February 19, 2010

Review: Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America

Janine Skerry and Suzanne Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with the University Press of New England, 2009. Amazon list at $75.00 (currently on sale)

  • format 11.5 x 9 inches
  • 271 pages
  • 245 illustrations, all color
  • some diagrams and charts
  • footnotes
  • bibliography

When Michael was experimenting with new handles for his handled bowls last week, I decided to look up the same form in a new book recently published by Colonial Williamsburg on early American stoneware. The closest I could come is something called a porringer, an all-purpose vessel for eating wet food mixtures (such as stews, oatmeal). For example, Ben Franklin in his autobiography mentioned eating breakfast of gruel or bread and milk out of a porringer. The only ones shown in this new book were made in England of white salt-glazed stoneware.

Porringers of white salt-glazed stoneware
(the one on the left was excavated from a
colonial site in Williamsburg) made in
Staffordshire, England, 1745-1760

The handles of these porringers were made
press molds and have holes for hanging

We would more likely find the precedents for Michael’s bowls in a book on earthenware rather than stoneware, but looking there would not provide a convenient segue into my review of this new stoneware book.

The authors of this handsome volume take a broad view of stoneware in early America. Their time period is before 1800, which covers more than 200 years of colonial occupation. In addition to discussing the stoneware made in the American colonies (American-made stoneware is all from the 1700s), they also cover the English and German stoneware used in America. Their evidence comes from complete objects that survive with histories of ownership in the colonies, many shards recovered from archaeological sites, and colonial inventories.

Their searches yielded some remarkable things; like the German mug made 1550-1575 with engraved English silver-gilt mounts for the cover, rim and foot, and carried by John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when he crossed the Atlantic in 1630.

Winthrop family mug made in Germany
1550-1575, with English silver-gilt mounts

John was not the first Winthrop to own the mug, nor was he the last. The mug continued to be passed down through generations of the Winthrop family for another two hundred years, until it was given to the American Antiquarian Society in 1825. Without the silver mounts and the long Winthrop family history, this is otherwise a rather mundane mug made in Cologne or Frechen of grey stoneware body coated with a rich brown slip and fired with a salt glaze. Surely the potter who made it thought of it as nothing more than one more piece qualifying for his daily count. Yet it was held in high esteem in the sixteenth century (the English silver mounts tell us that) and acquired magical properties as it was passed from generation to generation of Winthrops, each passage carried out on the Feast of St. Michael (Michaelmas recognizes the coming of autumn and shortening of days, while celebrating the accomplishments of Archangel Michael, who defeated Lucifer in the battle for the heavens). The whole story made me wonder whether any of us would want to set ourselves three hundred years hence to see what has happened to our own objects.

The story above was not meant to put you off your wheel, but to let you know what sorts of things you will see when you page through this book – common objects like the ones handled every day by colonial forbears: Jugs, jars, mugs, pitchers, plates, crocks, tea and coffee wares, chamber pots, and a few figurines and ornaments. Some are remarkable, like this carved cup made in Nottingham, England, about 1700.

Carved mug Nottingham, England
about 1700,
matches fragments found
on the Drummond
plantation in Virginia

This is a double-walled vessel. The outside wall is carved and pierced, while an inside wall holds hot liquids. (The double-walled construction is possibly based on Chinese porcelain examples decorated by the so-called “Ling Lung” method.)

The authors also examine the elaborately decorated German wares, like the brown bearded-man jugs and blue-and-grey Westerwald medallion wares.

Bearded-man jug
made in Frechen, Germany
excavated in Pemaquid, Maine

Ziegler family tankard
made in Westerwald, Germany 1700-1730
the Zieglers were members of the
Salzburger settlement
established in the 1730s
in Ebenezer, Georgia

The German potters used small press molds to create the pads of decoration that were typically applied to the leather-hard jugs, bottles and mugs.

For those of you who try to follow Bernard Leach’s admonition to look for inspiration at historical wares made in your region there is also a chapter on American-made stoneware, especially from Yorktown VA, Philadelphia, New York City, Connecticut and Boston.

Chamber pot
Anthony Duché,
Philadelphia, 1730-1750

In addition, an appendix lists the names, dates, and locations of all the known American stoneware potters of the eighteenth century. Only Delaware among the thirteen original colonies did not boast a stoneware pottery, so if you are resident of the states touching the Atlantic you have stoneware history to mine that goes back to the 1700s.

Although this book was written for cultural historians and stoneware collectors, there is much here to be admired and learned by contemporary potters with an interest in the products of historical kilns. In addition, an exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg (“Pottery with a Past: Stoneware in Early America”) will be on view through January 2, 2011, which gives every reader of this book the opportunity to see first hand many of the wares illustrated in the volume.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at ellen@sawdustanddirt.com