Jane Perkins Claney. Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830–1930: Reading Historical Artifacts. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2004. 184 pp., 48 bw and 14 color illus., 8 tables, archaeological database appendix, bibliography, index. $29.95 (softbound).
This book is an important contribution to understanding the role of Rockingham pottery in American culture and how objects can be used to comprehend more fully the clues to human thoughts and actions. The object of focus in this book, American Rockingham, is usually defined as yellow or white earthenware (pottery) with a brown decorative glaze. As consumer products of American industry made for American markets, Rockingham vessels are imbued with meaning that relates people to objects. If we know how to read these historical artifacts, they can enhance our understanding of America’s past. Well illustrated with black-and-white photographs and color plates, the book is further enhanced with eight tables that detail Rockingham distribution according to community type, occupational level, and location.
In the introduction Claney explains that Rockingham artifacts constitute a rich body of data for analysis and interpretation. These objects, she asserts, convey cultural meaning and are as valuable to historical research as the more commonly found white earthenwares. Unlike white ware, however, Rockingham production, Claney argues, was limited to relatively few forms (cooking vessels, teapots, pitchers, spittoons) in nineteenth-century price lists, archaeological excavations, and other examples. She develops an effective argument for a meaningful link, both functional and cultural, between these common forms and brown-glazed Rockingham. Dark brown teapots, for example, hide tea stains better than white teapots and, hence, were more popular.
Chapters 1 through 4 define Rockingham, identify Claney’s research methodology and sources, explain how to “read” artifacts, discuss how the industry moved from England to the United States, and detail the evolution of American iconography. They provide a historical context for seeing Rockingham ware as part of decorative arts history and the American ceramics industry. Two different approaches to reading historical artifacts are identified and employed in the analysis revealed in the last three chapters. The first looks at the object from the vantage point of American culture and what in that culture explains the images that survive from the past. The second links the object to its context.
Chapters 2 and 3 explain the evolution of Rockingham in England, from 1807 until its introduction in the United States by 1829–1830 at the D. and J. Henderson Pottery in Jersey City, New Jersey. Why surviving examples appear as they do is explained within the context of naturalistic ornamentation that “figured prominently” (p. 50) in the rococo style and its nineteenth-century revival (1830s–1860s). Although Claney discusses the immigration of large numbers of English potters to the United States between the 1840s and 1870s, she fails to describe the extent of this movement or the reasons for it. She ignores labor problems in England and other systems in place within the foreign industry that led to emigration. Claney explains that the industry required a high degree of craft skill and a comparatively low degree of investment in machinery or a complex factory. She refers to the United States as a “seemingly boundless” (p. 56) market for ceramic imports. Although these chapters provide a relatively simple context for understanding the evolution of the Rockingham industry, they are not the strength of the book.
Chapter 4 defines the demand and markets for Rockingham products and concludes with the observation that, despite its use in all types of settings by virtually everyone, “Rockingham was a specialty ware” and not universally accepted (p. 71). It was not the general line of ceramic product that white ware became. Most frequently it was found at residential sites in the form of teapots and food preparation items, including bowls, baking dishes (such as pie pans), nappies, and the like. In this way Rockingham demonstrates a diVerent pattern from other nineteenth-century American ceramic products. An analysis of forms produced in Rockingham, calculated from price lists and fragments found at archaeological sites, determined that approximately eighty forms were made. However, only twenty-two forms occur at archaeological sites, and only four or five appear to have been popular. These include, in descending order, teapots (29 percent), spittoons (22 percent), pitchers (20 percent), and mixing bowls (13 percent).
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 discuss how gender, class, and location affected the choice of vessel forms and how these forms reinforced and expressed cultural meanings. For example, Claney argues that recovered data indicates that working-class women favored one particular design of Rockingham teapots, one not found at middle-class sites. Also, middle-class men in cities favored vessels that depicted hunting scenes as decorative motifs. These clearly definable patterns indicate that these forms express deeply held cultural values by people who chose to use certain Rockingham decorative designs.
In chapter 5 on gender identity, Claney presents a number of examples that help prove her thesis that decorative form expresses cultural meanings. Teapots with the Rebecca at the Well motif, which originated at the Edwin Bennett Pottery in Baltimore, were copied and manufactured in some form by nearly all the Rockingham-producing potteries in the United States. The motif derives from a popular nineteenth-century biblical story that became an icon of ideal womanhood. It was an adaptation of an English design developed by Charles Coxon for the American market. The masculine ego was courted with Rockingham teapots and pitchers embellished with stag and boar hunting themes, American eagles, and male smokers and snuff users. Rockingham spittoons, used in public places, bore decorative motifs that included a variety of natural objects such as shells and animals.
Chapter 6 on the use of Rockingham products and the classes of people using them is somewhat weak. It does, however, demonstrate that class was somewhat important in form selection and that Rockingham’s popularity shifted from the middle class to the lower class in the later part of the nineteenth century.
Claney found a pronounced difference between the distributions of Rockingham products in rural versus urban settings. More Rockingham preparation objects such as baking dishes and bowls appear in rural sites, whereas food service items such as teapots and pitchers are more common in urban locations. Although on the earliest pottery price lists, food preparation items were available only in yellow ware; by the late 1850s this class of items was also made in a Rockingham glaze, generally costing 10 to 30 percent more than yellow ware. The distribution of Rockingham vessels in midwestern cities more closely resembles that in rural areas than in urban ones.
This important point bears further investigation. During the nineteenth century Rockingham potteries in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Trenton, and Bennington controlled markets in the East while Rockingham manufacturers in Ohio (East Liverpool, Zanesville, and Cincinnati), Illinois, and Indiana sold, almost exclusively, to midwestern, western, and southern locations. For most of the nineteenth century, urban areas in the West and South lagged behind the more densely urbanized northeastern section of the nation. In the appendix, which details archaeological investigations considered in this work, the site distribution is geographically uneven. In the Southeast, for example, twelve sites are in Virginia, while the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia are represented by only six sites. In the West, eleven sites are in urban Sacramento and San Francisco, compared with only one in Arizona and two in Texas. Midwestern sites include four in southwestern Ohio (Cincinnati area), thirteen in Illinois, and only two in Indiana and Michigan. The potential geographic bias and the effect of urban maturity and development differences should have been considered in this study.
Minor criticisms include a few of the sources employed in the book. For example, Lucille T. Cox, a newspaper reporter in East Liverpool during the 1930s and 1940s (p. 155), is not a trustworthy source. The movement of the frontier from east to west across the country during the nineteenth century accounts for the lack of design in later Rockingham vessels, because embellishment simply became less important than utility. Moreover, Claney continues the tradition of East Coast bias by scholars, museums, and collectors of American decorative arts. More Rockingham was manufactured in Ohio than in any other location in the United States. Although Claney does not ignore the Midwest, her illustrations are one indication of her bias. The color plates include one from England, two from East Liverpool, two of unknown locations, and nine from eastern manufacturers. Black-and-white illustrations number two each from East Liverpool and unknown locations and at least four from the eastern United States. These shortcomings aside, this volume is a valuable contribution to appreciating the important role of Rockingham earthenware in nineteenth-century American culture.
American Rockingham, Claney concludes, conveys symbolic meaning if we have a basic knowledge of the forms and images it contains. These pieces of the past incorporate motifs that speak about American life and culture. All objects have meaning. All objects inevitably create relations between individuals and society and between beauty and utility. These common objects help us “flesh out the bare bones . . . and fill in the outlines of recorded memory” (p. 131). It is the responsibility of today’s curators, collectors, archaeologists, scholars, and connoisseurs to identify their symbolic meaning by placing them in a cultural context. In addition, today’s scholars must identify the people to whom these remnants of the past were most meaningful. Anyone interested in nineteenth-century American industry, culture, and society must listen to the past. Its voice speaks to us through its artifacts.
William C. Gates Jr.
Retired Curator of History, Ohio Historical Society
Historical consultant and author
For additional definitions, see Suzanne Findlen’s review of Diana Stradling’s exhibit “‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth-Century America” in this volume.
The Bennett Pottery produced Rockingham Rebecca at the Well teapots for about sixty years, until the pottery was destroyed by fire in 1936.