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Salt Glaze, a Product of Staffordshire
The potteries of north Staffordshire, England, so famous for their fine earthenware from the middle of the eighteenth century, had begun in a modest way. Composed at first of small land-holding folk potters, what they made and their manner of working was similar to that practiced until a very short time ago in the southern mountains of America.
The difference between the two was that time moved on with the Staffordshire potters. Before the end of the seventeenth century, these craftsmen had advanced from butter crocks and other kitchenware items to the beginnings of fine earthenware for which they were later to attain world-wide reputation.
The first real change in method came when two brothers from the Continent started a pottery near the town of Burslem in 1693. They made tea and coffee pots and mugs in a black unglazed stoneware with raised and incised decorations which were forerunners of the basalt made famous by Josiah Wedgwood. These two potters, John and David Elers, would have preferred to keep their working ways secret but they needed two helpers. The two men they hired were ambitious local potters who stayed with them until they had learned their secrets. Then each started his own pottery in Shelton. For one of them, Thomas Astbury, the Elers' processes were just a beginning. He improved the technique of getting an exceedingly hard and transparent glaze by sprinkling quantities of common salt into his kilns while they were at high heat.
Known as salt glaze, ware so treated became one of the major products of Staffordshire and continued in favor until nearly the close of the eighteenth century when the newer queen's ware edged it out. One of the most important producers of salt glaze was Dr. Thomas Wedgwood II, a cousin of the great Josiah.
The ware during the early years was all white with decoration achieved by combining an incised geometric design with raised scrolls . Later pieces omitted the embossed and incised motifs and substituted designs painted in enamel colors. There was naturally more variety with this latter method and floral patterns, country scenes, portraits of royalty and other prominent figures were used to good effect.
Meanwhile, from striving to imitate the weight and texture of Oriental porcelain, the copying of Chinese decorations naturally followed. The decorator had never been to the Orient nor had he ever had a chance to see a Chinese painter at work, but he could copy a pattern seen on a plate or other object from that far-off country.
All this was of course the forerunner of the much less expensive and colorful transfer-decorated earthenware which poured into the United States from shortly after the end of the War of 1812. During the heyday of salt glaze, which was roughly between 1725 and 1780, the Staffordshire area was a gloomy place on the days when salt was thrown into the kilns. Smoke of such density poured forth that it was twilight over the whole area for hours.
Other makers of this ware besides Thomas Astbury and Dr. Wedgwood were Thomas and John Wedgwood, Thomas Heath, Aaron Wood, Ralph Daniel and John Badderly. Items made included tableware, tea and coffee services, punch bowls, vases, figurines, and figure groups. Among the latter were the well-known pew groups, showing a courting couple, ill at ease in their best clothes, self-consciously holding hands.