Robert Hunter

The 2009 and 2010 issues of Ceramics in America examine the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century earthenware traditions of the North Carolina piedmont. The 2009 volume focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Moravian potters and the products they made in the Bethabara and Salem communities. The 2010 volume addresses current pre(and mis)conceptions of North Carolina slipware by identifying other potters who worked in the piedmont concurrently with the Moravians. These revelations, which document several community-based potting traditions organized along family lines, alter current attributions. In tandem, the two volumes serve as a compendium catalog for the traveling exhibition Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware, jointly sponsored by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, the Chipstone Foundation, and the Caxambas Foundation.

The importance of the 2010 volume for students of American ceramic history cannot be overstated. Prior to the outcome of this research effort, pottery that was slip-decorated and thought to have originated in the South was almost universally labeled with the term “Moravian.” For the past three or four decades, major auction houses, museum curators, and prominent dealers have erroneously attributed this southern genre of ceramics, as can be seen in a review of any collector’s guide or Americana auction catalog written during this period. Historical research has suggested that dozens of potters worked in the various communities throughout the North Carolina piedmont, yet linking their names to specific pots has been difficult. Scholars usually have assumed that many of the potters working outside the Moravian communities only made unembellished utilitarian wares.

 Archaeology has led the way in rewriting North Carolina’s ceramic history with the excavation of several key potteries within a radius of sixty miles of the Moravian centers. The findings have shown without question that some of the most ambitious slip-decorated earthenware in America from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was made by other piedmont potters. Beyond archaeology, however, the current volume is distinguished by its reflection of a comprehensive interdisciplinary effort, drawing on art history, social history, oral history, and materials science. It is hoped that this transdisciplinary approach will serve as the model for future initiatives in the research of other American regional ceramic traditions.

As with most new research, the information presented in these volumes builds on earlier scholarship. Unfortunately, many scholars wait a lifetime before publishing their findings rather than risk being found wrong or overruled in their conclusions. Fortunately for the history of scholarship and collecting of North Carolina earthenware, a good record exists of the institutions and individuals who first recognized the importance of these distinctively southern products. In “Collectors and Scholars of North Carolina Earthenware,” the opening essay of this volume, Luke Beckerdite and Robert Hunter pay homage to those who have paved the way—yet remain fully aware that future research and new discoveries will undoubtedly improve and expand on what is presented herein.

The second article, written by Luke Beckerdite, Johanna Brown, and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, best summarizes the new classification paradigm for North Carolina earthenware. The authors identify a group of potters named for the area in and around the St. Asaph’s district of Orange County, which is now southern Alamance County. Their study of this group revealed numerous non-Moravian potters who produced a diverse variety of vessel forms and decorative schemes, a tradition so prolific, in fact, as to suggest that much of the antique slipware previously identified as Moravian should now be firmly attributed to the St. Asaph’s potters. In addition to identifying the functional and decorative attributes of the earthenware made in this region, the authors have developed a cultural narrative about this community of immigrants of Germanic origin that was preserved through kinship, apprenticeship, and social networks. Of particular note is their recognition of the culturally significant, French-inspired cruciform motif used by these potting families. Among the most important craftsmen are members of the Albright and Loy families, who maintained their cultural identity through generations of potting pursuits.

Hal Pugh and Eleanor Minnock-Pugh, themselves working potters, further the story of North Carolina earthenware in “The Quaker Ceramic Tradition in Piedmont North Carolina,” a comprehensive overview of the history of Quaker potters who served communities in Randolph and Guilford counties. In the mid- and late eighteenth centuries these areas saw a large influx of Quakers settlers from the mid-Atlantic and New England states that not only included potters but also established a ready-made market for their wares. The authors’ extensive and years-long research is based on the excavation of pottery sites and kiln structures, genealogical and historical studies, and the documentation and reattribution of extant wares. Their work provides not only a glimpse of the wares left behind by these prolific potting families but in some cases has unearthed actual photographs of and written words by these undercelebrated craftspeople.

Going from these general overviews to specific case studies, the next two articles examine makers from each of these two traditions. Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton presents information about Solomon Loy, a long-standing member of that potting family from the St. Asaph’s tradition. Loy made both salt-glazed stoneware and lead-glazed earthenware, and archaeological evidence gathered by Carnes-McNaughton demonstrates that he built very sophisticated kilns, made a wide variety of forms, and employed a variety of slip-decorating techniques. The author also identifies a large number of intact surviving objects from Loy’s tenure using the ceramic fragments recovered from his kiln sites. This study confirms Loy’s continued use of the cruciform motif in his slip decorating, a motif that was central in the work of earlier potters in the St. Asaph’s tradition. Another exciting, aesthetically innovative embellishment is Loy’s “dripped” decoration, achieved when several colors of slip were arbitrarily dropped onto the clay surface to create an abstract and surprisingly modern effect.

In the second case study, Hal Pugh and Eleanor Minnock-Pugh examine the earthenware forms and decoration of Quaker potters William Dennis and his son Thomas in what is now northern Randolph County. The Pughs’ expertise as potters is evident, as they are able to identify the hands of three separate potters from the sherds recovered from the William Dennis pottery site in the course of archaeological examination of the kiln and related features. Working with minuscule fragments, the Pughs used their informed potting skills to replicate whole dishes to fully illustrate some of the Dennis wares. It is clear that these Quaker potters not only made more than unadorned utilitarian pottery, but their slip-decorated wares rank as some of the most distinctively designed and executed ceramics produced in all America.

Ceramic historians usually have relied on traditional methods of connoisseurship to divine the origin of unsigned or otherwise unattributed objects, and even though for decades techniques have existed to provide scientific analysis of clay bodies and glazes, this type of study has been surprisingly slow to catch on in America. The utility of implementing such a rigorous analytic approach to the problem of identifying North Carolina earthenware is presented by Victor Owen and John Greenough in their article “Mineralogical and Geochemical Characterization of Eighteenth-Century Moravian Pottery from North Carolina.” While the title might sound daunting to the average ceramic enthusiast, the underlying premise is fairly simple to understand. The mineralogical composition of clay varies from one geographic location to another. Assuming that local and regional potters exploited the clay from their immediate vicinity, the finished products of a particular location should have the same compositional fingerprint. Using selected samples of pottery excavated from six North Carolina potworks and samples from the Moravian potteries in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Owen and Greenough advocate that such analysis, by using the mineralogical composition of the clay to narrow its source, could have great value in identifying unattributed pots. The recent development of hand-held portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) devices greatly expands the possibility of safely obtaining such data from intact objects residing in private and public collections.

From using the most technological advanced techniques, we turn to the practiced eye of a master potter to inform us about the attribution of pots. In her beautifully illustrated article “Making North Carolina Earthenware” Mary Farrell demonstrates how a Moravian slipware dish is constructed differently from an Alamance County one. Master potters Mary and David Farrell have spent nearly thirty years studying and reproducing various examples of North Carolina earthenware. Through their work, the Farrells have provided independent confirmation that many of the attributions of published North Carolina slipware in the last four decades were wrong. The Farrells for years had relied on standard reference books and actual examples housed in both museum and private collections to create reproductions for their business in Seagrove, North Carolina. During the replication process, Mary puzzled over numerous contradictions in the shapes, profiles, and rim styles often attributed to a single pottery. Furthermore, like a handwriting expert deciphering written scripts, she was able to detect inconsistencies in slip-trailing styles among the published group of wares identified as North Carolina Moravian. The detective work of the Farrells reinforces the key visual elements that distinguish the various piedmont potters and confirms the importance of consulting working potters in the course of historical ceramic studies.

A shorter technology article follows, written by Michelle Erickson and Robert Hunter, which illustrates a distinctive striped and marbled slip-decorating technique that seems to have been unique to the eighteenth-century Moravian potters working at Bethabara and Salem and Jacob Meyers at the Mount Shepherd pottery in Randolph County. The technique differs significantly from the carefully trailed floral imagery associated with Moravian slipware. Recent research by Brenda Hornsby Heindl, a graduate student at Winterthur, suggests that the early Pennsylvania Moravian potters also employed similar decoration on small bowls and dishes. Most intriguing, evidence of a nearly identical technique was found on circa 1720–1745 dish fragments excavated at the pottery of William Rogers in Yorktown, Virginia. Perhaps future researchers will take up the challenge to study the geographic distribution of this distinctive decoration in order to fully understand its origins and cultural context.

Future students of North Carolina earthenware will benefit from new information gleaned from a variety of sources including archaeological findings and specimens identified in private collections, public auctions, and estate sales. One such new discovery occurred while the 2009 Ceramics in America was being printed. A previously unrecorded Moravian turtle bottle came up for sale at a North Carolina public auction, and although hundreds of figural earthenware bottles were made in the Salem workshop under ­master potter Rudolph Christ, the dark green turtle bottle is one of only four known. Johanna Brown, whose 2009 article discussed these rare and iconic figural bottles, contributes a short note on the acquisition of this turtle bottle to the collections of Old Salem, home to America’s foremost collection of Moravian decorative arts.

Another late-breaking research note is the reevaluation by Luke Beckerdite of a small, slip-decorated barrel or rundlet previously thought to be of Moravian origin. This is the only known North Carolina slip-decorated barrel, but its decoration is related to a dish attributed to the St. Asaph’s tradition in Alamance County. The reassessment of the barrel underscores the diverse production of forms by these potters and offers hope that many additional objects will come to light.

A final new discovery made just prior to publication is offered by Hal Pugh and Eleanor Minnock-Pugh, who discuss a slip-decorated dish that descended through six generations of a North Carolina Quaker family. This remarkable dish had a paper label attached to the back, identifying the original owner as Hannah Piggott Davis, who lived between 1774 and 1812. The Pughs attribute the dish to the Dennis potteries in New Salem, North Carolina, and its decorative elements may serve as a Rosetta stone for other currently unattributed pieces.

The 2010 volume concludes with a visual index to the objects included in the Art in Clay exhibit. The exhibit opens in September 2010 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, then travels to Old Salem Museums & Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Huntsville Museum of Art. The exhibit showcases about 160 objects, approximately half of which are from Old Salem’s comprehensive collection. The remaining objects are from regional archaeological labs, private collections, and such notable public collections as The Henry Ford and Colonial Williamsburg.

Currently in preparation is the North Carolina Earthenware Digital Data­base, a photographic resource comprising more than six hundred images that will be accessible through the Chipstone Foundation’s website, This much-anticipated database will offer researchers and scholars broad access to the extensive research and documentation undertaken for this project. 

Ceramics in America 2010