Posts Tagged ‘Redware’


February 19, 2012

Benjamin Dodge began a redware pottery shop in Portland, ME in 1798 at 24 years of age.  Other Maine potters of the time sought to build huge manufacturing empires.  Benjamin took a more creative path.

His specialty was elaborately decorated jars and pitchers.  He would often incorporate the initials of the person ordering the item into it’s decoration.  Apparently his work made quite an impression.  According to a later (anonymous?) reminiscence:

“Busts of people received more care.  Most of these were in profile.  After the pieces were finished they were set in another room to dry, and it was a favorite amusement with some bad boys, whom the good man tolerated notwithstanding, to disfigure the human faces by drawing down the corners of the mouths to produce a ludicrous expression.  This disfiguring, the potter did not observe until it was too late to mend, and it was fired in the kiln with the others, set away on the shelf, and sold at reduced prices.”

The 1825 U.S. tour of the Marquis de Lafayette inspired potters across the country to commemorative themes.  When Lafayette passed through Portland, Benjamin made pieces sporting “what purported to be a likeness of Lafayette.”

Dodge’s artistic talents kept the pottery going long enough to pass it on to his son, Benjamin Junior.  Sadly, the old man began suffering what was then called “melancholy” and ultimately killed himself on June 1, 1838.

Benjamin Jr ‘took the wheel’ as the stoneware industry was carving out huge slices of the market, ultimately swamping most redware potters.  But Benjamin Jr saw opportunity where others saw a dead end.  He minimized the type of work offered and exploited qualities of earthenware unavailable in stoneware; exotic glazes.  A particularly striking green glaze earned him a diploma in 1839 at the Second Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association.  Some of his flower pots with this glaze can still be seen at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.  Terms included the de riguer “Country produce taken in exchange for ware.”

One of the longest lived and most creative redware potteries in Maine closed upon Benjamin Jr’s death in 1875.  Like his father, Benjamin Jr died by his own hand.

The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

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

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


December 11, 2011

Everybody likes to look at pictures.  Especially when the topic is pottery.  So when writing about pottery, a sure way to bore readers is to omit pictures of pots.  Perhaps it’s just difficult for some potters to know what’s going on in the story without a picture every now and then to help them out…

Pictures of broken shards probably don’t count.  Even though quite often more of the ‘big picture’ can be learned about a type, technique or trajectory of development than by looking at just the whole thing.

So what about plain unglazed cylinders?  No bottoms, no tops, just plain, straight sided cylinders.  Pretty boring stuff.  But taking a step back to look at the bigger picture can be instructive.  And hopefully, not always boring.

Some Redware potters, like Hervey Brooks of Goshen CT, kept various sized cylinders about the shop.  On hearing of these, my fist thought was trimming chucks.  But Hervey didn’t trim his pots.

One day it hit me – put a cylinder on a table, fill with a material and scoot into a bucket or quern (grinding stone basin). Seven times for lead, once for “loam,” (clay).  Maybe add a little copper or manganese for extra color (or maybe pigs blood, but that’s another story).  An ingenious way to measure out glaze materials.

Works every time.  Hmm.

Ps.  For those who need pictures, here’s a couple cylinders I keep around my shop.  But these actually are trimming chucks.



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

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edward Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.


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.


August 14, 2011

Thomas Toft.  Bernard Pallisy.  Daniel Bailey.  Everybody knows Toft and Pallisy. Two masters of their craft.  Bailey was a small time redware potter from Colonial Massachusetts.  But like Toft and Pallisy, Daniel Bailey was a trailblazer.

Daniel showed promise early, training at his father’s pottery shop.  By 16, he was a full fledged potter.  The potters around him in Newburyport north of Boston made the usual “potts and panns” of the day.  But Daniel tried his hand at tableware.  At teacups.  Plates.  Serving dishes.  Things you might use in the parlor with company.

Redware hadn’t been used this way.  It belonged in the barn and kitchen.  It was the ‘tupperware’ of the day.  The American Revolution’s goal of self sufficiency, showcasing native talent in the face of embargo and blockade, was about to begin.  Daniel Bailey saw the tide coming.

Like Toft and Paillsy, Bailey was swamped by events beyond his control.  Believing he saw a chance to make it on his own, Daniel moved to Gloucester in 1750.  James Gardner, the local potter there and friend of the Bailey family, had just passed away.  The town needed a potter.  Daniel married a Gloucester belle.  Then cholera hit.  Their son, Daniel Jr., died.  The cholera panic caused business to wither.  Daniel retreated to his dad’s shop in Newburyport, taking the reins when his father retired a couple years later.

Toft, Pallisy and Bailey.  Eventually others followed their lead.  A ‘Pallisy school’ assured periodic revivals of “Pallisy ware” for the next two centuries.  The slipware techniques pioneered by Toft spread throughout England, and even held their own against the Staffordshire factory ware tidal wave.  Several shires produced both slip and machine lathed ware for many years.  And on these shores, redware contributed to the cause of 1776…

They each, for a time and in their own unique ways, pushed the envelope.  But there’s an ironic catch to being at the cutting edge.  Toft and Paillisy made all the history books but died paupers.  Daniel Bailey faded to obscurity in relative comfort.

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

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

A Happy Ending

June 19, 2011

Our social safety network is shredded in the name of “fiscal responsibility” while untold billions go uncollected from the wealthy and powerful (who proxy write our tax laws).  The USA badly needs a civics lesson.

In the good old days there was no safety network.  If family couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take you in, it was debtors prison (with attendant disease), the poor farm (if they’d take you) or deportation to the town of your birth even if you were only born there (just to get rid of you).

But on November 26, 1754, Newburyport, MA potter Clement Kent took in Ebenezer Morrsion, a destitute orphaned waif.  Ebenezer’s indenture contract is a rare example of a formal pottery apprenticeship agreement.

The indenture “…put and Bound one Ebenezer Morrison one of this town’s Poor To be an Apprentice, to Clement Kent of Newbury afresd Potter, to learn his Art, Trade, or Mystery” for seven years.  Ebenezer had to obey his master and mistress and “keep their secrets.”  He was “not to commit fornication nor to contract matrimony within the said terms… at cards, or Dice, or any other unlawful Game he shall not play…” nor “haunt taverns, alehouses, or playhouses.”  The Kent’s would feed and clothe him, teach him English and “to Cypher as far as the Rule of three or so.”  When the apprenticeship ended Ebenezer was to get two suits “of apparel for all parts of his body…one of them to be new & Decent fit for the Lord’s Day, & the other fit for Working Days.”

Ebenezer fulfilled the contract, marrying Sarah Nowell the moment it ended.  Hmmm.  On March 15, 1775 Ebenezer was granted “liberty to set up a Potter’s Kiln at or near the North West Side of Burying Hill to be under the Direction of the Selectmen for the time being.”  He did well – or used lots of clay – because on August 11, 1784 his access to a clay pit next to Burying Hill was questioned.  A finding of  March 16, 1785, declared “no person whatsoever be suffered to dig any clay or gravel upon the town’s land near the burying ground.”

Still he prospered, eventually acquiring his former master’s estate.  Sarah Ann Emery’s 1879 “Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian” described his shop as “quite an extensive pottery for the manufacture of brown glazed earthenware.”

In 1803 Ebenezer was laid to rest on Burying Hill near his house, shop and the old clay pit.

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

Lard Pot

May 1, 2011

The lard pot.  In relation to today’s efforts to explore clay’s vast plastic  potential, a momentary glance at this form says it all.  A somewhat curvy cylinder.  Big deal.  But nothing is a big deal if you only take a moment to consider it.

First, some history.  The “pot” in question is differentiated from it’s primordial sibling the “pan” by being taller than it is wide.  “Lard pot” is simply a reference to a specific function; storing festering, fly-covered animal fat for use in baking and cooking.  The form served a wide variety of uses both in the U.S. and its original home in Europe and the British Isles.  Several branches of the ceramic family trace their lineage to this original shape; handles led to pitchers; constricted rims became jugs; lids led to bean pots and ultimately casseroles…  But the ‘lard pot’ as a distinct form continued throughout.

Actually this is one of the oldest items in the Anglo-American potting tradition.   It was among the first forms to be made in England’s North American Colonies.  It’s production lasted two millennia until it’s extinction a mere hundred years or so ago.  So ubiquitous was this form that it’s difficult, by sight alone, to ascribe surviving examples to a particular period, place or maker.

The staying power of such a shape – passing through so many generations of hands, so many clays, so many wheels, so many kilns, so many decorative fads, across so many war-torn country sides, buffeted by so many economic and technological storms – is something remarkable.

The lard pot could be placed in a pantheon of archetypal pottery forms, along with other ‘long-distance runners’ like the Spanish/Muslim ánfora, the African beer pot, the Central American comal, and the Asian rice bowl.

Unfortunately, the lard pot epitomizes the clumsy, pedestrian nature of popular contemporary conceptions of early Redware.  But when executed in the hands of a master, it was a study in control.  With no handles, spouts, lids – or even glaze – to hide behind, proportions were critical.  The relation between base, belly and rim had to swell out enough for storage and ease of content removal, without being squat or dumpy.

To make a “lard pot” today is to converse with all those potters who laid out the path before us.  Feeling the old potters presence is a rare thing.  But when it happens, you’re in good company.

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

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

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

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics [13th through 18th Centuries].  Florence and Robert Lister.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

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


January 16, 2011

This is the kind of stuff you can read about anywhere:

…Redware potteries were a common sight in most areas of Colonial and Federalist America. A few places with stoneware clay deposits, or sufficient river access for stoneware clay shipments, had both stoneware and redware potteries. A very few had both under one roof. Lead glazed redware began to fade away once canals and railroads made cheap access to the sturdier salt fired stoneware possible almost anywhere.  Blah blah blah…

On the other hand, there is very little documentation about how the individuals involved actually felt about the transition.

But one illuminating conversation between a stoneware and a redware potter has survived. Rather, the exchange was recounted many years later by Daniel Arrit to Marion Rawston in her 1938 book Candleday Art. Daniel had worked for stoneware potter George Fulton in Botecourt, MD. Much of Fulton’s wares were sold in nearby Blacksburg where Thomas Waddle had a redware shop. The encounter, according to Daniel, went like this:

“You know, marm, this was good stoneware, not that no ‘count red earthen ware. You could bile [boil] in our stoneware. I’ve drive the wagon many a time to Blacksburg, and there old Waddle that sold the redware would see me coming and shout, “what you bringing that no ‘count stuff to this town for?” And I’d shout back, “yours is the no ‘count stuff, ain’t burnt to a body. Mine’s burnt to a stone body. Give me a piece of your old no ’count ware, I want to pitch it down the road a piece.” So I pitched one of my crocks down the road twenty feet and it never broke none. His’n? He daren’t give me any. He went out of business afore long.”

‘Pitching crocks down the road’ to prove a point. What would Waddle have said about that exchange?

American Stoneware. William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

…100 Years from Now

October 10, 2010

Eras usually end because nobody cares.  The latest “thing” gets all the attention.  For example, when American hand-made utilitarian pottery died out in the mid 19th century, nobody ran into the street gnashing teeth and pulling hair.

Only with the passage of time can we really understand what happened, our self-absorbed modern penchant for naming current “eras” notwithstanding (ie; The Information Age, The Digital Age, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc. etc. etc.). Who really understands what is happening today?  What will they say of us 100 years from now? Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6

But in 1876 something amazing happened.  We looked back.  We  realized the value of something we once had.  And we acted on that realization.

The catalyst was the first World’s Fair to be held in the US, the “International Exposition of 1876” commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Civil War was over.  People wanted to move on, to show the world our best.  And we invited the world to stand beside us, show us their best.  The result?  America flopped.

We had lost sight of our heritage.  Our past.  Gone were the uniquely American cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Gone were the playful sgraffito worksRedware was a memory.  The daring porcelains, rockinghams, agates, and parians of our pioneering pottery firms had morphed into a soul-less, mass-produced product.

American artisans flocking to the Exhibition saw in the international exhibits a world that knew where it was coming from and where it wanted to go.  Our exhibits confronted our artisans with questions.  “What had we become?”  “What could we become?”  They came away changed.

This was no bunch of hippie luddites.  They were men and women inspired to preserve the past but also to advance American ceramics.  American women were especially motivated by this watershed event.  For many it began with china painting, the first true ‘ceramic-art’ movement in the US.  Two presidential wives and many future leaders in the movement began as china painters.  But any list of Art Pottery leaders must begin with Mary Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols.

Mary Louise McLaughlin’s Centennial experience motivated her to spearhead in 1879 the Queen City OH Pottery Club, America’s first all-women’s pottery organization.  Her efforts set the stage for Rookwood and the blossoming of Art Pottery in Cincinnati.  Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, another Centennial convert.  No other pottery matched Rookwood’s uniquely American style.

But there were many others; Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans founded specifically to instruct young women; Mary Chase Stratton’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit; Linna Irelan’s Art Pottery in San Francisco, CA, which exclusively used native Californian clays.  These and many more set the stage for Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain work beginning in 1904 and culminating in her magisterial Scarab Vase.  The stage was set for America’s Arts and Crafts revolution.

As Edwin Atlee Barber said: “The existence of a true ceramic art in this country may be said to have commenced with the Fair of 1876.”  Sometimes its nice to recognize on whose shoulders we stand.

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

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

The Index of American Design. Erwin O. Christensen.  The Macmillan Company/New York.  1950.

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.

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.

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.