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Pottery Making After The Revolution

( Originally Published 1940 )


Having acquainted ourselves generally with the processes of the potter's craft, we can proceed to follow the development of the manufacture after the rift between the Colonies and the Mother Country had actively developed.

The effects of the Revolution upon American pottery-making may be considered typical of its effect upon all non-luxury manufactures. Great Britain had been the major source of commodi ties for America. When this source was cut off by the war only three courses were open in regard to any given commodity: one was to do without it, another was to find a substitute, and the third was to stimulate home manufacture. Silks and satins can be given up. Even the most fashionable belles can array themselves in domestic homespuns at a time when it is fashionable to be patriotic. The drinking of tea can be substituted for by the brewing of insipid sassafras and other home-grown weeds; was, in fact, to such a degree that America never again became a teadrinking nation. But pottery was something that we could make, and did.

The complete cessation of English imports threw the great American market into the laps of American manufacturers and they were not prepared for it. It stimulated the organization by inexperienced men of hundreds of very small and ill-equipped enterprises. In the usual case of the period, there was an abundance of material resources, fuel and clay for the asking, but a shortage of skilled labor. The war aggravated this condition, for many of the English craftsmen had returned to Britain at the sound of the first bugle-calls. Others, deeming themselves American (in those days more or less a question of temperament), had joined the gathering ranks of the Continentals. The result was a great increase in the quantity and a sudden decline in the quality of American pottery, from 1776 to 1783.

When the shooting was over America found itself a vast new entity among the powers of the Earth. Another sudden and typical metamorphosis occurred in American pottery-making. First of all there was a tremendous burst of energy on all sides. Talents and life-forces that had been caught up in military action were released all over the continent in enterprises of exploration, commerce, invention, education, manufacturing and craftsmanship. American craftsmen now had a national as well as a personal integrity to uphold in their work. The result was immediately apparent in greater beauty of form and refinement of ornament.

In addition to this there was a tremendous influx of craftsmen from foreign countries. In 1776 Silas Deans had made a prophecy to the secret committee of Congress in Paris. "The present Contest," he said, "has engaged the attention of all Europe. The good and the wise part, the lovers of liberty and human happiness, look forward to the establishment of American freedom and independence as an event which will secure to them and their descendants an asylum from the effects and violence of despotick power, daily gaining ground in every part of Europe. From these and other considerations on which I need not be minute, emigration from Europe will be prodigious immediately upon the establishment of American Independence." This proved to be correct, and the effect on American potterymaking, and craftsmanship in general, was to add skill, new techniques, and more foreign influences to leave their marks upon the growing variety of American design.

Simultaneously occurred a great surge of national consciousness. We were proud of ourselves. We liked to think that we were not only better fighters but also better manufacturers. There was no need, at this time, for a "Buy American" campaign. Patriotic slogans, portraits of American statesmen, Eagles and other national symbols were the popular decorative motifs of the day.

English manufacturers were desperate to recapture the rich American market. Their spies came, saw, and reported the new American tastes. No more birds and flowers, but profiles of Washington and Adams, eagles with talons full of arrows, violent and victorious revolutionary slogans. Such are the uses of competitive merchandising! The English began to manufacture and ship vast quantities of these things. They vied with our most ebullient craftsmen in expressing in pottery, glass, silver, brass, and textiles rabidly patriotic American and outright anti-British sentiments.

Immediately after the Revolution there were numerous new potteries in all the States previously mentioned. Among these, was that of Thomas Commeraw, of Coerlear's Hook, New York City, which became a strong competitor of Remmey and Crolius. Commeraw made stoneware similar to the latters', but his favorite ornament was a pair of crescents, with the four tips touching, leaving the center space thus formed, open in the shape of an oval. He continued in business until about 1820.

There were new establishments in West Virgina, Vermont, Kentucky and Ohio. The products of these were at first similar to those of the older colonies, the greatest volume being of tan and grey salt-glazed stoneware, red earthenware, and leadglazed ware in simple, useful shapes.

With the first decades of the 19th century we find more and more local differences in the types of pottery. Many of these variations were the reflection of economic differences; occa sionally, as in the case of the Pennsylvania-Dutch, of cultural differences. The simple, utilitarian forms prevailed along the westward frontiers. But in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, a finer ware was being produced; pottery that imitated silverware in its forms, with infinite varieties of color, lustre, and ornamental pattern.

For fifteen years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the arrogantly individual little territory of Vermont maintained its own sovereign independence. Finally, in 1791, it joined the Federation of States. Two years later, in a very unobtrusive fashion, began the enterprise which was to lead to quite the greatest pottery of the new country. Captain John Norton, who had distinguished himself in the Revolution and had been one of the guards at the execution of the unfortunate Captain Andre, founded on his farm at Bennington, Vermont, a single kiln for the making of pottery.

This was partly for the convenience of his own large farm and partly for that of neighbors, but popular demand soon made it a more ambitious enterprise. Within a year he had two kilns. He himself, albeit a gentleman, was a skilled potter. His knowledge of variegated techniques is indicated by the versatility of his original productions: red earthenware, brown slip-ware, lead-glazed and salt-glazed stoneware. Though these are all crude wares they are notable for what was little more than a household manufactory. It's interesting, by the way, to note the prices of the period: 144 milk pans, $18; 12 large platters, $1.00.

In 1813 the Captain retired leaving his two sons in the business, Luman and John. John Norton (2nd) left the partnership in 1827 and Luman took in his own son, Julius. All these men were craftsmen-employers, thoroughly skilled and active far beyond the function of ownership. Julius turned out to be an innovator, and a business man of great abilities. This was a relief to his father who had always had leanings toward the scholar's life. (Shades of John Remmey, 3rd). They moved to a new location in Bennington where they could use waterpower instead of horsepower, and the expansion of their business was phenomenal. In 184o, Luman retreated into his library and left the entire pottery to his highly efficient son.

Julius commenced the manufacture of much more varied articles than had ever been made by his father or grandfather. He had artistic aims. Inkstands, flowerpots, and other intricately decorated articles began to come from the Norton kilns. In 1845 Julius Norton took his brother-in-law, Christopher Webber Fenton, into partnership. This was not a particularly momentous event for Julius, but in the history of American ceramics it looms large.

In 1847 Fenton left Julius Norton and started his own business, called the United States Pottery. It is reported that C. W. Fenton was not, himself, a remarkable potter. Nevertheless, he possessed extraordinary talents in other directions. He had the average district school education, by no means equal to that of the other potter-employers yet above that of the ordinary potter. He was a man of some temper, fond of political argument. A constant "dram-drinker," he indulged in sporadic sprees. He would form sudden and enthusiastic friendships, cooling off almost as rapidly. This is no unusual character portrait. The important factor to his role in pottery was the fact that Christopher Webber Fenton was very good at sketching. He could sketch small objects, shapes, and ornaments, such as had not been attempted by any other American potter. Thus, in a brief span of years, C. W. Fenton became the Wedgwood of America. The products of his United States Pottery were endless in their variety and ornamental ingenuity. Even when he was still in partnership with business-man Julius Norton they had begun to produce not only ordinary stoneware, but yellow and white ware; Rockingham ware, which is usually a brown glazed ware, mottled, with manganese as its essential coloring agent, and many other variants on the usual types of American pottery.

Another of Fenton's gifts was the ability to choose talented men to work for him. He had an uncanny eye for the right man for the right job. Modellers, designers, throwers, furnace men, flocked to Fenton from all over the world. Outstanding among these was Daniel Greatbach, who came to Bennington in i852. A modeller and designer, he was the son of William Greatbach who had modelled and designed for Wedgwood.

Cow-shaped creamers, Dachshund-handled water pitchers, ornamental lions with spinach-like manes; no verbal description could give any impression of the variety and imaginative quality of their work.

Technically speaking, the greater part of their production was of three types: Rockingham, flint, and scroddle-ware. Rockingham has already been described.

Scroddle-ware, sometimes called agate, or lava-ware, is made by using alternate thin layers of different colored clay, piling these up like a thin layer-cake, pressing them together, then rolling them up and cutting the resultant cylinder into slices with a fine wire. The final ware was then molded from these slices. The resultant pottery is composed of labyrinthine intertwinements of varied color. This is sometimes confused with the process known as "combing," wherein an object is covered with a thin slip of different color and the whole is worked over with metal combs, in the manner of artificial "graining" on woodwork. Close inspection will show that on the surface of the latter type of work one color will be very slightly raised above the other.

As to the flint-ware, or flint enamel ware, this is generally a pottery with a siliceous glaze, but Fenton had patented a special process of coloring it. This was simply to sprinkle a mix ture of metallic oxides onto the object after it had been painted with the glaze mixture, before the final firing. The result of this was a beautiful intermixture of orange, green, and blue throughout the lustrous, opaque glaze.

All three types of ware abovementioned should be easily recognized by the amateur collector. They are all interesting. Only the third was made exclusively at Bennington. The others might have been made anywhere, but this does not detract from their value if they are well or unusually made. Less than half of the ware made at Bennington is stamped with a trademark.

The United States Pottery failed because of the same element that had made it great: the excessive aims of Christopher Webber Fenton. His Company was phenomenal in its production and in its sales, but unfortunately was even more phenomenal in its overhead. This incongruity brought it to ruin in May, 1858.

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