Posts Tagged ‘Industrial Revolution’

Every Good Child Deserves Favor

March 26, 2017

Have you ever had the good fortune of having a museum curator allow you into storage to view pottery not out on public display?  If so, (you usually just need to ask) you’ll understand the magic of seeing a drawer open before you for the first time, displaying a pottery type you heard about but had never seen in all it’s glory.  The friendly curator shows you these pots.  Cabinet doors open and there they are.  Row upon row.  Even if they’re of a style you previously thought not terribly interesting, that moment of breathlessness is remarkable.

This magic moment must have been magnified and condensed down to one single item back in the 19th century, particularly for children.  The lucky kids in question, initially from well to do families but increasingly from a broader economic pool, were occasionally given token pottery gifts.  These were usually small mugs, or sometimes mini bowls, plates, or other forms – but always with some transfer print image and/or quote alluding to the joys of behaving.

These children’s pots might have been meant as toys, or maybe they were the kids’ own set of dishes.  Birthday presents.  Graduation presents.  Rewards.  Specialties.  But they were never first line production items.  Most pottery firms made them, but hardly any bothered to advertise them.  Initially made of porcelain, as the 19th century wore on these giftwares were usually done in cheap yellowware with a decal hastily slapped on, often with a copper luster band along the top.

How did the kids feel about these pots?  Were they received in awe as treasured gifts?  Some small part of the explosion of styles and techniques known as the Industrial Revolution made just for them?  Or were they accepted like today’s cheap, plastic, collectible “Happy Meal” junk?

Some gift pots show considerable use.  It seems those with the most popular motifs and images were ‘loved to death,’ played with or otherwise used until they inevitably broke and were tossed in the garbage.  Others are to this day in pristine condition.  Many of these later pots tend to carry the most maudlin, moralizing sayings.  It’s almost as if, once given, they were unceremoniously shoved into a corner hutch, to patiently await collectors from a hundred years into the future.

One wonders about these neglected gift pots.  Who exactly were they really for, the child or the parent?

Readings:

Gifts for Good Children, The History of Children’s China 1790-1890.  Noel Riley.  The Old Chapel/Somerset England.  1991.

English Yellow-Glazed Earthenware.  J. Jefferson Miller.  Smithsonian Institute Press/Washington DC.  1974.

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The Hit Parade #2: The Scarab Vase

April 19, 2015

ScarabVase The Scarab Vase is why we have terms like “tour de force.”  It is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s undisputed American Arts and Crafts era masterpiece.

Every inch of this 17" tall porcelain vase’s surface is covered with intensely detailed carvings.  It’s proportions are pure perfection.  Legend has it that the vase developed a huge crack after months of carving the scarab beetle-inspired patterns.  Many a potter would have been crushed.  Adelaide didn’t give up.  She repaired the vase and successfully re-fired it.  Thus it entered the halls of history…

They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  As such, a list of items that are ‘beautiful to look at’ (ie: famous for being famous) would be never ending, and ever disputed.  A truer (or at least fuller) appreciation of an item’s impact considers it’s context.  This is where the Scarab Vase stands head and shoulders above the crowd. 

The 19th century American Industrial Revolution destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small-time individual potters.  Hand made pottery was  moribund.  Late-century China Painting barely kept alive the notion of individualized pottery.

But something was missing.  It’s interesting to witness how people throughout history react when they sense a fundamental loss due to mechanization.  Like the Luddites, or the ‘back-to-the-lander’s.’  Looking back years from now, will some definitive, paradigm-shifting work stand out as a reaction to today’s wireless world?  What would that look like?

At the dawn of the 20th century, the reaction against industrialization looked like “The Arts and Crafts movement.”  This movement, defined by works like the Scarab Vase, reignited interest in hand made pottery in this country.  Today’s potters ply their trade because tenacious people like Adelaide Alsop Robineau prepared the way for us.

The Scarab Vase is one of my all time favorite works of ceramic art.  But when I look at this vase, the word that most often comes to mind is “thanks.”

The Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790.  Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans).  It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD.  Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and  England’s Industrial Revolution.

Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase.  But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line.  That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase. 

Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.)  And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans.  And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions.   And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig.  And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up).  And the sprig didn’t deform or crack.  And it stayed on during drying and firing.  And the entire process was made to be repeated.  And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?).  And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”

Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery. 

Perhaps.  But there’s a flip side.  Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics.  It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure.  But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people.  Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.

Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.

If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…

Reading:

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

The Map That Changed The World.  Simon Winchester.  Harper Perennial/London.  2009.

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

Dinner with George Washington

June 30, 2013

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?

  Salt White Plate

Readings:
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.

 

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.

 

20 Million Flower Pots

March 24, 2013

Everybody loves an underdog, as the saying goes.  But whenever a rural occupation confronts an industrial revolution, doom results. 

In this regard, early American redware potters were singularly marked.  They might marry the tavern keeper’s daughter (lots of business was transacted in taverns) or open a dry goods store (another reliable outlet) to avoid their fate.  Some switched to stoneware.  Some quit altogether.

Others found salvation in flowerpots

Abraham Hews of Weston MA wasn’t thinking this when he opened a redware shop in 1765.  He relied on ‘word-of-mouth’ sales within walking distance of Weston instead of the huge nearby Boston market.  Still, probate records at his death put him solidly in the middle income bracket.  In fact his was to be one of the few redware potteries to remain active, from father to son, until 1871. 

Abraham Hews II had big plans for the shop.  He actually listed himself in tax roles as “potter” (Abraham I only ever called himself “yeoman”).  Things went well, even though Abraham II phased out extraneous slip decoration after 1800 like most New England redware potters would.

But the writing was on the wall by the 1860’s.  The Hews family began the switch to flowerpots, both molded and hand made, to stay alive.  They relocated next to clay pits shared by North Cambridge MA brick makers in 1871. 

The Panic of 1893 erased  North Cambridge’s brick industry, leaving all that clay to A.C. Hews & Co.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the dawn of the 20th century Hews could boast an output of over 20 million flowerpots. More than anyone.  Anywhere.  Ever. 

Plastics finally slew the Hews clay flowerpot business in the 1960’s.  One family’s 200 year involvement in clay ended.  It might date me, but it’s a personal thrill to think that one small slice of redware pottery history saw it’s closing chapter in my own lifetime. 

It’s nice to feel connected.

Readings:
Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper Perennial/New York.  1989.

 

High Tea

July 22, 2012

Modern potters interested in the Japanese tea ceremony know that the truly great early tea wares came from Japanese (and Korean) farmer potters working with materials at hand for a rice economy.

North American farmer potters worked with materials at hand for a dairy economy.  A Tea Master critique of American redware would be interesting. Of course, Sen no Rikyu and the early Masters’ mining efforts ultimately turned their farmer potters into National Living Treasures.  American farmer potters ended up making drain pipe.

But the West did develop its own ‘tea ceremony.’  Time, place and conversation were prescribed – as in Japan – albeit with differences.  Sculpted Asian tea rites derived from ancient meditative disciplines.  Western tea rites derived from parlor etiquette.

The 17th century introduction of tea and its sibling coffee enormously impacted Western society.  Men huddled in coffee houses, debating reality and plotting revolution.  Women sipped tea in parlors, discovering strength in numbers and life beyond their husbands’ dictates.  Cafes and parlors eventually morphed into the salon culture.

This may seem frivolous compared to the solemn atmosphere of chanoyu.  But it managed to loosen the shackles imposed by hyper conservative Christian Orthodoxy just enough for later historians to call that brief time period “The Age of Reason.”  The Western ‘tea ceremony’ even developed its own sculpted discipline of balancing a dish on one’s knee while politely holding an annoyingly teeny handled cup between thumb and forefinger.

Tea propelled pottery to the forefront of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, modifying pottery along the way.  Westerners liked their tea hot (to dissolve sugar in) and served individually.  Thus, by 1760, necessitating that teeny handled cup.  A full tea set eventually consisted of 41 ceramic items: 12 teacups with saucers, 6 coffee cups with saucers, a teapot with stand, a slop “bason,” a sugar “bason,” and a cream ewer.  A two person “tete-a-tete” could be as few as 8 items.  Distinct foods, like crumpets and scones, accompanied the tea.

And it all centered on the tea pot.  Before radio, families gathered around their “brown betty.”  Watch any old English melodrama and notice how much activity occurs near the teapot.  Your tea set’s quality set the tone of your gathering, and helped establish your spot on the afternoon tea circuit hierarchy.

Then again, concern for hierarchy was equally reflected on both sides of the globe.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

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

The Book of Cups.  Garth Clark.  Cross River Press/New York, NY.  1980.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

About the Pig’s Blood Comment

January 8, 2012

Pottery history is not drenched in blood, despite some blood related comments in this journal – most recently how some rural potters used animal blood to give their glazes a darker tint…

That bit probably should be explained.

Charles Mehwaldt was a third generation potter born in Bruessow Germany in 1808.  After his apprenticeship Mehwaldt worked as a journeyman potter first in Russia and eventually in Lebanon (that an early 19th century German potter would do his journeyman work in the Middle East is interesting enough).  Ultimately he returned to a Germany in the throes of revolution

In 1851 Mehwaldt heard that a colony of Bruessow Germans had formed seven years earlier in Bergholtz, New York.  He and his family emigrated but they almost didn’t make it.  Their ship sank off Long Island.  A tub attached to a cable pulled them ashore.  A barge along the Erie Canal pulled them the rest of the way to Bergholtz.

Mehwaldt cared less for the fabled American clays than those of the old country.  Still, he managed to produced a wide range of utilitarian redware.  At Christmas he made little toy dinner sets and toy whistles.  His daughter recalled years later how “We children helped grind the lead for the glaze [They used a grinding stone basin, a “quern,” which was spun by a long wooden pole.] …My brother and I would count to 100 then rest.”  She also mentioned how Charles used pigs blood to tint his glazes from time to time.

Whitewares pushed the boundaries of pottery making into the thick of the Industrial Revolution.  But darker colored pottery defined the pragmatism of borderland communities like Bergholtz.  It didn’t show dirt.  Remoteness combined with pragmatism has always led potters to find their oxides where they could be found.  Considering the life cycles of farm living, pig’s blood isn’t that big of a leap.

Readings:

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

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

 

We’re off to see the Wizard…

February 14, 2010

It wasn’t until we went on the gold standard in 1900 that the US had a unified currency (…the wonderful Wizard of OZ).  Originally, local banks issued local dollars, which were barely recognizable just over the hill.  Coinage, mostly foreign, was scarce.  People used “IOU’s” based on local notions of dollar value.  But as employment in the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution increased…

…blah blah blah…

Let’s face it.  The arcane world of economics is the kiss of death.  Suffice it to say that many early potters bartered their wares.  In 1833, Ohio potter Thomas Ochs bragged about a particularly good deal he swung.  In his journal he wrote:

Today I received a chicken, six loaves of bread, and a goose.  For this I gave a colander, a three gallon jug, a five gallon crock, and six plates.”

If I received these items at today’s prices I would have received:

1 Chicken (live) $15.00
6 Loaves Bread ($4.50/loaf) $27.00
1 Goose (live) $50.00
Total Dollar Value $92.00

For this I would have exchanged (at my current retail prices):

1 Colander $80.00
1 Three Gallon Jug* $270.00
1 Five Gallon Crock** $450.00
6 Plates*** $140.00
Total Dollar Value $920.00

My, how times have changed…

(of course, if you have something worth trading, I might consider a swap)

* I don’t make them, but a gallon jug goes for $90.00, so charging by the gallon, a 3 gallon jug would probably total $270.00.
** again, not in my repertoire, so taking the $90/gallon estimate it would total about $450.
*** I’ll assume medium sized and plain for use around the house at $20 each x 6 = $140.

Reading:
American Country Pottery.  Don & Carol Raycraft.  Wallace Homestead Books/Des Moines, IA.  1975.

The Roots of Rural Capitalism.  Western Massachusetts, 1790 – 1860.  Christopher Clark.  Cornell University Press/Ithaca, NY.  1990.