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?
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.