Posts Tagged ‘Smith Pottery’

Pony Up The Cash

August 5, 2012

Amazingly, there are still people who think 18th – 19th century pottery is boring. But under that pottery’s constrained veneer is a rich quirky vein. One powered mostly by anonymous potters. While historians can discern individuals’ handiwork, local contemporaries most likely knew exactly who they were.

Norwalk CT excelled at this genre (and this conundrum). Norwalk was one of New England’s busiest pottery towns. It straddled the traditions of (relatively restrained) New England and (relatively ornate) mid Atlantic pottery.

Asa Hoyt was potting in Norwalk by 1790. Asa did simple slip-trailed sunburst patterns until he hired New Jersey potters with elaborate trailing backgrounds. Hoyt was succeeded by Absalom Day and his wife Betsy Smith. Absalom threw, Betsy fired. The Smith family inherited the pottery and kept it going long into the 19th century, defining the quintessential “Norwalk” style. They even won a diploma at the American Institute’s 17th annual fair in 1844 for “superior earthen spitoons.”

Norwalk’s slip trailed, slab molded pie plates were unique. They were shallower than Pennsylvania’s thrown pie plates, and had no corollary in the rest of New England. Most were made before 1850. One hand seems responsible for the best work. This Smith Pottery employee used the Spencerian script learned by every kid until the “i gadget” made hand writing pointless. As it happens, we actually know the guy’s name. Henry Chichester was a master calligrapher. The book “Norwalk Potteries” even has a group photo from 1863 with him in it.

Saying trailed by Chichester and others ran the gamut from generic to off the wall. The majority were pretty straight forward. “Apple Pie.” “Clams and Oysters.” (New Englanders ate a lot of clams and oysters). It’s not hard to guess the motivation for some. “Pony up the cash.” “Cheap Dish.” “Money Wanted.” Or just “Money.” Some were commemorative, like “Mary’s Dish” or “Lafayette.” Some ventured into politics. “Hurrah for Heister Clymer*”  Morality, like “Give Drink to the thirsty,” often veered into ‘you had to have been there’ territory. “Honor the human.” Odd phrase, beautiful sentiment.

And some were downright bizarre. “Why will you die.”

To simply end there would be a bit abrupt. What on earth was the story behind that plate? But pondering the chasm between those potters’ motives and our understanding of the physical remains of what they did is exactly what makes the historical enterprise so fascinating.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries. Andrew and Kate Winton. Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH. 1981.

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. 1977. Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.

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

Lady’s Slippers

June 6, 2010

A great thing happens on the hills overlooking my town in early June.  The lady’s slippers blossom.  These ‘slipper’ or lung shaped orchids grow wild here.  Years of avid lady’s slipper appreciation has made them almost extinct.  They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.  But in the mid 1800’s they grew outside many a potter’s door.  They were a favorite of the stoneware slip decorators.  Or maybe they were just a safe bet.

Just about anything could be – and was – fodder for decoration.  Nautical scenes, imaginary animals, sarcastic cartoons, brazen political sloganeering.  Many of these had that “keep me” look, saving them from the trash pit.  But specialized motifs could backfire.  Maybe the crock would travel inland where nautical scenes wouldn’t make sense.  Maybe the bizarre animal or the sarcasm would fall flat or insult.  Who would want that in their kitchen?  Even the Bald Eagle, symbol of the United States, could rub the wrong way.  Perhaps the party in office was a bungling, corrupt monstrosity seeking refuge behind the flag…

But flowers were safe.  Lady’s slippers were (and are) a visually distinct form, masterfully executed by various decorators whose names are now forgotten.  Mostly.  The Smith Pottery in Norwalk, CT, employed a man named Chichester who’s slip trailed penmanship was renowned.

And it wasn’t uncommon for potters to employ their daughters as decorators.  Trailing tools could be passed down to next in line when a girl ‘reached age.’  Some even hold that Maria Crafts Kellog, niece of Thomas Crafts, only decorated jugs and crocks made in Whately MA (because “women didn’t make pottery…”).

Another “in house” arrangement was to own the decorators.  Many southern plantation potteries employed male slaves for throwers and female slaves for decorators.  The plantation owner was the ‘potter’ – he owned the pottery.

In other parts, itinerant decorators might have followed itinerant throwers.  As late as the 1930’s vagrant throwers stayed long enough to fill the shop, earn enough to buy a bottle, and move on.  I’ve only seen passing mention of itinerant decorators.  But their existence can be inferred in the uniformity of design on pots from a variety of places.

Of all the possible decorating methods, I feel the itinerant slippers present the most intimate definition of genuine folk art expression.  Something spanning time and space.  I like that image.

Readings:
Lura Woodside Watkins.

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

American Stonewares. Georgeanna Greer.  American Stonewares.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

A Guide to Whately Potters. Henry Baldwin.  Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA.  1999.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Raised in Clay. Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.