Posts Tagged ‘New England Pottery’

It May Be Remembered

December 20, 2009

It may be remembered that I have made a kiln of ware this summer, consisting of milkpans, some pots, pudding pans & wash bowls, but mostly of stove tubes and flowerpots, and have this day finished burning the same, Hervey Brooks”.  September 23rd, 1864.

Hervey Brooks was a rare breed.  He had been making redware pottery in Goshen CT for almost 60 years.   Others gave up long before, either in favor of stoneware, to work in the mills, or to seek better fortunes elsewhere.

Like most potters then, Hervey wore many hats; selling rags, working the roads, making fence poles, trading everything from clocks to oysters, even publishing music for the Sacred Harp.  In his heyday, Hervey could throw 14 dozen milk pans a day.  All this during the time a farmer had between seasons.  Hervey wasn’t a full time potter.  Nor was he particularly gifted.  But he’s a blessing to posterity because an almost complete record of his output still exists in the ledgers he kept throughout his life.

For those who care to see, Hervey’s notes offer a precious glimpse into his world.  “It may be remembered…”  He was writing to us, today.   “…that I have made a kiln of ware this summer…”  Stove tubes and flower pots were the last hold-out items of the redware trade.  They generally turned the notion of “potter” into a factory worker.  But Hervey wanted us to know he still made the old stuff.  “…and have this day finished burning the same.”

He was then 85 years old.  Hervey had fired only one kiln a year for some time.  This was his last.  Included in the journal entry was an account of his wife’s burial.  They had been married for over half a century.

It is easy to assume, given the wide range of activities that people like Hervey Brooks were involved in, that redware wasn’t considered terribly special – even to its makers.  But ask any potter.  Nobody would write such a note if they didn’t deeply care about what they were doing.

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860. Paul Lynn,  Oneonta State University/New York.  1969.

The Poor Potter is Dead, Part Two.

September 29, 2009

A generation after the poor potter of Yorktown died, Benjamin Franklin advised his son William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, to downplay local manufacture of consumer goods to William’s superiors in England.  Writing from London, Ben said that depreciative accounts of coarse, poor quality local production “are very satisfactory here, and induce the parliament to despise and take no notice of the Boston resolutions…”

This was the heyday of American redware pottery production.  It was also open rebellion.  There was a widespread feeling that the colonies could and should be self-sufficient.  They wanted autonomy.  It took Thomas Paine’s radical pamphlet “Common Sense” to finally push the colonists to completely sever all ties with England.  (Why is common sense always the hardest thing to swallow?)

American potters set out to prove they could equal the wares imported from England.  As this feeling grew, so did the number of potters.  Many greatly expanded their repertoire beyond the “potts and panns” of their forebearers.  Some modern observers believe all this activity didn’t necessarily result in an increase in quality, though.  Many new potteries went belly up within a short space of time.  But in Charlestown, MA, a major New England pottery center,  many potters consistently ranked in the top five percent of tax payers.  Somebody was doing something right.

Boycotts against anything imported caught on.  But people still needed things to put things in.  Redware fit the bill.  It was cheap and it was local.

So, potters as “local heroes?”  An interesting idea.  It might sound strange now, but once upon a time, making mugs was an act of rebellion in this country.

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

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue. Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

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