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Pottery, History's Most Widely Used Plastic

In the Mesopotamian valley where Arabian desert, sea, and the Two Rivers met, the great trading city of Ur once gathered its gold and precious stones. Recently archaeologists, digging down through the accumulated soil of the centuries, found the old city, including a kiln full of pottery, fired for people Noah may have known. A dozen feet on, below sand packed maybe by the Great Flood, were the remains of brick homes and their pottery.

For pottery is one of mankind's oldest plastics. The barrow graves of prehistoric man in Britain, Holland, and elsewhere in Europe, had pottery dishes. Ruins found in India and Western China had thin painted pottery made thirty centuries B. C. Similar pottery came from Persia's Painted Pottery People, once dated as 5000 B.C., and other ancient civilizations.

Egypt with her Nile brought clays and desert sands (silicas) plus alkali soils for alkaline glaze, traded her blue and green glazed pottery through the Mediterranean. Crete left fine Minoan pottery and Troy her spiral-decorated, man-tall storage jars.

Greek black figured, and red figured pottery paintings tell a lot of history. Macedonia's Great Alexander conquered Egypt, founded Alexandria, and started her to pottery fame. Rome inherited this pottery art and spread it north and west through her colonies.


Syria and Egypt made famous blue and black painted pottery. Persia produced cream and white sandy pottery. Her Rhages ware, enameled (glazed) blue, turquoise, purple, green or red, with rich miniature gold touched paintings, shattered under Mongol hoofs.

Luster, the East's gift to pottery, a thin metallic coating over a tin (white) glaze, made golden brown, red, rose, purple and gold decorated dishes. Spain's pale gold lusters came of silver and copper, the more silver the paler the "golden luster." She combined it with blue curving lines (arabesques), flowers, birds, animals, and lettering in the Moorish fashion.

Italy in the Middle Ages discarded Roman red and black wares and covered her red pottery with light colored slip (clay creamed in water). She scratched (sgraffito) through this light slip so the red pottery showed through as pictures. Or she put lead glaze (glass) over her pottery and painted flowers or even portraits.

Faenza, leading the Renaissance, gave her name, "faience," to her pottery coated with costly opaque white tin glaze from the East. This tin glazed pottery which possibly came via Spain, arrived in Italy in Majorcan ships, so was called majolica or maiolica.

Italy painted her designs in polychrome (many colors) over the white tin surface, using blue, green, orange, brown, purple, and yellow. She scratched (sgraffito) designs through the white. Later she painted cobalt blue flowers over the white surface, imitating Chinese porcelain.

Italy's potters took their art to Antwerp and later to Holland. It sparked polychrome and blue flowered Delft ware which the Dutch East India trade, with its cargoes of Chinese porcelain, set flaming into a mighty pottery business.

China's tea was sent with redware pots, since some metals "spoiled tea's flavor." These tea dishes turned Europe's rich from silver, gold, copper, brass and pewter dishes to fashionable red stoneware, luster ed ware, and painted polychrome or blue flowered pottery.


Red, ,yellow, blue, black or white clays make pottery. It absorbs or leaks liquids unless covered with glaze (glass). Primitive people water proof their pottery with smoke (carbon) or with tree gum. Straw, grass, sand, ground flint, or pottery shards mixed with the clay make it tougher and less porous. So does high heat, as used in firing clay mix and silica for tough stoneware.

The primitive potter shapes his pot by making a pancake of clay and winding a rope of clay in coil on coil from this base up, smoothing the coils to each other and the bottom, or he shapes his pot over hardened clay or basketry.

The potter's wheel found at Ur, mentioned by Homer, and pictured in tomb paintings at Thebes, revolves the clay while the potter shapes his dish. A wire or cord cuts the dish free.

Eighteenth century European potters used a cast, pouring the liquid clay in, letting it settle as a lining or dish, and pouring out the excess. When the dish was leather hard, they removed it for firing and decoration.

Decorative colors included tin's white; cobalt's deep or sapphire blue; and the emerald green or the turquoise blue of copper; the faint or forest green of iron; coral to brownish red of iron; and orange of iron. Manganese gave purple. Antimoniate of lead gave yellow. Proper handling and blendings of the metals gave the wanted colors.

Cobalt's rich blue did not change colors in the high heat so it was used for stoneware. This high heat melted the lead glaze into the clay so salt was thrown into the fire to vaporize and settle over the ware as salt glaze.


Italy's majolica, Holland's Delftware, and France's gres or stoneware plus her Palissy, famous for its raised naturalistic design and nature's own colors, all are well known in America. So is Germany's gray stoneware - the jars are called "graybeards" when decorated with bearded heads.

England's pottery too is well known. Her tin glazed polychrome or painted cobalt blue Delftware was made at London (Lambeth ware), Bristol and Liverpool, which last city made transfer printed pottery famous. Staffordshire adopted the French piece mold and cast dishes with molded raised designs. Sometimes, instead, their flower sprigs were "twigged" on - laid on and brushed there with slip before the firing.

Low temperature firing which allowed delicate colors, and a glaze which blended with the pottery, made the popular CreamWare. It displaced tin glazed pottery. Lusters had a great vogue, especially platinum coated "silver luster" tea sets.

Wedgwood popularized his black Basalt and Jasper stoneware in blue and pale green, though 'there were other colors. He put a wreath around his Cream Ware, gave a set to his Queen, and gained the privilege of naming it Queensware. It sold in boat loads to America.


American Indians were making pottery in the early Chinese manner long before the Spanish brought their lusters, or Jamestown colonists started replacing their broken faience and stoneware. Then John and Clarkson Crolius in New York made salt glazed mugs, jugs, churns and teapots in gray stoneware.

Pennsylvania's pieplates, bowls and jars of red or brown pottery were beautified with yellow, cream and green, or cream and black slips, either trailed on in lines, or dipped or painted over the ware. The pottery immediately drank up the water and held the clay slip firmly.

Scratched (incised or sgraffito) pictures were cut through this light colored slip coating so the dark body showed as horses, peacocks, Indian flowers (pomegranates), good luck tulips, or homely sayings of wisdom or humor. Sometimes raised designs put on under the glaze enriched both glaze color and dish.

Bennington, Vermont, made red pottery and salt glazed stoneware jugs and churns, yellow or Cream Ware dishes, and yellow bodied Rockingham Ware with its spattered on dark brown glaze, its hound handled pitchers, cow creamers, and book flasks. New Jersey, too, made Cream Ware and Rockingham Ware, including the hound handled pitcher. The hound was a favorite Roman handle.

Carolina's fine clay drew English potters about 1740. Their descendants made Civil war pottery, and recently, encouraged by Jacques Busbee, have put out black, brown, buff, and orange Jugtown wares. East Liverpool Ohio's yellow ware with. its transparent glaze, made and wagon peddled by James Bennett to start it, built a world wide pottery business.

Cincinnati's clays inspired Rookwood. Marie and Julian Martinez, American Indians at San Ildefonso, using New Mexico's clays, have revived the black smoked and red burnished pottery of their ancestors. And Death Valley's great talc stone beds which once meant despair and even death to pioneers, have helped California to pottery fame.

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