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American Pottery Chracteristics

( Originally Published 1940 )

The favorite pottery of early America was stoneware. Probably hardly a single home was without one or more pieces of it. It was put to every practical use: crocks, jugs, jars, wine-vats, churns, water-coolers, flasks, bottles, pudding dishes, milk pans, mugs, and so on. Yet its makers strove toward, and its buyers demanded, work that was decorative in form as well as in surface ornamentation. The pottery itself was usually some shade of grey or tan, covered with a transparent salt-glaze. The ornamentation was most often a cobalt blue slip. In the earlier work this is incised on the body of the stoneware, but later it was merely applied by means of a stencil or brush.

During the 18th century the decorations took the shape of formalized loops, flowers, animals, fish, birds, and butterflies. These formalized designs gradually became more naturalistic and more elaborate. They began to include domestic items, such as chickens, and also various political symbols, such as the American Eagle, bearing the national shield. The designs do not appear to have been incised after 1820, and at this time the element of brushwork becomes visible. Then, about 1860, the figures again tend toward formalization, but in a way that suggests the use of stencils rather than the crude free-hand manner of the 18th century.

Stoneware was probably first manufactured in this country in the second quarter of the 18th century. It spread rapidly throughout the colonies. Most often the potters tried to establish their works on the banks of rivers, to facilitate transportation, although generally speaking, stoneware was primarily made for local use.

Pottery is one of the few crafts possessing a directly literary interest. The substance and technique of the craft invite inscription. Everyone has a homily, a religious rhyme or two, or at least a humorous toast in the back of his mind. If not, there are always the realms of personal malice, political sentiment, or occupational aggrandizement.

There is, oddly enough, a strictly American aspect to certain English pottery of the 18th century. This is the British work inscribed with invectives against America and Americans. Thomas Paine, probably because of his embarrassing brilliance as a spokesman, seems to have been a particular target. One of their jugs shows Paine, seated on the back of a pig, addressing a crowd of other pigs. The inscription reads:

Ye pigs who never went to college
You must not pass for pigs of knowledge.

A white mug of the same period is inscribed:

Prithee, Tom Paine, why wilt thou meddling be
In other business which concerns not thee.
For while thereon thou dost extend thy cares,
Thou dost at home neglect thy own affairs,
God Save the King!

Another piece adds to the above:

Observe the wicked and malicious man
Projecting all the mischief that he can.

In actual American pottery, the real master-poets were the

Pennsylvania-Germans. The innumerable curious rhymes that have been found on their slip- and sgraffito-ware, along with their taciturn nature-designs and the ubiquitous tulip, form a real chapter of American folk-lore.

Such rhymes were no doubt most often the spontaneous conceptions of half-literate potters or, occasionally, of the person for whom the piece was designed. They touch upon many subjects and opposing points of view. Thus:

In the dish on the table
Merry he who yet is single
Sad is he who is engaged.

Contrasted to:

All the young women in the world
Would willingly become wives.

One item suggests some of the fleeting little poems of the Chinese:

I like fine things
Even when they are not mine
And cannot become mine
I still enjoy them.

A sage note is struck with:

If loving were unhealthy

Surely the doctor would avoid it
And if it would hurt the wives
Surely they would not allow it.

Excessive and dour personal rebellion would seem to be indicated in the owner of the piece inscribed:

To consume everything in gluttony
And intemperance before my end
Makes a fitting enough testament for me.

The humor of American potters occasionally manifested itself on the practical side. Sometimes this took the form of realistically modelled and colored frogs fastened to the bottoms of beer mugs. Occasionally some trickster would make a puzzle-jug. This would be a drinking jug with a concealed opening, allowing the potion to flow out of the handle or some equally inappropriate place to the confusion of the unwary drinker. One such deceitful container bore the challenge:

From Mother earth I claim my birth
I'm made a joke for man,
But now I'm here, filled with good cheer,
Come taste me if you can.

The record of Pennsylvania-German slip-ware drolleries is well climaxed with the baffling stanza:

There are no birds, there are no fish,
No cuckoo knows what it is.
To dedicate a flower
Is to pass away the time, 1793.

This was inscribed on a pie-plate decorated with fuchsias and may well bring sleepless nights to the more rational students of American ceramics.

Further information about Pottery:
Earliest Pottery Wares

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