Archive for the ‘the plague’ Category

What They Were Thinking

November 2, 2014

“Where does your clay come from?” is a common question asked at historical pottery demonstrations. Answer: “The ground.”  Another common inquiry, relating to the widespread use of lead glazes by early potters, is “Didn’t they know lead is toxic?  What were they thinking?”

Lead glazes give people the creeps.  But lead was fairly easy to obtain, it was cheap, it had a wide firing range, and it offered a wonderful variety of glaze colors.  Lead is actually one of the world’s greatest glaze materials – except, of course, exposure to it destroys your central nervous system.

So lead glazes require further comment.  Most early American potters didn’t have access to higher firing stoneware clays, which don’t use lead glazes.  It wasn’t until the early 19th century spread of canals and toll roads that shipping prices lowered enough for stoneware to blossom.

A common glaze recipe in the early US had about 10 parts lead to 3 parts loam or sand.  The best lead source came from sheets used to seal tea – tea chest lead – reduced to a white powder by soaking in vinegar.  But most potters went to dry goods merchants who sold imported lead as a paint ingredient.

People knew of lead’s toxicity by the 18th century.  It was called “potter’s rot.”  But end users weren’t immune.  In 1783, a Connecticut doctor blamed a recent “bilius colic”epidemic on all the local lead glazed redware flooding the market during the English embargoes of the time.

Philadelphia and New York newspapers issued challenges to develop alternative glazes.  Federal and State agencies issued periodic warnings against lead use.  But lead glazing persisted well into the 19th century.

Why were people so obstinate?

Insight to that question can be gained by posing a similar set of questions.  Imagine a visitor from 200 years into the future asking people on the street today:  “Didn’t you known nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay?”  “Why did you dump all that garbage into the ocean and rivers?”   “Didn’t you know about global warming?”  “What on Earth were you thinking?”

Readings:

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

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The Life and Times of James Egbert

October 19, 2014

Dedicated to my friends Joe Jostes and Sue Skinner of S&J Pottery, with wishes for a safe and successful move.

There are any number of reasons why a potter would move away from a perfectly good pottery shop.  If the shop were in New York City and the year was 1795, the potter would probably be following hoards of panic stricken people fleeing the plague.

Waves of yellow fever swept through New York City almost annually from 1795 to 1805.  Entire neighborhoods were decimated within weeks.  Whoever could leave town would do so.  Many plague refugees traveled up the Hudson River to sleepy little villages like Poughkeepsie – far enough to be safe but close enough to keep up with city events.

Most refugees returned to New York as each plague episode abated.  But some, potters included, saw advantages in establishing a foothold between the metropolis and the growing hinterland.

One enterprising young stoneware potter, William Nichols, went so far as to set up shop in Poughkeepsie in anticipation of a possible plague outbreak in 1823.  He figured he’d be ready to supply pots to refugees as soon as they arrived.  Unfortunately, yellow fever didn’t strike that year and poor William lost his shirt.

Poughkeepsie’s first potters were also plague refugees.  James Egbert and Durell Williams fled New York City’s initial 1795 yellow fever outbreak.  Durell Williams was a stoneware potter and James Egbert had been a carpenter.  Durell had convinced James to try his hand at the stoneware business.  Durell eventually moved back to New York City.

But James seems to have liked both Poughkeepsie and pottery.  He continued the Poughkeepsie pottery for a while before ‘shopping around:’ working in both stoneware and redware potteries throughout the region.

James apparently had a long and healthy life, according to a June 29, 1842 article about him in the Newburgh Gazette.  But that same article told of disaster.  His kiln collapsed while he was preparing for a firing.  James Egbert survived the plague only to be crushed to death by his own kiln.

Readings:

Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague.  George Lukacs.  Arcadia Publishing/Charleston, SC.  2001.