Posts Tagged ‘Sponge ware’

Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

Readings:
Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.

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.