Archive for the ‘Staffordshire’ Category

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.

 

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Nothing Too Good For America

February 2, 2013

Those who say punctuation is everything really mean context is everything.  For example, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”  Or is it “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”  Hmmm.

This game has been played for centuries.  Josiah Wedgwood once wrote in a letter to his partner Thomas Bentley “we can sell nothing too good to America.”

The American market had grown exponentially since independence.  English pottery firms amassed huge fortunes from the insatiable American cash cow.  And Wedgwood, with his “almost American love for the extension of business” was one of the first to the trough.

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so demanding, that his firm had to aspire to the heights of quality to stand out from the crowd.  Wedgwood learned how to create a buzz through years of marketing experience at home.  He pandered to American nouveau riche with high-end goods which the middle classes could only drool at.  Furthermore, there was enough money in America to sustain even these inflated price points.  How else could he survive in such a competitive market…

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so profitable, that his firm could get away with selling anything scraped off the shop floor.  Wedgwood pioneered the concept of unloading merchandise whose sole virtue was a rock bottom price tag (“seconds”) to America.  Even these showed a tidy profit.  So why bother with sending anything better…

Of course.

Readings:
If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

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

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

Communist Vagabond Troublemakers

November 12, 2012

Swashbuckling tales replete with sword play and intrigue are sure-fire crowd pleasers.  But most pottery histories avoid that sort of thing.  Well…

First, the sword play.  Turn-of-the-19th-century Moravian potters of Salem NC employed colorful slipware patterns and playful forms quite in contrast to their strict religious estheticism.  Accounts of Salem market days tell of unruly mobs lunging for anything they could grab from the Moravians’ stalls.  At times the local militia had to come out – swords drawn – to keep the peace.  Moravian pottery was that good.

It all began (more or less) back in 1530.  Catholic zealots chased Protestant artisans out of Faenza Italy.  These artisans ended up in Moravia, southern Germany.  By century’s end they had either split into several groups or their pottery skills spread to other radical communist anabaptist protestant sects also sheltering in Moravia.  These migrant artisan groups, collectively known as “Habaners,” believed in strict  religious communal living and shared property ownership.

But the birth of European Capitalism was a messy thing.  The powers that be reacted savagely to religious deviants and peasant protests.  Trouble hounded the Habaners causing them to fan out across Franconia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Austria, Hungary,  Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and elsewhere.  Some such groups abandoned Europe altogether in favor of North Carolina (the “Moravians”) and elsewhere in America.

Haban pottery was originally limited to a narrow range of shapes, shunning superfluous and “unseemly” decoration.  But income from pottery sales outside the community proved too lucrative.  The bare Haban aesthetic adapted to the temperament of local cultures as the Habaners were buffeted about.  This interplay resulted in colorful slipware for the masses and majolica for the wealthy.   Haban majolica eventually became synonymous with Central European folk pottery between the 17th – 19th centuries.

The austere American Moravians similarly adapted to local raw materials and markets.  Thus the creative slipware defended by militia swords.

Depth of experience and motivation can sometimes be hard to discern in pottery as well as in people.  That’s something to keep in mind when looking at flowery painted pottery from long ago.

Readings:
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2009.

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2010.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.   Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Progress

September 30, 2012

Post-holiday winter means plunging income and skyrocketing expenses.  Short cold days.  Long cold nights.  Not good for difficult or depressing stories.  Those are best left for warmer days…

And so (before it gets too cold) the tale of Jabez Vodrey.  His biography runs as follows; 1797, born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent; Worked lathes in the Stoke potteries and in Derbyshire; 1827, emigrated to the US; Worked in several places; Produced America’s first Mocha ware; 1860, died.  Sons carried on the trade. 

So far so good.  But the devil is in the details.  Imagine leaving everything you’ve known, knowing you’ll never see it again.  Leaping into the unknown.  This was Jabez Vodrey’s lot.  Many English potters had emigrated to the US with varying success.  The clay was rumored to be fine.  The market certainly was.  Why not move closer to the action, bypass those who drove you from your job?

Jabez and his wife Sarah (a decorator) first went to Pittsburgh.  But finding the right materials to make “fineware” (anything resembling English imports) proved impossible.  Besides, imports ruled.  Serious local competition was quickly squashed.  Start over again. 

An offer came from Jacob Lewis in Louisville, KY in 1829.  Shipping imports up past the Ohio Falls and into town was difficult and expensive.  And Louisville had tantalizingly good raw materials.  This could be the place to finally produce American fineware, safely away from cheap, soul-crushing imports. 

Still, without internet or consistent supply systems it was no easy task to produce even the little that Jabez’s group did.  But all evidence indicates they successfully produced American’s first  fineware Mocha.

A canal opened in 1834, allowing large freighters to bypass the falls.  A marvel of modern progress!  So where was Jabez when he read the headlines?  Coming soon, Stoke’s finest!  At the lowest prices ever!

Jabez probably saw it coming.  But how many times can a person pack up and move on?  He had been chased to the edge.  Imports always won.  Why bother anymore?  Jabez eventually landed in the next great pottery boom town, East Liverpool, OH.  There he and his family, like many others, would make their last stand.

But on that day in 1834 he surely felt he had lost everything he knew.  Again.  All in the name of pottery. 

Readings
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  University Press of New England/Hanover NH.  2001.

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

 

The Thing About Wedgwood

May 27, 2012

The thing is, it’s just a drag to be born into a famous family.  Carving out one’s identity can be daunting when the family franchise is known the world over.  For some the name thing is simply too big.

The Wedgwoods had been potters in the Stoke-on-Trent area of Staffordshire, England, for several generations.   In the late 18th century the family name became synonymous with precision, quality, and the reach for upper class finery.  A dynastic succession of sons and grandsons ruled the town and the world market.  Credit for success was liberally spread to wives and daughters, whose finger on the pulse of contemporary fashion trends truly was the ‘power behind the throne.’

Other family members were encouraged to join the band wagon.  Several did.  Some would be castigated for using their name to sell “infamous stuff, scandalously packed for shipment to America.”  Hijinx invariably ensued.

Ralph Wedgwood was a nephew of, well, you know who.  Ralph’s famous uncle would endearingly call him “Wedgwoodykins,” offering friendly advice like “everything gives way to experiment.” In 1788  Ralph took this advise to heart, much to the detriment of his own fortunes and to family relations.  He was caught stealing prototypes from Etruria, the Wedgwood factory, to supply his own mold business.  But, being family, he was still offered piece-meal work when orders were backed up.  And he could (almost) always count on financial support when money got scarce.

Incessant and fruitless experiments destroyed Ralph’s enterprise.  The pottery firm of Tomlinson and Foster happily offered him (and the use of his name) a 10 year contract.  Ralph’s penchant for experimenting rather than producing quickly soured the deal.  They paid him a large sum to negate the contract and leave.

Ralph Wedgwood spent the rest of his life hounded by poverty and the impossibility of his increasingly convoluted schemes.  Letters begging Etruria for help were answered with just enough cash to keep him from debtors prison.

He did manage to come up with a practical use for borax, which has since become an important low temperature flux.  But for all that, he had, in the words of his exasperated children, “quite left reason behind.”  Ralph Wedgwood died a pauper.

The mighty oak casts a dense shadow.
-Anonymous proverb

Readings

Pratt Ware, 1780 – 1840.  John and Griselda Lewis.  Antiques Collectors Club/Suffolk, England.  1984.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

The Potter’s Examiner; “Wisconsin Or Bust”

April 29, 2012

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  As when the Dragoons were called out to encircle the town of Berslem, Staffordshire, in January 1837.  Their mission – to keep the “Great Strike” of the recently formed National Union of Operative Potters from spreading to the other 5 towns of Stoke-on-Trent.

The potters’ organizing effort had been, as usual, a long painful journey.  (For details just follow any current labor struggle, which you should do anyway.)  In the end, a splintered Potters Union collapsed after extracting some weak half-measures from factory owners.

William Evans ran a radical, pro union Stoke-on-Trent newspaper called “The Potter’s Examiner.”  When the strike failed he began pushing an idea that had been gurgling around the edges of the issue.  To hell with this place!  Let’s all move to Wisconsin where we can make pots in peace:

“Fly to the most liberal institution of present man; to the untaxed plains, rivers, and lakes of a free country…”

The territory of Wisconsin (present day Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa) was America’s frontier.  The outer fringe of civilization.  But America was marching westward.  Individual potters had been emigrating to the promised land for over a century.  Then came the union wars.  Enough was enough!

The Potters’ Joint Stock Emigration Society and Savings Fund was set up in 1844.  In a tizzy over the idea of emigration, newborn children were named “America” and “Freedom.”  Potters renamed their streets “America,” “Madison” and “Washington.”   In 1847 the first group made it to Wisconsin.  Their raw, undeveloped tract was dubbed “Pottersville.”  They had to start from scratch – and ultimately ended up with as much.  The last vestiges of Pottersville, northeast of Pardeeville, WI., were torn down in 1989.

Those that stayed home eventually did get their union.  Just as demand began dropping precipitously.  Just as a gazillion ex-patriot factories started up in America…

Readings:

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

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.