Posts Tagged ‘salt fired stoneware’

World Class Connoisseurs of Salt-Fired German Stoneware

May 4, 2014

They say Germany’s two greatest contributions to Western Civilization were the Reformation and hops in beer.  And both happened at about the same time.

As condensed history, so it goes.  But hops also radically impacted pottery history.  Everybody wanted beer once early 16th century brewers, village housewives mostly, began producing it.  Kids even got their diluted “little beer” for breakfast.  And the best beer containers, before mass produced glass, were stoneware bottles.  Demand skyrocketed.  Germans had been tinkering with stoneware since the 10th century.  But 16th to 18th century salt-fired German stoneware became world renowned because of beer.

Unfortunately Germany’s Rhineland district, where the best work was made, was a playground of war for centuries.  Whole communities were continually uprooted by chronic warfare.  Rhennish potters from Raeren, Freshcen and Siegburg ultimately ended up in the somewhat calmer Westerwald region.

Along the way they picked up improvements in clays, sprig decorations, and brilliant manganese and cobalt highlights.  Their work spawned off-shoots, reproductions, fakes and revivals long after their dominance had passed.

German stoneware was so popular, English potters couldn’t prevent caveats from diluting their July 22, 1672 Parliamentary Order in Council meant to insulate local markets.  The final bill prohibited imports of “any kind or sort of Painted Earthen Wares whatsoever except those of China, and Stone bottles and Juggs.”

Tons of German stoneware, literally, were shipped to England’s North American colonies during the 18th century.  Ironically beer bottles and beer mugs, “krugen” and “cannen,” were not the top imports.  Chamber pots were.  But drinking vessels were close behind.  And they were scattered almost as far.

Colonists weren’t the only admirers of salt-fired German stoneware, however.  Many Native American burial sites included Westerwald jugs.  When pottery is done well, there are no boundaries to how far it will be collected.

a_westerwald_stoneware_pewter-mounted_armorial_jug_17th_century

Readings:
Stoneware in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

 

NASCAR

June 16, 2013

“War is hell.”  – William Tecumseh Sherman.

Automobiles excited speed freaks from the beginning.  But Prohibition bumped things up a notch.  Young men raced bootleg whiskey to backwoods delivery points.  When Prohibition ended the drivers didn’t want to stop.  One thing led to another and racing became a “sport.”  They raced each other for small stakes.  Once money got involved it became NASCAR.

The whiskey those early daredevils drove around came in salt-fired stoneware jugs.  This scenario was officially sanctioned a few brief decades before, with far reaching consequences for everyone involved.

The Civil War had ravished farms across the South.  Barns were burned and cattle herds were decimated.  Reconstruction efforts like the 1870’s Farm Alliance Program promoted corn production as a cash crop for whiskey distillation.  There simply wasn’t much livestock to feed.  Whiskey boomed.  So did the need for jugs to put it in.

One immediate consequence was that local potters couldn’t keep up with demand.  Quality predictably declined when so many newcomers flooded the market.  Many of these new potters were itinerants.  The very best were called “500 gallon men” due to the quantity they could produce in a day.  But many others were just “whiskey heads” who breezed into shops, made a few bucks, blew it all on whiskey, and drifted off again.

The stoneware whiskey jug boom also impelled several important technical innovations.  Albany slip came into common use, sealing somewhat porous jugs and protecting their precious contents.  As production grew, kilns evolved.  Some potters stayed true to their old groundhog kilns but others needed more stacking space and more consistent firing.  Kilns got shorter, taller and more fuel efficient.

During Prohibition, revenue officers looking for bootleggers would see shops filled with jugs one day and empty the next.  “Where did those jugs go?”  “I didn’t catch his name…”  Cleater Meaders of White County, Georgia remembers “Most of the liquor ended up in Atlanta or Athens – university people got most of it.”

After Prohibition, visitors from cities like Atlanta and Athens sought out rustic ceramic ‘tourist items.’  The stage was set for Jugtown and all that followed.  Meanwhile the young bootlegging drivers sped off to their own destiny.

OK, so it can’t be said that pottery alone created NASCAR.  But pottery was a crucial ingredient there at the beginning.

Readings:
Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition (1984).  Sweezy, Nancy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.

Turners and Burners.  Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

…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.

Readings:
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.

Luman Norton’s Barn

October 25, 2009

John Spargo was a big fan of the Nortons.  The Norton family of Bennington VT, was a powerhouse pottery dynasty from 1793 to almost to the end of the 19th century.  They initiated or excelled in virtually everything being made at the time; Redware (at first), Rockingham, Yellow ware, Sponge ware, Parian sculptures, Flint Enamel, Agate (“Scroddled”) ware, Granite ware, Porcelain, and of course, that quintessential American classic: salt-fired cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Begun at the foot of a mountain named after Susan B. Antony’s family,  the Nortons were one of a very few American pottery firms to successfully compete with the post-Revolutionary War British pottery invasion.  Bennington was even for a time called “The Staffordshire of America.”

Only the first few generations of Nortons were actual potters, though.  Captain John Norton, his son Luman, and Luman’s son Julius.  Most of the rest were content being local Brahmins, sitting atop the wealth created by their pottery making progenitors.  Except Edward, who tried to revive the then flagging pottery in the late 1880’s.  But he died young.  From then till today, the Norton name became affixed to their refractories and abrasives businesses.

Anyway, John Spargo was a Marxist agitator turned pottery collector (really).  He wrote several books early in the 20th century about American ceramics.  His “The Potters and Potteries of Bennington” is a landmark text.  It’s also a hagiography.  A paean to the Norton family.  The book is peppered with glowing accounts of the Nortons by their friends and neighbors.  The Nortons were gregarious, true enough.  They regularly strolled through the pottery, top hat in hand, chatting with the workers.

Luman, the second of the line, wasn’t as gifted as his father or his son.  But he put the Pottery on a solid footing.  So what a scandal when somebody burned down his barn in 1812!  Shortly after, someone tried to burn the rebuilt barn.  Luman posted night guards to protect it.  This was the very eve of the War of 1812.  A tense time.  Sitting under the stars, I wonder what the guards talked about.  Soon armies would rage across their countryside, possibly directly into their homes…

Luman Norton was, according to Spargo, well liked and well respected.  How ironic, then, that the arsonist wasn’t a British agent or an interloper from any number of rival potteries.  It was one of the trusted boys guarding his barn.

There must be a story here.

Norton Pottery workers

Norton Pottery workers

Readings:
The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton, NY.  1926.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington. Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT. 1971.

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