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New England Pottery



The first New England potters were the Indians. They knew that baskets could be made waterproof by lining them with clay. Their method of boiling water was to drop hot stones into a clay basket of water. How they learned in the first place that plastic clay when dried became a hard substance is not known, but it has been conjectured that they must have noticed when they left their footprints in soil of a clayey character that the impressions were preserved when the sun dried and hardened the clay. Nor could they have failed to observe that when their weapons, or other implements, came in contact with clay it stuck to them, dried on, and was hard to get off. This or something of the kind is doubtless what happened among primitive peoples in different parts of the world in prehistoric times.

During the colonial period most of the pottery used in New England was imported. This supply was supplemented by a few native potters who worked here and there making the humblest kind of domestic ware for local requirements. Most of it was crudely conceived and poorly executed, but it was handmade, and for this reason has today an ornamental value appreciated by people who care for antiques. A century or so will dignify and add quaintness to almost anything, if you leave it alone.

The New England potteries when they finally got going in the nineteenth century were chiefly concerned with the manufacture of useful pieces, such as crocks, jars, jugs, pots, mugs, pitchers, and the like. It is difficult to realize now how extensively they were used by the housewife in olden times. It required a lot of them just to store the winter supply of food for a large family. Quantities of mincemeat, pickles, and preserves were kept in huge crocks in the cellar. Pantries were crowded with other purposeful vessels-jelly molds and mixing bowls, nests of pots and stoneware bottles. The writer's grandmother kept doughnuts in constant and ample supply in a dark-brown earthenware crock with an earthenware cover and knob in her pantry. Many pottery vessels were used for cooking. The Yankee bean pot was as indispensable an adjunct of the old-fashioned New England household as the family Bible.

The pioneer potters seldom attempted things of a purely ornamental character, such as would now be described as art ware. Yet even their utilitarian pieces were generally given a decorative touch, perhaps a bird or flower, or just a curlycue, which was added freehand with a brush before glazing, in a seemingly spontaneous and carelessly rapturous way. These blue decorations on old gray stoneware are familiar to everyone. The color was obtained from oxide of cobalt. The practice was an attempt to make useful utensils more attractive. Crude as some of the early work undoubtedly was, one feels that some of the potters at least were not unaware that functional designs can take a pleasing form.

Many of the early potteries were literally one-horse enterprises. With plenty of fuel for his oven and a supply of the right kind of clay at hand, the potter set up a pug mill to process the clay he had dug and carted to his workshop. This was simply a large tub in the center of which was a revolving upright post or shaft in which a number of knives were set to grind the clay. A long beam, or sweep, extended from the post out beyond the tub, and to this a horse was hitched which walked round and round, turning the blades and reducing the lumps of clay, which had been moistened with water, to a workable consistency. The job of driving the horse usually fell to the lot of some boy, one of the potter's sons, perhaps, or his apprentice.

Neither primary clays, which are found in the place where they were formed by the decomposition of feldspatic rocks, nor secondary clays, which have been washed away by rain or streams from the site where they were originally formed, are free from impurities, and before the potter shaped a piece of clay he worked and reworked it on his bench, removing every foreign particle. Failure to do this was to court disaster, because the presence in the clay of a pebble or a piece of root generally resulted in the article breaking when fired or a hole being left where it burned away.

Another necessary piece of equipment which the potter made himself was his potter's wheel, which is such an old invention that its origin is unknown. It was a rotating shaft or spindle capped by a horizontal plate or disk on which was placed the clay to be shaped by the potter with his fingers and the palms of his hands as it spun around. The head or disk was rotated by means of a horizontal wheel at the base of the shaft. Four spokes extended from the shaft to the rim of the wheel, and the potter sitting at the machine, which was about the height of a low table, pushed the wheel around with his feet. The disk on which the "throwing" or shaping of the clay was done was about a foot in diameter, the "kick wheel" four feet. Later, the wheel was operated by a treadle worked by the potter with his left foot. A still later improvement was the introduction of a large vertical flywheel, at some distance from the spinning disk, which was turned by a crank in the hands of another person, a belt extending around a couple of spindles rotating the plate. This ancient method, by which most pieces of pottery were made until well into the nineteenth century, is still used in small potteries, and in the large, mass-production plants for making special articles.

Apart from his pug mill, his potter's wheel, and his oven, all of which the potter constructed himself, he needed little in the way of equipment except a few homemade tools of wood and wire and some molds for "slip" casting. Slip is clay diluted to the consistency of thick cream. The potter also made the clay boxes called "saggers" in which the pottery was placed before firing to protect it while in the oven from direct contact with the flames.

The sequence of operations in the production of pottery is the same for most kinds of ware. An object which has been shaped but not fired is said to be in the clay state. It is in the biscuit state when it has been fired once but not yet glazed, and in the glazed state when it has been coated with glaze and has undergone a second firing. Color decorations can be applied under the glaze while the article is in the biscuit state, or on the glaze after it has been fired a second time. If the decoration is added after glazing, the article is fired a third time in an enamel or decorating kiln.

Some kinds of pottery are more or less porous in the biscuit state and absorb liquids. Ink placed in an unglazed earthenware inkwell, for example, will soon disappear. Glazing seals the pores and renders a piece practically impermeable. But even nonporous ceramic ware, such as stoneware, china, and porcelain, is glazed, because glazing makes a smoother and more brilliant surface.

The greatest care has to be taken to see that the glaze and the body of the ware expand and contract at the same rate when heated and cooled. If the body has a larger thermal expansion than the glaze it will contract more in cooling and will be smaller than the outer coat of glazing, which will consequently peel off. On the other hand, if the glaze is more expansive than the body it will in cooling try to become smaller than the body and as a result numerous fine fissures or crackles will appear in the glaze. Every effort has to be made to make the body mixture and the glaze mixture agree with each other, so that "crazing," as it is called, will not occur.

In China the potters deliberately produced crackle ware, featuring the network of small cracks in the glaze as a form of decoration. They even went so far as to rub red -coloring matter into the fissures to give them emphasis. This Chinese crackle ware was long considered unapproachable, but a New England ceramist, Hugh Robertson, who devoted his life to rediscovering lost secrets of the potter's art, succeeded in imitating it to perfection, even to the blue under-glaze oriental decoration. The beauty and charm of Chinese ceramic colors fascinated Hugh Robertson, and he experimented until he learned how to make the famous Chinese sang-deboeuf, the remarkable surface color with tints and shades which in the light have the shining brightness of of a dome of many-colored glass. Hugh Robertson worked for twenty years at the pottery in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which was started by his brother, Alexander, in 1866. When the plant was forced to close down in 1889, Hugh joined the Dedham Pottery Company.

The old-fashioned New England winters, despite their length and severity, had their advantages as well as disadvantages. It was safer, for example, to haul certain kinds of merchandise to market in sleighs than in carts or wagons over rough roads. This was notably the case with the pottery trade. When the fragile ware was packed in pungs filled with hay or straw it suffered little damage in transit.

Goodwin and Webster, who had a pottery on Front Street in Hartford, Connecticut, where they made stoneware from 1810 to 1850, maintained large warehouses in Boston and Salem, which they kept filled in winter by long lines of sleighs loaded with their product. Their ovens were near the water front and at other seasons they made shipments to various places along the coast by sloop. The sleighs which they used when the Connecticut River was closed to navigation brought back loads of fresh fish from Boston for the local market.

Connecticut took the lead among the New England states in the number and output of its potteries. Nothing but stoneware of a practical domestic kind seems to have been made. Although stoneware, as the name indicates, is dense and hard, it is made from a clay possessing a relatively high degree of plasticity. It can be easily worked by hand and is now used by many potters who specialize in art ware, particularly figures and vases. Originally most stoneware was salt-glazed.

This process, which was first used in Germany, was first employed in England toward the close of the seventeenth century, and in the American colonies early in the eighteenth. This rough-surfaced glaze was produced by throwing common salt directly on the fire as the heat of the oven approached its maximum temperature. The salt was fed into the furnace gradually, about a pound being used to a thousand pounds of stoneware. The heat vaporized the salt, which settled in a fine mist on the pottery, giving it a transparent finish preferred to lead glazing. In order to let the salt vapor reach the pottery, the stoneware was not placed in the oven in saggers but in "open setting." This method of glazing during the bisque firing was peculiar to stoneware. Saltglazed stoneware was very popular during the nineteenth century.

Toward the middle of the last century stoneware, chiefly in the form of jugs, was made for several years at Ashfield, Massachusetts. The ovens were at South Ashfield. Ashfield is a remote hilltop town in Western Massachusetts, which would seem to be one of the last places anyone would think of establishing a pottery. But there were a lot of cider-brandy distilleries up in the hills and jugs were needed. They were made in assorted sizes of anywhere from one to five gallons' capacity, and I have seen an Ashfield water cooler of truly imperial size.

On many of the Ashfield products the name sFLnErr appears, usually as a partner of another potter. Partnerships, many of them short-lived, were common in New England. One would be formed, and then for various reasons, perhaps owing to Yankee temperament or the desire of an individual to be his own unrestricted boss, it would be dissolved. Soon after another would be formed, only to go through the same process again.

Potters' marks are not found on early New England pottery and the problem of identification therefore presents difficulties. Prior to the nineteenth century it does not seem to have occurred to the potters to mark their wares. When the practice began many of them used a metallic stamp to impress their names or trade-marks in the clay while it was soft. Others printed their names or painted them on the pottery under the glaze after the body had been partly dried. Collectors, who set much store on these marks, view those added after glazing with suspicion. No mark is conclusive evidence of genuineness, but when other indications of authenticity are present it may have corroborative weight. As in the case of the pewterers, there are published lists of American potters and their marks. Edwin Atlee Barber, a pioneer in the field of ceramic collecting, whose Pottery and Porcelain in the United States was published in 1893, was the first to attempt the compilation of such a list.

Eventually New England came to have numerous small potteries, like the Ashfield works, which made wares for local needs, but the industry developed slowly because pottery could be imported so cheaply that its manufacture was discouraged. Little was done in the potting line until after the middle of the eighteenth century, and the great days of the trade were centered in the nineteenth. Perhaps the majority of these potteries were not commercially successful ventures, or were only occasionally and spasmodically successful. The product as a rule was not of outstanding quality. It was fit for the purpose for which it was made, and that was about all.

New Hampshire had a number of plants, one of which managed to survive many years. This was the Exeter Pottery Works founded by the Dodge family in the eighteenth century and continued by the descendants until 1895. Glazed redware was produced, but by using various oxides in the glaze, the color range was extended to include different shades of brown, yellow, and green.

In 1775, Peter Clark established a pottery at Lyndeboro, New Hampshire, where he made various types of pots, jars, and jugs. The clay used came out red after firing, but this was generally covered with a deep-brown glaze. Redware was the first kind of pottery to be made in New England, but as it was coarse and not very tough it was largely supplanted by stoneware. After Peter Clark's death his sons carried on the business. Examples of this New Hampshire pottery are scarce.

There were other small potteries at New Durham, Moultonboro, and Nashua, New Hampshire. The Hampshire Pottery at Keene was a group of latter-day potters, who began making redware in 1871, but afterward added stoneware and majolica. Some original work was produced here before the factory finally closed in 1926.

Volumes have been written about the ceramic history of Vermont because of the important part the Bennington potteries played in the development of the industry in America. The first pottery in the state was established at Bennington in 1793 by John and William Norton. John was a Connecticut Yankee from the town of Goshen. He served as a captain during the Revolution and soon after peace was declared migrated to Vermont, which was then the stamping ground of numerous men who had become unsettled by the war. The Nortons started by making redware, but in i 80o commenced the manufacture of salt-glazed and lead-glazed stoneware under the name of the Norton Stoneware Company. John Norton, who withdrew in 1823, was succeeded by his sons Lumus and John, Jr., and for over a century, or until 1894, members of the Norton family were engaged in the business at Bennington.

John Norton's grandson, Julius, entered into a partnership with Fenton and Hall in 1846, but two years later the firm was dissolved, and a new one formed by Lyman and Fenton, who changed the name the following year to the United States Pottery Company. Another plant was built and the business carried on independently of the Norton Stoneware Company.

Under the management of Christopher Webber Fenton the pottery made at Bennington became famous. Born in Dorset, Vermont, in i808, Fenton was a nephew of Richard Fenton, who established a pottery at Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, the year Christopher was born. This pottery lasted until 18 5 9. The success of the Bennington factory is generally attributed less to Fenton's abilities as a potter than to his business talents. Credit for the production of fine pieces is given to Decius W. Clark and Daniel Creatbach. Certainly one reason for the success of the ware produced at Bennington was that they were not afraid to experiment with new forms. Just what objects will or will not find favor with the public has always been difficult to predict, but Fenton and his colleagues seem to have been fortunate in this respect. A great variety of articles was produced in Rockingham, Parian, and other wares in a wide range of colors. So diversified was the output that collectors sometimes specialize in Bennington pitchers, figures, or other pieces. John Spargo, who has written many books on many subjects, is the author of several fine ones dealing with the work of these potters. The United States Pottery Company closed its plant in 1858- Christopher Fenton died in 1865.

Although machines today do much of the work that was formerly done by hand in the potteries, the skill and craftsmanship of bygone days that has come down the years has lost none of its importance. From the research laboratory come fresh ways and means of doing things that the old-time potter may have dreamed of but did not know. Antique pottery gives one some idea of the artistic heritage of the world's oldest industry.