American Stoneware: How It Became Folk Art
Our settlers made only two kinds of pottery from the earliest years on these shores until the 1880s: redware and stoneware.
My last BLOG post was about redware, which is quite different from stoneware. While the term stoneware is often used to include all kinds of early pottery, real stoneware has its own particular characteristics, and does not include redware, ironstone, yellow ware, china, soft paste, spatterware or anything other than the pale to dark gray, hard, potter's wheel created vessels made of a particular kind of clay. Soapstone is a natural rock, found in abundance in Vermont, and not considered to be stoneware. Stone fruit is also not stoneware - it is made of alabaster and is generally from Italy.
Stoneware required a different kind of clay than redware did. This clay had to be fired at a very high temperature, and contained large amounts of kaolin and silica. It was hard to find. Almost none was found in New England. Large deposits of it were found on the north shore of Long Island and near Bayonne, New Jersey and then transported by ship to New England, up the Hudson, and out to the Great Lakes.
Why bother? Why not be happy with redware for all household needs?
The answer is that stoneware is hard, non-porous, and even un-glazed, it does not absorb water. It was therefore much better suited for storing liquids, spirits, and acidic foods, such as cider, wine, vinegar, pickles. It was also much more durable, less likely to chip and break. When it became widely available, in the 1830s, it largely replaced redware for food storage and other utilitarian needs. But it was unsuitable for cooking, so redware remained a household staple.
The color of stoneware can vary from very pale, almost white, gray to dark gray or dark brownish gray, depending on the amount to iron in the clay. The lightest, purest clays were most desirable.
The collectible stoneware that you find today in the marketplace tend to be quite a bit later than redware, most made from about 1840-1880.
The first stoneware was produced by a few potters in the 1700s, particularly in the New York area, having large deposits of the perfect clay found on the north shore of Long Island, and Bayonne, New Jersey.
The hayday of American stoneware came between 1840 and 1880, although pieces were made on both sides of those dates.
Slip or lead glazes were not necessary to make stoneware impervious to liquids. The kiln fired clay was tough and strong. Glazing was generally used to make the item appear finished and glossy. The glaze used to do that was salt glaze. Rock salt was added to the kiln when firing. The resulting surface is slightly rough, resembling orange peel. The glaze, while not necessary for imperviousness to liquids, made the clay shiny, making it easier to clean and more pleasant to look at. It also made the item more acid proof, allowing for storage of acidic foods and liquids.
The stoneware we prize today, and the most collectible stoneware is that which is decorated with cobalt oxide.
Unlike most redware, stoneware of this type is considered American Folk Art. The purpose of the decoration was not initially to create a decorative object - it was to identify the size and maker of the item.
While the clay was soft, before firing, the maker often scratched his name and location onto the piece. This was done mostly in the East, where there was competition among multiple potters.
Decorative lines were often scratched into the still soft clay, as was the item's capacity. Sometimes these scratchings were highlighted with cobalt oxide in the form of a clay slip, and then fired.
"2" means 2 gallon capacity.
As more and more competition arose among Eastern potters decoration became more elaborate. It was created by using (mostly) cobalt oxide to brush on designs, or stencils used with the same oxide. This practice flourished in the 1860's through the 1880s and began to decline after that as hand made pottery was replaced by machine created pieces, and the universal availability of glass.
This is an example of the potter wanting no mistake about who made this jug! Note that the cobalt slip is raised slightly. This was hand painted onto the jug before firing.
Sometimes the capacity of the piece took central stage, with hand painted embellishments, like this 4 gallon crock:
Potters began to use stencils to create their decorations, each being slightly different from the next potter's with the intention of creating the potter's trademark sign. Birds were popular, as were stylized flowers.
More unusual are faces, animals, fish, farm scenes, elaborate florals and sayings. The more unusual, the more collectible, and therefore expensive.
Sometimes the potter made a big deal about the date the piece was made by painting it prominently on the front.
Today's market values cobalt decorated stoneware as Folk Art, and it is highly collectible. As the 19th century drew to a close, potters were put out of business, and potteries were closed. In order to stay in business, some potters started using molds for their pieces, and mass produced them, particularly in the midwest. While collectible as kitchen wares, they have much less value than hand made pieces.
In New England the cobalt decorated stoneware came from Vermont particularly, but all of the New England states as well as New York and New Jersey produced wares for the New England market.
Other areas of the country produced stoneware using molds to create strictly decorative pieces, or by adding bits of clay to the piece to create a face or other form. While they can be highly collectible and expensive, these were not of New England origin.
If you love stoneware you are probably most attracted to the cobalt designs on it. Look for unusual designs and pieces free of chips and cracks. However, even a piece with cracks can bring huge sums if the design is outstanding.
Stoneware is appropriate for any 19th century home because it was used in large quantities to store liquids and grains. The elaborate decoration is a relatively late addition. As always, buy what you love and enjoy it!
Good references on this subject are:
Early American Folk Pottery by Harold Guilland, 1971
American Stoneware by Georgeanna H. Greer, 1996
Redware - America's Folk Art Pottery, Kevin McConnell, 1988
American Stoneware, and American Redware William Ketchum, Jr. , 1991
The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington, Cornelius Osgood, 1971
Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America, Donald Blake Webster, 1972