Robert Hunter

WITH THE PUBLICATION of the 2023 volume of Ceramics in America, this will be my last introduction to it. After twenty-two years I am stepping down as editor and passing the ceramic baton to my co-editor Ron Fuchs, who will shepherd future volumes. For the near future, my time will be occupied with other research and writing assignments related to projects that I started along the way but shelved in deference to the annual demands of Ceramics in America.  

It seems like only yesterday that I met with David Knox, CEO and chairman of the Chipstone Foundation, and its executive director, Jon Prown, to pitch my idea for a journal devoted to ceramics made and used in America. I have benefited greatly from their counsel, trust, and support through these many years. The journal was modeled on Chipstone’s highly successful American Furniture, created by my friend and mentor Luke Beckerdite to whom I owe so much. In those early discussions we envisioned a publication that would build bridges between the fields of archaeology, the decorative arts, and contemporary craft and the legions of collectors with an interest in the field. I will let others gauge the level of success we have had. After thousands of pages of articles, photography, short new discoveries, and book reviews, it is my hope that history will be kind.  

I am indebted to the many contributors and advisers who have made this journey such a joyful personal achievement for me. My friend George Miller has been a constant source of advice and has provided a steadying hand at times. For many years Merry Outlaw, editor of New Discoveries, and Amy Earls, editor of Book Reviews, helped round out the offerings of Ceramics in America. The brilliant design and production work of Wynne Patterson has made our volumes lasting works of art. The genius photography of Gavin Ashworth set the highest standard for illustrating ceramic topics. The incisiveness of our irreplaceable copy editor Mary Gladue has helped bring clarity, distinction, and cohesion to the journal. Behind the scenes, Peggy Scholley has proofread final pages. My colleague Angelika Kuettner, now curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg, has assisted with arcane references and last-minute requests for tracking photographs.  

I am deeply blessed to have had the support and insight provided by my partner, ceramics artist Michelle Erickson, whose significant contributions to understanding historical ceramics technology have been featured in many of our articles. So much of what I have learned about the mechanics of the ceramic craft has come from watching and listening to this master potter at work. 

Looking back over the twenty-plus volumes is like revisiting a road trip from long ago, a mental shoebox filled with snapshots, roadside souvenirs, and somewhat hazy recollections of random encounters along the way. Although each journey had its own intended destination, the unexpected detours stand out as the most memorable. The 2023 volume is no exception, underscoring how ceramic history can inform us about the past and the present in unique ways.  

Among the twenty-first-century tools that have transformed our field are the Internet, search engines such as “Google,” and the phenomenon of social-media networks. In 2017 an important Southern stone ring bottle coming up for sale was brought to my attention via a Facebook message indicating that inscribed on the base was “Dr. Peter Davis” and the date “1888.” A subsequent Facebook post by researcher Corbette Toussaint identified Dr. Davis as a “root doctor” in Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually I was able to study the ring bottle in its role in the context of Southern hoodoo. Among many fortuitous encounters along the way, I met Andrew Hopkins, a New Orleans folk artist, who drew on his considerable knowledge of nineteenth-century material culture to produce an “imagined” portrait of Dr. Davis with the ring bottle. I am delighted that it serves as this year’s cover image. Highlights from the ongoing journey into this often sensationalized topic are presented in this year’s opening article, “Southern Hoodoo and the Dr. Peter Davis Ring Bottle.”  

The catalyst that continues to drive the research and publication of ceramics histories is the unexpected discovery of previously unknown ceramic specimens. One might think we have completely mined the reserve of such treasures, but they continue to be unearthed in old collections, estates, sales rooms, and even in the back corners of museum storerooms, overlooked or neglected by their custodians. Some of these discoveries defy all expectations. If you had told me that a stoneware jar was made in Richmond, Virginia, at the onset of the Civil War and decorated with the initials C.S.A. (Confederate States of America) along with iconography related to the Union and images of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, I would have laughed. But in 2017 such an object surfaced (or resurfaced) in a dealer’s collection, having been out of sight for many years. It was explored in a paper presented at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ Summer Institute by Elyse D. Gerstenecker, and we are fortunate to be able to publish an updated version titled, “At the End of a Rope: A Stoneware Jar and Political Frustration,” with contributions by Virginia stoneware scholar Kurt Russ and me. Although the subject matter of the illustrations on the jar is harsh, it reflects the tumultuous themes of racial and political divisions, many of which of course continue to be prevalent in our modern social and political discourse.  

More has been written about the history of North Carolina’s pottery than that of any other state in America. In his article “John Wesley Carpenter (1842–1913): Tradition, Innovation, and Adaptation in the Post–Civil War South,” author Steve Compton reminds us that there is still much to learn. Although Carpenter was an extremely prolific potter, the full story of his life and his stoneware has never been told. He produced both alkaline-glazed and salt-glazed stoneware, much of it quite distinctive and beautiful. Throughout much of America, the making of pottery was a family business, the production secrets passed down through marriage. Steve takes on the task of documenting the multi-generational history of John Wesley, and his brothers and their connections to other potting families of the Catawba Valley. Beyond the pottery, the importance of the article is enhanced by the poignant portrait of John Wesley, and his struggle to pursue his craft and to overcome the harsh economic realities of the post–Civil War South . 

One of the most cherished of American ceramics origin stories is the encounter with a raw source of kaolin clay from the backcountry of the Carolinas in the early eighteenth century. It became known as “Cherokee Clay,” its source being in the mountains of the Cherokee Nation. The material had been specified in a 1744 London patent calling for the use of a particular clay—“an earth, the product of the Chirokee nation in America, called by natives unaker.” In 1937 British ceramics historians recognized a group of English-made porcelains thought to have been made from samples taken from this fabled kaolin source in the Carolinas. The group was designated “A-marked” because of an incised “A” that appeared on the various examples. Scientific analysis of the most recent member of this group is presented in “Geochemical Investigation of a Ceramic Snuff Box: A-marked English Porcelain Attribution Confirmed” written by authors W. Ross Ramsay, Howell G. M. Edwards, Errol Manners, and Ashley Howkins. 

The history of slavery and its ultimate abolition in Great Britain, the West Indies, and America is complex and interrelated. The ceramics produced by various American and British potters to promote the abolition of slavery lend themselves to such questions as who designed and commissioned them, what audience were they made for, and ultimately did they have their intended effect. In his article “‘From Death to Life’: Slavery and Emancipation in the British West Indies as Revealed on a Child’s Plate,” curator Daniel Sousa uses a nineteenth-century Staffordshire plate recently acquired by Historic Deerfield as a springboard into that international narrative. 

In the next article, British ceramic scholar Neil Ewins examines another printed nineteenth-century Staffordshire plate in “Hidden Histories: The Case of Elijah Lovejoy and the Production of Anti-slavery Ceramics.”  
The printed pattern references the martyrdom of the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy (1802–1837), the proprietor of an abolitionist newspaper in Alton, Illinois, who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob on November 7, 1837. Ewins re-examines the origins of this plate design, previously thought to have been produced to support the cause of abolition in America. Ewins instead uncovers the true tale of the New York ceramics dealer and importer Thomas F. Field, who appears to have commissioned the design for his “Abolition China Store,” and proclaims Field a hero of the abolitionist movement.   

Turning from the relatively unknown social champion Thomas Field, we are introduced to a rare if not unique American-made ceramic vase created to memorialize William Lloyd Garrison, the most acclaimed white abolitionist of the nineteenth century. This recent ceramics discovery is presented by collector James Kaufman in his “A Chelsea Keramic Art Works Vase with a Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison.” Garrison was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of The Liberator, a newspaper he published in Boston from 1831 until the end of slavery in the United States in 1865 and one of the nation’s leading anti-slavery publications. Although many examples of abolition-themed English ceramics were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only a few seem to have been created by American makers.  

In the next article, we are privy to the art and firsthand commentary of working ceramic artist David Mack. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, David had an atypical path in his career. He served in the military, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was a highly successful athlete and coached cross country and track and field for many years. He also studied and taught ceramics early in his life. In his essay, “Earth, Fire, and the Abolitionist: The Emancipation of Clay for Social Change,” David illustrates his sculptural work undertaken in the past twenty years that has been inspired by the American heroes of the nineteenth-century abolition movement. We are excited to present his three-dimensional portraits depicting Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Today, David remains an ardent champion of Black ceramic artists, both living and dead, and recently his essay “Enslaved and Freed African American Potters” was published in Ceramics Monthly (2020). His current work includes sculptures of Vice President Kamala Harris and Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. 

The name George Ohr is readily recognizable to students of twentieth-century American ceramics history. Ohr was a master potter but also excelled at promotion and hyperbole, billing himself as the “greatest potter in the world.” His highly imaginative and sensually contoured glazed earthenwares command enormous sums in today’s market, but in his own lifetime his work was largely ignored. In “Souvenirs of Fantasy: George Ohr’s Clay Tokens,” author Ellen J. Lippert examines a group of clay tokens that have received little attention by scholars and collectors. Certainly created as trinkets, these tokens contained unexpected explicit and suggestive sexual messages, objects to giggle at perhaps when presented to unsuspecting bystanders. Ellen suggests that beyond psychological markers of Ohr’s unique personality, the tokens foreshadowed the trends of the so-called American funk movement, where ceramics became a medium for expressing shocking and lowbrow humor. 

Ceramics have always been an essential tool for archaeological dating and understanding the function of sites. As result, much has been written on the chronology of ceramics and the study of ware type in particular by archaeologists and decorative arts scholars. In their article “English Delft for Colonial Tavern Tables in King William County and Williamsburg, Virginia,” authors Elizabeth Donison, Ned Rose, and Angelika Kuettner combined their approaches to contextualize a delft plate found at an eighteenth-century tavern in Virginia. The fragmented plate, decorated with a fanciful Chinese-inspired scene, has parallels in several museum collections as well as a related tavern in Williamsburg that not only provide a firm date but give us a snapshot of prevailing style and taste chosen to grace the tables of Virginia tavern patrons. 

For the penultimate article, authors Amanda Creekman Isaac and Captain Charles T. Creekman present “A Tale of Two Chinese Porcelain Punch Bowls.” The subjects of their study are two highly decorated Chinese porcelain punch bowls that are linked to George Washington and the American naval hero Thomas Truxtun. The authors note that the gifting of punch bowls was a time-honored practice among the power brokers of late-eighteenth-century Anglo-American politics and commerce. Tracing the journeys of the bowls from the time of their commissioning in the Chinese port of Canton, Isaac and Creekman contend that they were created as political gifts to promote the establishment of the U.S. Navy during a time of uncertainty in the founding years of the United States government. 

We opened this year’s journal with an article offering a glimpse into the topic of “hoodoo” as it was practiced in the nineteenth-century American South. In our concluding article, we encounter Haitian Vodou, an active spiritual practice alive and well in both the Caribbean and the United States, one of the various aspects of that culture that informs the ceramics of Wisconsin artist Babette Wainwright. Ruthie Dibble’s essay, “Family Reunion: The Clay Sculptures of Babette Wainwright,” journeys into the artist’s deep and intensely personal work, which is imbued with Haitian aesthetics, spirituality, religion, architecture, and history. 

If I had any prediction about the next twenty-three years of this journal, it would be that the history of ceramics made and used in American contexts will continue to be of great interest to a wide audience. Upcoming volumes are already well underway, with topics that include eighteenth-century Philadelphia slipwares, the important stoneware of New York’s Black potter and abolitionist Thomas Commeraw, and many wide-ranging new discoveries. I sincerely thank our readers for their attention and continued interest in Ceramics in America. Microphone drop. 

Ceramics in America 2023