Thomas and Brothers two-
Henry Glazier’s two-gallon
One-gallon stoneware jug,
with The Wind in the Jug (For the Abolitionist Potters of Chester County, Pennsylvania) by Jack Troy
For many of us, being interested in making pots means becoming curious about pottery itself, so I sometimes pose three questions to workshop participants: “How many of you grew up in homes where handmade pots were in use?” “Do you know if an area where you grew up has a history of pottery-making?” “How close do you live to the nearest potter?”
In my home state of Pennsylvania, especially in rural areas, it’s rare that anyone’s childhood didn’t include crocks and jugs, at least as heirlooms; many were made not far from where they can be found today, if they haven’t been snatched up by relentless antique “pickers.” Long before I could even spell ceramics, I helped make sauerkraut in an unmarked 10-gallon salt-glazed crock around Thanksgiving time, giving no thought about where it had come from.
It wasn’t until 1964, however, two years after I’d made my first pot, that I gained any sense of the presence and lore of the potters who had lived within a few miles of the West Chester library, where I chanced on Arthur James’ The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Reading about the feisty Quaker-abolitionist potters who were instrumental in helping fugitive slaves escape across the nearby Mason-Dixon line, and seeing photographs from the 1940s of some of the last kilns from that era helped me locate myself in time.
This “emotional grounding” in history keeps me feeling part of something bigger than being merely a maker of commodities. Handling old pots is the closest I can get to shaking hands with the last of the traditional potters who worked in my state, all of whom may have died feeling useless because industry had usurped their skills and even, perhaps, their reasons for living. (I consider this “felt knowledge,” not nostalgia.)
Pennsylvania is geologically blessed with beds of superb clay for both earthenware and stoneware, and dozens of enterprises grew up along rivers, streams and canals providing access to the materials for pottery-making, as well as the means of transporting finished wares to market. The first potter to make stoneware in Pennsylvania was apparently Anthony Duche, a French Huguenot, in Philadelphia, around 1720. As the population continued westward in the state, potteries developed accordingly, until eventually 43 of the state’s 67 counties supported at least one such enterprise, according to Phil Schaltenbrand, whose fine book, Big Ware Turners: The History and Manufacture of Pennsylvania Stoneware, chronicles the 300 or so stoneware makers in the commonwealth.
My own interest in local pottery was made real on a cold, late-winter Sunday afternoon in 1974 when Nancy Shedd—then president of the Huntingdon County Historical Society—and her husband Gordon, and I tried to locate what might remain of a modest 19th century stoneware pottery run by Rebecca Myton and her son Kennedy near the town of Petersburg.
Our going was weedy and dismal until someone gleefully shouted, “Over here!” There, in the midst of second-growth trees and mounded trash-middens was what remained of the Myton kiln: a circular brick wall about eight feet across, with four opposing fireboxes, all fused together by many salt-firings. One section of an enclosing fieldstone outer wall remained, and scratching a few inches of topsoil off the mounds revealed bushels of shards: jug-necks, crock-rims and hand-squeezed, sandy clay “chocks” that held the stacks of pottery apart from one another during firing.
A nearby dent in the earth revealed what must have been the shop, and a well-like ring of bricks held the Myton’s leftover clay, some of which I promptly took to my studio where I threw some jugs with it. The whole experience was like receiving a tactile communion, smearing past and present: here was a tangible link between my daily life as a potter and another’s. It’s hard not to imagine that every single potter from my part of the state died certain their skills were useless, redundant and defunct. Simply put, no emerging potter in the northeast could chat with a 60- or 70-year-old jugmaker, or help fire a large beehive kiln with coal or wood. A two-generation gap in the hand-making aspects of our ceramic history ruptured whatever traditions the early potters in New England, New York and the Eastern seaboard had established.
Realizing that smacked me like an uppercut to the imagination. For example, Henry Glazier, Huntingdon’s best potter, of whom there is no known photograph, ended up clerking in the courthouse. Skilled “turners”—once the heart of any shop—became marginalized human artifacts as industrial processes replaced the touch of hand to clay. By the 1960s, when potters once again appeared in the state, virtually no vocational predecessors remained to see the new era.
One exception was the last of the old-time potters, Larry Rumble, who, at 84, was interviewed by historian J. D. South in 1962. Schaltenbrand includes these reflections in an afterword to his book. Rumble’s life as a potter began at age seven, when he prepared clay for the turners. As he recounts, “I went to work for a quarter a day. You were supposed to work that [clay] sixteen times over the wire. . . they’d set that on the wheel and make a jug. They’d take four pounds of clay to make a half-gallon jug, seven and a quarter pounds for a gallon jug, twelve to make a two-gallon jug.” Rumble recalled that adding the correct amount of sand to the clay to assure a bright glaze was assessed by putting a bit of the mixture in the mouth to feel its texture. Kilns held up to 3000 gallons of ware and were fired with coal and wood in 45 to 55 hours.
To put the early American pottery of my region in perspective, its makers were not considered artists, but “mechanics,” working as journeymen. Ideally, they were experienced, reliable men who learned a trade and were employed as day laborers on a more or less permanent basis. Many were peripatetic, showing up in one pottery or another for various stints, and had to mix clay, split and stack wood, load and fire kilns, and pack pots for market. The more skilled a potter, the more valuable he was working at the wheel, where he would typically be required to make 100 gallons per day, for which the pay may have been as low as one penny per gallon—subsistence wages of approximately $30 per month. Women and girls typically put on handles and decorated the wares, while “ball boys” weighed out clay and took it to the wheels.
Over the years, people became stewards of old pieces of stoneware for many reasons, (including overlooking them in attics, cellars or barns), but since the bicentennial in 1976, a growing connoisseurship for unusual pieces has developed, as a glimpse at the “Decorated Stoneware” eBay category will reveal, with truly exceptional examples documented at web sites such as www.crockerfarm.com and www.americanpotteryauction.com.
A sale bill, possibly listing wholesale prices, from the Cowden and Wilcox pottery in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, dated April 27, 1866, depicts four-gallon lidded butter pots at $1.40 each and $16.80 per dozen. One gallon jugs cost $.50 each and $6.00 per dozen. In 2007, a four-gallon Cowden and Wilcox jug with a cornucopia decoration sold at auction for $22,000. A stoneware birdhouse made at the M. & T. Miller pottery, Newport, Pennsylvania, established the all-time record price for Pennsylvania stoneware when it sold for $71,500 at auction in 2006. As with any aspect of collecting, rarity is a powerful aphrodisiac, and today’s bordellos of bidding feature some lustful competition for the exotic and bizarre.
Equally remarkable as a counterpoint to the burgeoning interest in indigenous folk pottery is the scant attention paid to it by ceramic historians Elaine Levin and Garth Clark. Levin’s The History of American Ceramics, 1607 to the Present, devotes only a few pages of text to pre-industrial ceramics, and Clark’s American Ceramics, 1876 to the Present shows by its neglectful title the author found nothing worth mentioning before the manufacture of “prissy-yaki” during the art-pottery movement.
The early potters of this country, though mostly unschooled, were often highly educated in what they learned about their craft; there is no better proof than the best work they made. What little they knew of ceramic history must have come to them through stories, legends and the pots they encountered and “read” as best they could. Had they gained any appreciable perspective on the scope of accomplishment by their peers elsewhere in the world, their work would have changed beyond imagining and their legacy to us would surely have been—if may I say so—“corrupted.”
the author Jack Troy makes, collects, studies and writes about pots at his home in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. To learn, see and read more, go to www.jacktroy.net.