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Old American Pottery
"A fireplace occupied half of the south wall, and heavy brands flamed between its great andirons. Above them on a crane among hooks and links, an iron teakettle lazily .gurgled; and over the fireplace earthen pans, candlesticks, and snuffers sat on a high Mantletree."
So Eliza Nelson Blair, who knew the homely fashions of olden times, wrote in "'Lizbeth Wilson," her story of New Hampshire farm life. Earthen milk-pans are no more as a household commodity. The coming of the tin peddler in his bright red cart, filled with shining wares, sounded their knell. But they are desired by the collector of early American antiques and so are bean-pots-of a kind-and stone "crocks."
Just at the present time, the collector who has been hunting the pressed glass used on Grandmother's supper-table has also turned his attention to ferreting out specimens of early American pottery. He is "picking up" and "bidding-off" stoneware jars, vinegar jugs, molasses jugs, stoneware churns, cream-pots, puddingpots, water-kegs, and bean-pots. In fact, he is looking for all kinds of crockery food-containers, dear to the housewives of the past generations.
I shall begin by telling you something of the first decorated pottery to be made in this countryt was the slip decorated pottery and sgraffito ware produced by the Pennsylvania Germans whose fathers came from the Rhine district. They were true to the traditions of the homeland and just as they retained their language and customs, so they clung to the handicrafts of the country across the sea. So busy were they turning the rich soil of the new land that they lacked time for much else. But they could manage to find some hours for pottery making, and built a few small potteries where they made slip-decorated wares from the middle of the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth. The material used was the native yellow clay, and the name of the ware was obtained from the liquid, creamcolored clay or "slip" applied to the base. Red lead or galena was used for the glaze, and the more ornate pieces were colored with verdigris and manganese.
The method of tracing the design differed slightly in the sgraffito ware from that followed in the ornamentation of the slip decorated pottery. The design was made by scratching away the slip coat from the underlying surface instead of tracing the design in the slip.
The patterns were varied, but represented objects seen and loved by the designers. It was reminiscent of one of the old German gardens to find the patterns of the tulip, the fuschia, the forget-me-not, the rose, the pink, and the lily-of-the-valley embossed on this pottery. Fruits were not forgotten, nor birds, both domestic and wild. Frequently animals and even scenes from the daily life of the family served as subjects of designs.
During the rebuilding of an old house in southern Pennsylvania, workmen unbricked an old bakeshop, hidden for so many years that no person then alive had ever heard of it. And there, in the excavated spot,stood a large and beautifully designed yeast-jar of earthenware.
The German potters were not confined exclusively to Pennsylvania. One of the best of them, Mehwaldt, operated in the village of Bergholtz in western New York, working alone at his primitive brick oven and wooden kick-wheel from 1851 to 1887. His ware had a peculiar mottled effect made by splashing a darker mixture upon the light surface with a small brush, and there is an old tradition that this genius of the potter's wheel achieved a certain deep red coloring matter by mixing fresh beef blood with the ingredients! Mehwaldt was a picturesque figure, worthy of being woven into the web of an American novel. He produced quantities of crocks, cooking utensils, candlesticks, tableware, milk-pans, several German tiled stoves, memorial wreaths inspired by the memory of the son whom he gave to the Civil War, and a huge chandelier of clay for his church.
Other pottery made in New Jersey, New York, and in New England belonged to an entirely different class from that made by the German emigrants.
The householders of early America imported the outfittings of their tables from the kilns of England, the fine potteries of France, and later, from the Orient. Little native pottery, made by isolated potters, was turned out until after the middle of the eighteenth century. But the early part of the nineteenth brought more interest in home manufactured earthenware.
The early potters were unable to find clays of the quality used in making the famous wares of England. A clay bed was discovered at Huntington, Long Island, and a pottery was established which operated from pre-Revolutionary days until 1904. Pitchers, crocks, mixing-bowls, jars, jugs, pie-plates, and bean-pots were made in deep red shades with added decorative splashes. About the year 1800 gray stoneware, frequently decorated with blue, was produced.
New England potters were expert with but two kinds of pottery, redware and stoneware. Country stores sold redware crocks, jars, churns, pitchers, mugs, bottles, cups, milk-pans, pie-plates, inkstands, butter and pickle pots, teapots, vases, sugar bowls, plates, and plattersin fact, all of the commodities of this sort which the ingenuity of the Yankee potter contrived for household use.
Common brick clay furnished the basis for redware. It was fired at a low temperature, was lead-glazed, and decorated in colored slip. Gray stoneware was harder than the redware and also more expensive. Connecticut, the birthplace of the bean-pot, led in the production of pottery and earthenware was made in great quantities from 1771 until 1850. Potteries were working in Norwich as early as 1796. The one at Bean Hill was well known, and later, about 1836, the Norwich Pottery Works were established. The clay was brought in schooners from New Jersey and Long Island, and the products were distributed to country stores by wagons. The business was abandoned in 1895, and, today, not a trace of the industry remains. Norwich had a pottery in 1780; Hartford in 1790; Stoningham in 1798.
Massachusetts boasts of having one of the earliest of New England potters, John Pride of Salem, who was producing pottery in 1641. There were potteries at Danvers, Charlestown, Weston, and Ashfield. An unusual ware, having an almost black glaze, was produced in Peabody.
Pottery was made in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, in Portland, Maine, and in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, as well as in Boscawen. The Rev. Mr. Price, writing in 1820, speaks of the industries of the town at that period in this way, "There are in this town seventeen sawmills, five corn-mills,-three of which have two runs of stones, and all furnished with bolts, four fullingmills, five carding-machines, two mills for grinding tanners' bark, one trip-hammer, one mill for turning cart-wheel hubs and felloes, and one for grinding lead for potters' ware."
The local history of the town of Boscawen says, "Queen's ware was manufactured for many years in Boscawen by Jeremiah Burpee. His establishment stood on the spot now occupied by the residence of John Rines. During the bright summer days, travellers on the turnpike were accustomed to see a white horse going his rounds, attached to the sweep of the clay-mill, while through an open window of the shop they saw Mr. Burpee and his sons fashioning milk-jars and creampots and jugs upon the swiftly revolving wheels. Upon long boards on the southern side of the shop were rows of manufactured articles drying in the sun. Later in the season, at midnight, the shop was all aglow with the light of the flame of the kiln. The ware found a market among the farmers of the country."
Next to Connecticut, Vermont is, without doubt, the best known of the pottery-producing states, for Bennington ware which was made during the first years of the nineteenth century was recognized by collectors before any interest at all was taken in the cruder types of earthenware. The name of the Fenton family is closely associated with Vermont pottery. It included two brothers, Jonathan, Jr. and Richard Webber Fenton who were pioneer potters in Vermont. Jonathan Fenton established a stoneware pottery at East Dorset. He was the father of Christopher Webber Fenton who later became associated with the Bennington pottery, established by Captain John Norton in 1793. Other members of the Fenton family were employed also at the Bennington works. As the business of making stoneware developed, two firms, the Norton Company and the United States Pottery Company were active in Bennington.
The early products from the Bennington works were quaint and unusual, and without doubt there is nothing in any other country that is similar to them, except possibly some of the early Staffordshire ware.
"Bennington ware can hardly be compared to the finely moulded type of work that is produced by the various well-known pottery manufacturers in Europe," state the authors of "The American Renaissance." "It is extremely coarse and crude, and primarily interesting in its modeling, subject matter, and coloring. It required much originality and imagination to conceive of the bottle coachmen, the laughing cows, the fierce lions, the diminutive tobys, and droll poodle dogs which were turned out at Bennington."
Bennington ware included all kinds of tableware, door-knobs, mantel ornaments, and pitchers. Stoneware and redware were made at Burlington, and many unmarked pieces now found in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and northern New York were produced by a firm known as Nichols and Alford. Both the Bennington and Burlington potteries made the mottled, brownglazed ware known as Rockingham. It included pitchers, vases, mugs, and ornamental flower-pots. One interesting example is a hound-handled pitcher, stamped with the name of Nichols and Alford.
There is a certain personal appeal about the pioneer pottery of America. No collector will claim that it is a work of art, although certain types have pleasing forms and colors. It is a monument to the ingenuity of the native craftsmen who took the material at hand and developed it for the use of the women in their homes. To the collector who values the homely crafts of early days it has a value that far exceeds beauty.