Pottery from the Index of American Design
Pottery making was among the earliest of American crafts. Everything needed for the production of pottery was present in America -- clay, abundant wood for firing kilns, and capable craftsmen. This program provides a discussion of examples selected from among the watercolor renderings in the Index of American Design; the images are intended to illustrate the great variety of pottery made in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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Earthenware pottery is distinct from porcelain in that it is made from a coarse, iron-bearing clay. American potters produced a variety of wares named after the color of the clay used, but by far the most common American pottery made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was "redware," earthenware made from the red clay readily available along most of the Eastern seaboard. Red clay lay close to the surface and was easily dug; it could be worked with little difficulty and fired at a low temperature. Thus, early potters needed only simple equipment to make redware articles for colonial kitchens. Redware was used primarily at the table, for its porosity rendered it less desirable for prolonged food storage. Although most redware was produced strictly for utilitarian purposes, colonial potters would frequently put decorative designs on their products. On this jar, "1765" has been painted boldly in cream-colored slip. Slip is a clay diluted with water so that it can be applied with a brush. The numbers provide a lively contrast with the red clay as well as information as to the date of manufacture.
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Frequently, redware was glazed to seal the surface, making the pottery less absorbent and easier to clean. Early colonial potters dusted powdered lead onto the unfired clay. Later potters often dipped the unfired ware into a liquid that combined powdered lead, fine sand, and water. During the firing process, the lead melted and fused with the silica in the clay to form a hard, transparent coating, or glaze. For decorative effect, manganese oxide was often added to the glaze to produce mottling, which ranged from brown to black. On this covered jar, you can see how the transparent glaze is enriched by splashes of dark color. The handsome surface is further enhanced by a series of incised lines that encircle the vessel and emphasize its roundness.
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The potter has used both slip decoration and a very thin lead glaze on this pie plate. The notched edge is characteristic of New England decoration, as are the wavy lines that adorn the surface. The linear ornament was produced by "trailing on," or pouring slip, that is, liquid clay, directly from a bottle through a quill onto the clay body. The piece was then sprinkled lightly with powdered lead and fired.
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Many of the surviving redware pieces are those that were made with special care and intended primarily for decorative purposes. The earliest redware was almost purely utilitarian, but gradually ornamentation emerged as an integral part of the potter's craft. The Pennsylvania Germans, in particular, were known for their elaborately decorated pottery, as exemplified by this slip-decorated plate. Here the potter has trailed on a design of blue, black, and yellow slips, which contrast vividly with the red clay background. Slip designs of this kind were beaten into the moist clay body to smooth and level the surface before firing. The symmetrical design, composed of floral and star motifs, is characteristic of Pennsylvania German art. The large, bold forms in the center of the plate are framed by a carefully lettered border in German that says, "Fortune or misfortune is our breakfast every morning, 1796, 18th of August."
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This jug, probably a product of a Pennsylvania craftsman, illustrates a technique known as "sgraffito." In this technique, a piece was completely covered with a thin coating of a light-colored slip. When the slip was partially dry, the design was drawn by scratching lines through the slip coating, exposing the clay beneath. In addition to the floral design that covers the surface of the jug, a German inscription appears on the neck. It says, "This and the giver are thine forever. 1775." Inscribed and dated pieces such as this one were customarily made as special marriage gifts, although elaborately decorated wares were also made to commemorate other occasions, such as births and baptisms.
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Sgraffito and slip decoration are expertly combined on this Pennsylvania German plate. The design, a central, eight-pointed star surrounded by a balanced arrangement of tulip sprays and geometric motifs, is delineated by firmly drawn sgraffito lines. In addition, the potter has scraped away areas of the yellow slip coating to reveal the red clay underneath and has filled the corresponding spaces in the design with touches of green slip, brushed on over the light background. By deftly blending his decorative methods, the potter has produced a varied and colorful design.
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Stoneware is made from fine, dense gray-blue or buff clay that is capable of withstanding a high firing temperature. The clay is fired to the point at which it fuses and becomes glasslike and impervious to liquids. This hard, durable, nonporous pottery was imported in great quantities from Europe and England until the Revolution. Up to that time, the only clay deposits suitable for stoneware were located in the New York-New Jersey coastal areas, and colonists found it less expensive to import stoneware than to ship the clay to potteries in other areas, since transportation among the colonies was poor and domestic shipping costly. American stoneware production developed initially because most foreign supplies were cut off during the Revolution and, later, because of high tariffs on foreign imports. Eventually, improved domestic waterways and newly found deposits of the high-firing clay made it possible for American potters to produce stoneware cheaply. Although stoneware will hold liquid without being glazed, in most cases it was finished by a simple process known as salt glazing. Common salt was shoveled into the fire of the kiln when it was at its highest temperature. Salt vapors condensed on the pottery, mixing with the silica in the clay to form a thin, hard, glossy, finish. The luster of this New York-made stoneware jug is characteristic of a salt-glazed surface.
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Late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century stoneware was generally bulbous in profile. The bulging egg shape of this jug was a common form before 1840. Early stoneware was decorated simply, usually with an incised design. It became increasingly common to enhance the incised decoration with blue slip, painted on before firing and glazing. Cobalt blue is the characteristic color of stoneware decoration. The bow knot design that appears on this piece was a favored motif of Thomas Commeraw, a potter who made stoneware between 1802 and 1820 at Corlear's Hook, near New York. Notice that the jug is marked with his name and the location of his pottery, a frequent practice in the nineteenth century.
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After about 1825, the simple, straightforward, functional forms of stoneware were enlivened by exuberantly painted decoration. Freehand designs in cobalt blue display new freedom and fluidity as seen in the broad, bold brushstrokes on this milk pan. The clarity and vigor of the floral design aptly complement the clean, fluid shape of the pot.
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The earliest stoneware was unglazed on the inside, because pieces were stacked mouth-to-mouth in the kiln to conserve space. The inside surfaces, therefore, could not be reached by the salt vapor. After 1800, the interiors were usually coated before firing with dark brown or "Albany mud," named after the color of the clay and the location of its source. The brown lining of this jar is of Albany slip. The presence of an Albany slip coating does not indicate, however, that a pot was made only in that area, for during the nineteenth century, the clay was shipped from Albany, New York, to potteries throughout the country.
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By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the active pottery shops had become full-scale factories. Expansion and mechanization led to changes in the appearance of stoneware products. Jars and crocks became flat-based and straight-sided, a form more quickly and easily made. This stoneware jar exemplifies factory techniques. Notice the "ear" handles, which are both easier to shape and less likely to break than the open loop handles of earlier wares. Late nineteenth-century stoneware also differs from earlier products in that time-consuming freehand painting gave way to faster decorative techniques. Simple slip-trailed designs as well as stenciled decoration came into general use. Although this jar retains a few summarily painted lines, the stenciled decoration is dominant.
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At the end of the eighteenth century, English pottery factories, in hopes of regaining their rich prewar markets in America, flooded the country with cheaply made earthenware. While these imports were popular, having great decorative appeal, by the beginning of the nineteenth century American sentiment discouraged industrial dependence on England; American potteries were encouraged to compete for the growing domestic markets. Mass production techniques, modeled upon processes used in England, were brought to this country by immigrant potters. Often these immigrants brought with them as well the molds and patterns they had used at home. Thus, popular English ceramic styles and forms could be duplicated in the United States, satisfying the American taste for imported styles with domestically made products. The pottery centers that developed in Vermont, New Jersey, and Ohio produced a wide variety of utilitarian and decorative, or "fancy," wares based upon English pottery types. Close to its English prototype is this "Toby jug," which features a popular English character, Toby Fillpot, the subject of an eighteenth-century English barroom ballad. The jug, made in New Jersey, may have been modeled by Daniel Greatbach, an English potter who came to America in the 1830s to design molded ware for potteries in New Jersey and in Vermont.
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Among the many unusual animal and Toby forms designed by Daniel Greatbach, pitchers of this type, with its handle in the shape of a hound, were very popular. Hound-handled pitchers are often identified with the Bennington, Vermont, potteries, but they were, in fact, produced by many others as well. This pitcher was probably made in Ohio, for it has the crisp shape, precise relief-molded decoration, and overall brown-orange glaze characteristically produced by the potteries of the Ohio River Valley.
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The nineteenth century was a time of experimentation not only with novel forms, but also with a variety of glazes. Both the Norton and Fenton potteries of Bennington, Vermont, became famous for their "Rockingham" ware. Typically, Rockingham pottery is covered with a mottled brown glaze, made to imitate the tortoiseshell appearance of wares produced at the Marquis of Rockingham's pottery in England. This inhaler, or "croup kettle," displays the brown streaks and splotches characteristic of Rockingham glaze. The brown color is part of the glaze itself, which was spattered on the fired clay body. Variations in color were achieved by applying the glaze more heavily in some spots, thinning it in others, and by allowing it to streak. The glazing process permitted random and accidental effects; consequently, no two pieces of Rockingham ware were alike. Although Rockingham ware is associated primarily with Bennington, other American potteries also produced it. The Bennington pieces, at least until 1856, were exceptionally fine in finish because a double glaze technique was used. A glossy underglaze was applied to the clay piece. After an initial firing, the brown Rockingham glaze was spattered on and the piece was fired again. The result was a final glaze effect of extraordinary depth and brilliance.
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This soap dish is finished in a type of glaze called flint enamel, made popular by the Fenton pottery in Bennington, Vermont. A flint-enamel finish is achieved by adding colored oxides to a brown Rockingham glaze or to a clear glaze. Here the green tones have been produced through the use of copper oxide. In 1849, Christopher Webber Fenton patented his method of adding color to glazed surfaces; Fenton's process consisted of sprinkling powdered oxides on a previously glazed piece and then firing it again. In the kiln, the oxides melted and fused with the glaze, producing a lustrous, enamellike surface of the kind we see here.
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In the nineteenth century, newly developed glazes often appeared on novelty forms. This coachman winebottle, an offshoot of the Toby form, was another design produced by the prolific English potter, Daniel Greatbach, while he was working at Bennington. Here, the fluidity of the Rockingham glaze enhances the cascading folds of the voluminous cloak. Though this piece is in the form of a wine bottle, it was intended also as a household ornament; therefore, its design is predominantly decorative rather than solely utilitarian.
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Both earthenware and porcelain were produced at the Bennington potteries. Their output included functional items and a great variety of decorative wares. Among the most popular of the elaborately modeled forms is the so-called "Bennington poodle," a standing poodle with a basket of fruit in its mouth. These poodles were usually made in pairs as mantel ornaments; here we see just one of a pair. A variety of glazes was used on these figures; this poodle has been given a Rockingham glaze whose fluidity emphasizes the sleekness of the body. In contrast to the smooth surface, the mane is shaggy. The potter achieved this effect, popularly called "cole-slaw decoration," by pushing moist clay through a fine screen. Decorative animal forms were produced by most American potteries during the nineteenth century, but Bennington animals, in particular, display careful modeling, uniform and brilliant glazes, and interesting touches of inventiveness and whimsy.
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