Archive for the ‘thermal shock’ Category

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

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The First Pot Made in America

May 27, 2009

A story circulates about how pottery began: “Once upon a time a caveman coated reed baskets with clay.  When the baskets no longer served he threw them away.  Some baskets landed in the fire.  When the reeds burned off the fired clay remained.  Seeing the hardness of the fired clay, the caveman got an idea…”

An entertaining image.  But pottery’s historical beginnings are far more complex, and more fascinating.  Pottery “began” in different places at different times for a different reason in each locale.  In the America’s, evidence points to a surprising birth (or at least ‘first’) place: the Brazilian Rain Forest.  Over 7,500 years ago, people of the Mina culture were making small bowl shapes resembling the later “tecomate” or cooking dish.  Some of these first pots are plain, others are elaborately incised.  Even at this early date the Mina people knew to temper their clay with sand or ground shells to improve thermal shock.  In fact none of the excavations done so far have dug down to the earliest inhabited layers.

Who were these people and what were they doing?  Nobody can say.  Later inhabitants of the area seemed to use similar bowls to create intoxicating brews for ceremonial and trade reasons. 

Recognizing these people’s accomplishments might not assist in marketing wares today (unless you’re into intoxicating brews).  But I believe that any attempt to understand the family tree to which we as potters and as humans belong leads to an intrinsic benefit: Respect for our craft and our family.

Readings:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Barnett and Hoopes, ed.s.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1995.

1491.  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Charles C. Mann.  Knopf/New York.  2005.