Posts Tagged ‘Federalist Era’

A Dozen Dozen Dozen

April 1, 2012

Early 19th century price sheets often sported ornate headers, flowing script, fancy borders and detailed images of items being offered.  Some almost have the feel of ‘rock concert posters’ of the time.  Prices were generally listed by the dozen.  We understand this today to mean 12 per item.

It wasn’t always like that.  In colonial and Federalist times a rural potter might instead sell by the pound.  Selling by the pound evolved (mostly) from a (mostly southern) English unit called a “cast” – the amount of clay used to make a certain quantity of pots.  As Peter Brears describes it, “a single 18 inch flowerpot made up one cast, as did 72 2½ inch or 60 3 inch plant pots.”  One only need specify how many casts one wanted and how much to pay per cast.  Simple.

Selling by capacity was another way to do business (ie; so many gallons of crocks).  Once again this counting method derived (mostly) from the (mostly northern) English “dozen.”  Dr. Robert Plot, a 17th century chronicler of English potteries, explained in 1686 that a “dozen” referred to the number of pots which, combined, held a dozen quarts.  So 24 pint vessels counted as a dozen, as did 6 two pint vessels.  This method of counting was used into the early 19th century.

At some point counting by capacity of pots gave way to counting by quantity of pots.  Robert Copeland’s thrilling late night read “Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” states, “‘The count to the dozen’ was determined by the number of a given size that would fit on a standard size of work board.”

You had to have been there.

The ‘count to the dozen’ further morphed into a long dozen, a short dozen, a sea dozen, a land dozen, etc., etc., etc.  As even these terms varied between potteries the original concept of “a dozen” meaning “12″ was set adrift.  Again, in the words of  Peter Brears, “the dozen ceased to be a rational standard unit.”

Prices today are based on a more precise mathematical formula: Cost doubled = wholesale.  Wholesale doubled = retail.  (Of course this is just a rule of thumb, even then not entirely shared by everybody….)


Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg, VA.  2011.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.


Behold the Potter

August 15, 2010

“A potter’s potter” is an odd description, but perhaps redware potter John Betts Gregory was just that.  He was originally from Norwalk, CT.  But in 1808 he moved to Clinton, NY to set up the earliest pottery west of the Hudson River valley.  Before leaving Connecticut he trained Absalom Day who went on to found the long-lived Day/Smith Pottery in Norwalk.

New York state was an active place for potters.  Particularly salt-fired stoneware makers.  During colonial times and into the early Federalist Era lead glazed redware was the norm for most American potters – despite challenges to come up with alternatives to lead glazing.  But the secret of leadless frits remained locked away in a select few English potteries.  And in America stoneware was limited to the few areas that had stoneware clays.  Particularly the Cheesequake area of the Amboy’s in New Jersey.  There, the family of Revolutionary War hero General Daniel Morgan sat atop a particularly large and pure seam.  Barge loads of Morgan’s clay could be shipped to any pottery with access to a major waterway – like the Hudson.

Anyway, there was John Gregory way out in Clinton.  Folk said he was a bit of a recluse, only because he was rarely seen away from his house and shop.  If you visited him, you’d find a genial, humorous potter.  John was known to sing while throwing.   Mostly he made up his own tunes, like:

“Behold the potter and the clay,
He forms his vessels as he pleases.”

Canals and trains burst on the scene in the 1820’s and 30’s.  Potters could now order Morgan’s stoneware clay from almost any location.  A sturdy, non-leaded alternative swept the country.  Redware potters had to choose: switch to stoneware, make the kind of earthenware that people still wanted (sewer pipes, bricks, and flower pots), or move to Ohio Territory…

John took a different route.  In 1831, he and his wife moved back to Norwalk, CT.  They bought an island on which John built a small pottery.  He continued making his own pots there until 1840, passing away two years later.

Post Script: In February, 2005, an eagle-decorated redware jug by John Betts Gregory fetched $65,000 at an Antiques Road Show event in New York City.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State. William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.