailed, slab molded pie plates were unique. They were shallower than Pennsylvania’s thrown pie plates, and had no corollary in the rest of New England. Most were made before 1850. One hand seems responsible for the best work. This Smith Pottery employee used the Spencerian script learned by every kid until the “i gadget” made hand writing pointless. As it happens, we actually know the guy’s name. Henry Chichester was a master calligrapher. The book “Norwalk Potteries” even has a group photo from 1863 with him in it.

Saying trailed by Chichester and others ran the gamut from generic to off the wall. The majority were pretty straight forward. “Apple Pie.” “Clams and Oysters.” (New Englanders ate a lot of clams and oysters). It’s not hard to guess the motivation for some. “Pony up the cash.” “Cheap Dish.” “Money Wanted.” Or just “Money.” Some were commemorative, like “Mary’s Dish” or “Lafayette.” Some ventured into politics. “Hurrah for Heister Clymer*”  Morality, like “Give Drink to the thirsty,” often veered into ‘you had to have been there’ territory. “Honor the human.” Odd phrase, beautiful sentiment.

And some were downright bizarre. “Why will you die.”

To simply end there would be a bit abrupt. What on earth was the story behind that plate? But pondering the chasm between those potters’ motives and our understanding of the physical remains of what they did is exactly what makes the historical enterprise so fascinating.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries. Andrew and Kate Winton. Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH. 1981.

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

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling. 1977. Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware. Brian Cullity. 1991. Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA. 1991.