Posts Tagged ‘pottery history’

How To Drink Switzel

February 5, 2012

It sounds disgusting but it really isn’t that bad.  Water, ginger, vinegar, and molasses.  Switzel.  Think of it as an early Gatorade.  Especially when chilled.  But we’ll get back to that…

The “switzel ring” was just one of a long line of usages for the ring shaped jug.  This jug was essentially a disc shaped canteen

Ring Jug by Stephen Earp

with usually two but sometimes four loop handles along its shoulders.  Certain types, like the marbled “Pilgrim Jugs” from Northern Italy and eastern France (circa 15-17th century), had an attached base.  Others, like the  English “Costrel Jug,” (circa 15 – 17th century) were simply two plates fused together.  But most were a thrown hollow ring.  The ring could be short and thick, like those of the North Carolina Moravians.  Or extremely wide and thin.  Some were glazed redware, some salt fired stoneware.  Some were highly ornate, others plain.

This unusual shape could be found as far away as Russia and Ukraine, where ice was packed in the middle to dispense chilled vodka or kvass (rye beer).  Far away from Europe and long after these times, some modern Cubans use unglazed pedestaled rings filled with water and put in front of fans as a sort of passive air conditioner.  But anything this unusual and somewhat difficult to throw was (and is) as much an excuse to show off one’s potting skills as to provide any particular function.

And of course, some early American farmers drank switzel from it.  But why use a hollow ring, and not just a regular jug?  You might imagine it was so they could be slung through the arm and stuffed in the hot,  grimy, sweaty armpit of the farmer on his way to mow his hay fields – unless you’ve actually tried to do that.  Awkward, yes.  But mostly just gross.

Very soon you’ll come to agree that it’s far better to find a shady spot along a creek, lay the ring jug in it, and put a stick through it’s circle into the mud to keep it from floating away.  The enormous amount of surface area of the switzel ring in the water will keep it cool until break time.

…Nice cool switzel.  Just the way it should be drank.

The Great Road

October 30, 2011

Seemingly inconsequential moments sometimes result in life long lessons.  In an episode of the 1960’s colonial frontier TV series “Daniel Boone,” his son gets lost for a time.  When the son realizes he’s stumbled into the Cumberland Gap, he finds his way home.  The Cumberland Gap.  A geography lesson about an important colonial passageway across the Appalachian Mountains that a certain kid growing up in Des Moines, IA never forgot.

Many years later, when I became interested in early American pottery, I heard of another famous route.  The Great Wagon Road, also called The Great Road, sprawled from Philadelphia PA, to Augusta, GA (1770 – 1880).  Like the Appalachians that it traversed, different sections of The Great Road had different names.  It was The Valley Pike in the Shenandoah Valley.  Farther south it was The Carolina Road.  And of course the whole thing developed along a pre-existing Indian route (some parts of Virginia even called it The Great Warrior’s Trail).  The Great Road brought all the contemporary comforts to the local inhabitants – at least in areas where wagons could actually use it.

Several potteries existed along The Great Road.  Wythe and Washington Counties, VA, and Sullivan and Carter Counties, TN were particularly active.  These were mostly redware potters.  Historians today generally lump them together as “Great Road Pottery.”

A Great Road Pottery exhibit would reveal differences between potters and areas.  Some of the more southern potters were influenced by the North Carolina Moravians (domed lids and wavy green and white slip trailed decoration).  More northerly potters reflected the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon communities of the mid-Atlantic region (large looped handles with stamped ends and either daubs or trailed imagery in manganese).  But overall, the forms were basic work-a-day items intended for heavy use around the farm.

It makes sense to consider Great Road potters as a distinct group even though they were working in fairly isolated conditions.  They all used similar raw materials to serve similar rural communities in similar ways.  This insular context constitutes a core definition of what used to be called “style.”

It would be hard to apply that definition to any random area today.  Even though we also work in isolated studios using similar commercial materials to serve similar art market communities.  Then again, we shouldn’t confuse “style” with individualized “flair” – however expressive the latter might be.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.


November 23, 2009


There is a curious little plate in the collection of the Philadelphia  Museum of Art.  The plate was made in 1786 by a potter named Johannes Niess in Montgomery County, PA.  It is about 11″ in diameter.  The plate’s sgraffito style of decoration is typical of pottery from that region.  The decoration depicts a dance scene with two colonial era couples.  Each couple consists of an officer and a well to do woman.  A fiddle player off to the left, is also in officer attire.

The scene is said to depict a particularly elaborate gala known as the “Mischianza.”  The British Army officer corp during the Revolutionary War was particularly fond of this type of revelry.  Especially General William Howe and his staff.  General Howe commanded the forces occupying Philadelphia, previously the capitol of the rebellion, during the 1777 – 78 winter.  General Washington’s Continental Army shivered in the snow at nearby Valley Forge.  Observers believe that had Howe attacked the Valley Forge encampment, he would have destroyed Washington’s army and probably put an end to the uprising.  Instead, Howe squandered the winter in frivolous entertainment.  In the spring, Washington slipped away.  Soon afterward, Howe’s army was forced to evacuate Philadelphia.  On his departure Howe threw an unforgettably (some said unforgivably) extravagant party – the Mischianza.  The Mischianza plate is a commemorative depiction of this sordid tale of Howe’s squandered chances.

What makes the plate curious, at least to me, is the legend inscribed around the plate’s rim.  Many sgraffito plates from south eastern Pennsylvania at the time bore writing, in German, around the rim.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of these plates is perhaps the best in the country. The sayings could be moralisms, local wit, biblical phrases, etc.  On some plates, the sayings offer a jarring juxtaposition to the imagery they surround.

That’s where the curiosity comes in.  Or, I should say, shock.  This plate was obviously meant for display, not everyday use.  But who on earth would want to prominently display on hearth or cupboard a plate with “Our Maid, the ugly pig, always wanted to be a housewife. Oh, you ugly slut. 1786” scrawled around the rim?

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edward Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

1776. David McCullough.  Simon and Schuster.  2005.