Robert Hunter

Ceramic history is a broad term generally referring to information that encompasses the evolution of specific clay bodies and decorative styles made and used in a given time and place. It often is compiled in encyclopedic fashion to provide broadly inclusive periods of technological advances and cultural changes. Yet, within these sweeping chronologies, individual pots have their own biographies, stories that relate to their specific manufacture and use. 

The articles in this issue of Ceramics in America present a number of exciting examples of such “pot biographies,” which open our eyes and minds to a piece of our past that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.  
Three articles provide comprehensive looks at nineteenth-century salt-glazed stoneware production in and around Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland. While the products of New York and New England are well researched, the historical documentation of American stoneware in these more southern areas is vastly underrepresented. With these seminal articles, the regional characteristics of this important American ceramic tradition can be better understood. 

In his investigation of the stoneware of the Hudson Valley region, George Lukacs has discovered the biography of a storage jar inscribed with a date—October 6, 1798—and the name of a town—Poughkeepsie, New York. Such marked items are not unusual among American-made stoneware, but most remain silent as to the significance of their commemoration. Lukacs gives voice to this utilitarian survivor, which tells the compelling story of a devastating epidemic and a community’s humanitarian response.

In contrast to that humble stoneware jar, S. Robert Teitelman tells the history of a pair of highly decorated, finely painted and inscribed pearlware jugs. Commissioned in the early nineteenth century and made in Wales, these jugs memorialize the lives of Maine’s Nathaniel Barrell family. While they represent the near pinnacle of the period’s ceramic artistry, Teitelman reminds us of the jugs’ unique biographical value for accessing the historical context of this American family. 

Ivor Noël Hume contributes his research on two massive English brown stoneware jugs with applied-sprig decoration that were made by a previously unrecognized potter, John Bacon. Noël Hume not only examines the personal narrative of these objects’ history, but also provides crucial links to better understanding the manufacturing variation in this class of ceramics. After his exhaustively comprehensive study on the subject published in the previous issue of Ceramics in America (2004), it seemed unlikely that further comment could come so quickly. Yet Noël Hume continues to expand our knowledge of this common but relatively undocumented ceramic type. 

In the absence of signed and dated objects, archaeology is arguably the best resource for assigning specific attributions to the full range of a given potter’s production. Robert Hunter and Marshall Goodman report on the salvage recovery of Benjamin DuVal’s circa 1811 Richmond, Virginia Stoneware Manufactory, one of the South’s earliest salt-glazed stoneware operations. This important site was recently destroyed in order to make way for a supermarket, highlighting the necessity for developers, historic preservation organizations, and those in the field of ceramics to be more diligent about ensuring that such sites be excavated before they are lost to urban expansion. Only a handful of extant DuVal pots are known from this factory, so these rescued artifacts are certain to provide more information on the vessel forms it produced.  

The history and products of a related Richmond stoneware operation—that of potter John P. Schermerhorn—are examined by Kurt C. Russ and W. Sterling Schermerhorn. Their article brings to light for the first time the work of this relatively unknown but prolific potter who produced tremendous quantities of utilitarian forms. Schermerhorn also included a variety of fanciful incised decorations in his repertoire that rivals those typically used by New York potters. The Schermerhorn pottery site, which is also threatened by urban redevelopment, appears to be an excellent resource for archaeological exploration. It is hoped that it can be spared the fate of the DuVal pottery site and receive appropriate archaeological examination.

Another regional stoneware industry that has not been the subject of much formal scholarship is that of Baltimore, Maryland. Toward that end, John Kille, archaeologist and collector, has taken on the mammoth task of summarizing nearly a century of stoneware production in the city. Using marked examples and other decorative attributes Kille examines the range of forms and decorative motifs characteristic of Baltimore stoneware, as well as the social and technological changes that affected the industry. Kille’s article, though written at a survey level, will be a seminal contribution for American stoneware collectors and ceramic historians for years to come. 

Moving northward to New Jersey, Richard Veit and Judson M. Kratzer report on the recent archaeological excavation of the New Brunswick Stoneware Pottery. Their concise article details the uncovering of the foundations for two kilns—rare survivals within an urban setting such as New Brunswick. While many of the artifacts await full reporting, the authors’ contribution reinforces the need to recognize the importance of such nineteenth-century industrial sites as they continue to disappear in the wake of development. 

Barbara Gundy and Deborah Casselberry report on another kiln excavation in their investigation of the Mansion Pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio. The city was the most important production center for Rockingham and yellow ware during the 1840s and 1850s. The Mansion Pottery, one of many such operations in the “Crockery City,” produced wares from 1842 to 1912. With their examination, Gundy and Casselberry remind us that the historical and archaeological documentation process of America’s nineteenth century has far to go when compared to the ongoing research being conducted in Staffordshire, England.

Ceramic history usually is written by ceramic historians and collectors who work to decipher the mute end products of a potter’s creation. Indeed, most collectors long for some insight into a particular potter’s history and personal experience. We are therefore especially fortunate when we have the benefit of direct testimony. John C. Austin’s two-part article on master potter and designer J. Palin Thorley provides such an opportunity, using excerpts from hours of taped interviews with this remarkable man. With the potter’s words as backdrop, Austin outlines and illustrates Thorley’s career, which spanned much of the twentieth century, beginning with an internship in the Wedgwood factory in England to his emigration to America. Part II, which will be published in the next issue of Ceramics in America (2006), will further examine Thorley’s ceramics made in Williamsburg, Virginia, from the 1950s until his death in 1986.

Both the New Discoveries and the Book and Exhibition Reviews round out this full offering of new contributions to the history of ceramics in America. With each issue it becomes more apparent that writing America’s ceramic history is a daunting task. With the help of the continued enthusiasm and contributions of the readership, Ceramics in America is able to expand our collective knowledge and encourage new, increasingly discerning research.

Ceramics in America 2005