Archive for the ‘Stoke-on-Trent’ Category

Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

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Winds of Change

May 19, 2013

Industrial Revolution era Stoke-on-Trent master potters ruled the world.

Their unimaginably ingenious capacity for organization and innovation was matched only by their obsessively competitive blood-lust.  The potteries that operated within the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent were preeminent suppliers of up-to-the-minute pottery fashion to the entire world.  Silicon Valley meets Madison Avenue.   About the only thing Henry Ford added to the picture over a century later was additional mechanization.  In such a relatively small community as Stoke, one can imagine the subterfuge and turf battles.

On the other hand, no single factory was large enough to possibly handle the orders that rolled in.  As such, everybody did piece work for everybody else.  Shopping out orders while keeping innovations close to the chest must have been quite a delicate dance.

Yes, they were a colorful bunch.

But just so we’re clear about the topic, see the image below. This old post card photo of one of Stoke’s pottery towns was taken decades after their dominance had waned.

Imagine this scene 50 years earlier.

whiff of Stoke

Readings:
Master potters of the Industrial Revolution: the Turners of Lane End.  Bevis Hillier.  Cory, Adams, & McKay/London.  1965.

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

 

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.

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.

 

Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

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

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.

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.