Posts Tagged ‘teapot’

The One Common Denominator

April 30, 2017

What do a bowl, a pitcher, and a teapot have in common?  A spittoon, of course!

OK, as a joke this is ridiculous.  But it makes perfect sense when studying 19th century Rockingham glazed pottery in the United States.  Every potter today knows – or should know – that making pottery is only half the story.  Using pots brings them to life.  When we trace ownership and function from kiln to cabinet, some interesting patterns come to light – like the connectivity of spittoons in the Rockingham market.

Of all ceramic types made in the US during the 19th century, Rockingham best held it’s ground against the flood of British factory work, infatuation with Chinese porcelain, attempts at copying English styles, etc.  Rockingham, with scratch blue stoneware as a close second, is the most truly iconic American pottery style of that, or any, era.

In 2004, author Jane Perkins Claney decided to take a closer look at Rockingham to understand it’s longevity and attraction.  Initially, potters plastered all sorts of items with this glaze.  But as time and market observations marched on, a clearer understanding of who wanted what, and why, developed.  Production eventually narrowed down to these principle items.

Teapots tended to be favored by middling class women aspiring to a higher afternoon tea circuit rank, but couldn’t quite afford imported finery.  Pitchers were most popular among bar lounging men.  But not just any pitchers.  A molded pitcher with perforated spout predominated.  A fashion of the day was to guzzle brew straight from these pitchers.  The perforated spout kept the foamy head in place, and not all down the shirt of the sot or dandy swigging away (more sedate patrons simply liked that the spout kept the foam out of their mugs while pouring).

Rockingham bowls were found on most farmhouse dinning tables.  Farm families, and usually their farm hands, ate together at the same time.  Massive quantities were easiest served direct from large bowls, buffet style.  If you’re polite you go hungry!  Most rural households were too far apart to encourage a ‘tea circuit,’ so the next best thing was to serve huge meals in the finest bowls within the farmhouse price range: Rockingham.

So, where did the spittoon fit in?  Everywhere.  It was the single commonest Rockingham form (for obvious reasons) throughout Rockingham’s entire production history.  Spittoons were simply everywhere.  Tea parlors, public houses, homes, courthouses, trains, lady’s bathrooms.  Everywhere.

Reading:

Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830-1930.  Jane Perkins Claney.  University Press of New England/Hanover.  2004.

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The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

Teapot as Teapot

April 10, 2011

Traveling south on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, just past Exit 23 for Whately (near mile marker 32.2), you can see on the right at the end of a frontage road an old farmhouse facing the highway.  Originally, this house faced north, perpendicular to the road.  It was moved sideways to avoid demolition when I 91 was built.  Somebody knew who used to live there and didn’t think the place should be razed, it’s history forgotten.  At the beginning of the 19th century it was the home of Thomas Crafts. Thomas Crafts Portrait

Here in 1806 Thomas Crafts began a lead glazed earthenware  “Tea  Pot Manufactory.”  He, a younger brother and a boy employed to wedge clay threw 2,067 dozen teapots a year for 27 years.  Some sold locally, but most went to New York and Pennsylvania, at $1.00/doz. wholesale.  That a rural potter in the early 1800’s could successfully compete with English “Brown Betty” teapots was remarkable.

Anyone lucky enough to have held a Crafts teapot can understand the feat.  His teapots were impeccable.  Paper thin.  Their super glossy jet black glaze needed two firings, unusual for any redware pottery at the time.  Sanford Perry, another Whately potter, developed the technique in1805, basing it on the “Jackfield” glaze originally from Shropshire, England.

Rumor had it that Crafts stole the Jackfield recipe, then muscled Perry out of town in 1822.  The actual record is more honorable (and amiable).  Perry voluntarily sold the recipe to Crafts (they may have been partners) and moved back to Troy NY, his hometown, to get into the more profitable stoneware business.

The Crafts manufactory marked the transition from rural pottery to factory.  Thomas certainly saw it that way.  He trained several brothers, sons, nephews, and at least one niece in the trade.  He probably also trained Stephen Orcutt, head of the Orcutt potting clan.  Crafts switched to stoneware when river and canal transportation allowed shipping of Amboy, NJ stoneware clay to Whately in 1833.  Soon thereafter he exported his pots and his progeny all over New England.

A curious window into the mentality of the Crafts family during that time can be seen in a bizarre “grotesque” pitcher they made at the beginning of the stoneware business in 1833.  An ugly face was applied to the front and “United We Stand Divided We Fall, 1833” stamped on the back.

But a Crafts teapot is, for me, the quintessential expression of a classic form.  Every element necessary to the pot’s function and precisely proportioned.  Absolutely harmonious.  No superfluous decoration.  No attempt to be anything but a teapot.  Teapot as teapot.  Perfection.

Crafts Teapot

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

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts. Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

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