Posts Tagged ‘Quaker pottery’

The Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.


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

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

Squanamagonic; Land of Clay Hills.

January 22, 2012

Gonic New Hampshire got it’s name, like countless other New England towns, by mangling the original inhabitants name for the place.  There are many indigenous place names referring to pottery across the Americas.  Gonic, known to the local Pennacook Indians as “land of the clay hills,” is particularly interesting because European colonists and their progeny continued the namesake tradition.

19th century pottery making in Gonic was synonymous with the Osborne family.  They were a branch of the Quaker clan from Danvers, MA whose pottery dynasty reached back into the previous century.  In those days, trades like pottery tended to stay within certain families.  Some historians today believe this was due to the particularly long apprenticeship required to become a master.  It made a certain sense as a natural extension of family ties to incorporate relations as they came of age (to get a Master of Fine Arts Degree today takes only two years and parental co-signing of $50,000 in loans).  But another argument (probably from those with teen aged sons) considers the benefits of consigning a strapping young boy to a relative’s household so they can feed him for his teen years…

We can’t know what the Gonic Osbornes’ ulterior motives towards their teenagers were.  But we do know that their mottled green glaze rivaled that of the Tauton, MA potteries who went through positively scandalous amounts of copper.  And apparently the Gonic Osborne’s did a good trade in shaving mugs, or at least many of these have survived.

At some point, brick making must also have been part of the Osborne resume.  Their rectangular corbel arched kilns were akin to brick makers’ scove kilns.  The Osborne’s even used the so called “brick maker’s method” of clay preparation designed to wash out soluble salts before production.  Hillsides were scraped to expose clay seams.  They were plowed and harrowed before a rain, then sun dried.  The clay lumps were broken up and carted off to the pottery.

Labor intensive?  Perhaps.  But that’s what teen aged apprentices were for.


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

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

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