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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Why Redware is Important


Redware is pioneer pottery. Redware is the oldest, most varied, and most used of all of the potteries that have been made here. It teaches us about the lives lived by our settlers.

Redware was the first pottery made by the settlers in the 1600s, and remained the ubiquitous pottery until the dawn of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s. Because of this, redware was the single most important pottery in the lives of rural people during all of this period.

The long traditions of potters and potteries came to the New World with the earliest settlers in the 1600s from England. The Dutch and German settlers also brought their own pottery skills and traditions, and they were localized in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania areas. The English traditions were the most common in the colonies.

Colonists needed every day utilitarian objects to supplement the wood and pewter items which they brought with them. The clay suitable for making redware was readily available in all of the colonies. The first items they made were things like milk pitchers and bowls, jars, jugs, plates and crocks.

The clay was formed into shapes either by hand or by using a home made potter's wheel. After drying, they could be fired at a relatively low temperature in a primitive wood fired kiln. The resulting pottery was red, porous, and had no shine.

In order to make redware waterproof and impervious to liquids, glazes were used. Interiors of the pieces were dipped or painted with a glaze after the first firing, and then fired in the kiln a second time. The result was a shiny, smooth surface which could hold liquids.

The first glazes were made from a mixture of powdered lead, sand, clay and water. This glaze was poisonous. Lead poisoning was a real problem at that time because as the pottery was used, the lead seeped into the food and liquids they held. Safer, clay based glazes were quickly developed, but lead was a primary glaze until the industrial revolution. For this reason, it is not safe to use antique redware for food because of unknown quantities of lead which may be in the glaze.

As more skilled potters arrived in the colonies better techniques took over. Slip glazes were added, both to protect the object from liquids, but also for decoration. "Slip" was a mixture of clay and water which was painted on the surface of the redware, either as a solid covering, providing shine and protection, or in decorative lines, waves and sometimes, words. This left a shiny surface, often with different colors than the underlying redware color.

This is a slip decorated plate. Note the color of the slip is lighter than the base, which is also slip covered. The underside of a glazed piece of redware shows the clay as it is without any slip covering. Not glazing the underside was normal.

Albany slip comes from clays dug in the Hudson River Valley near Albany, N.Y. in the very early 1800s and is generally a dark brown or close to black color from the high iron content in the clay. It was used to glaze both the inside and outside of redware pieces to create an impermeable surface. You often see it on New England redware pieces.

Manganese Slip is often seen on glazed redware pieces, providing a nice contrast and interesting decoration.

This small bowl is glazed inside and out with a clear red glaze, decorated with a dark brown, almost black manganese slip, made from mixing manganese into a thin slurry of clay. It was brushed or dotted on, and then fired.

Other color glazes - green, yellow, even white were used less frequently, and rarely in New England.

Redware is relatively easy to find in today's market. Because it is porous and therefore somewhat fragile, nicks and chips are usual. I would avoid cracks and hairlines unless the piece is so unusual that it is worth buying.

The earlier the better - for example, jugs that are ovoid in shape, versus having straight sides, were made before about 1830. The shape changed after that, and sides became straighter. But some things were made in exactly the same way for generations.

Nice slip decoration is hard to find. Slip decorated plates suffer from surface wear, as would be expected.

Redware makers almost never signed their wares, so it is often difficult to identify a provenance or even age. It was made throughout the 1700s and 1800s, but rarely after 1900, except as reproductions.

The more unusual the piece, the better. I recently sold a redware quill holder on this site.

I had never seen one before. Note the Albany slip on the interior - to make it impervious to ink. This is a very charming little piece.

Sometimes you will see redware that has incised decorations, known as Sgraffito. This was a technique introduced by the Pennsylvania Germans, and is not seen much in New England.

The redware was covered in a yellowish glaze, and then lines were drawn into the wet clay, producing a decorative effect. This bowl was also sold on this site recently:

Other forms of earthenware were seen early on in our history, including stoneware, soft paste china, and even porcelain. The only other pottery that was produced here in the 1700s and early 1800s was stoneware.

Stoneware required a different kind of clay than redware did. 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, but this was expensive.

Stoneware was desirable because it was much more durable than redware. The clay was fired at a much higher temperature and could be glazed with a salt mixture, making it non porous and shiny. But not everyone could make it or afford to buy it, so it did not come into common use until the mid 1800s.

Early redware is perfect for the primitive home and for anyone who loves the simple, early look. It was strictly utilitarian, but, as with all country designs, artisans often added decoration to make the items more interesting. The rich, red and brown colors of redware go with everything in a simply designed country home.

Kevin McConnell, in his book "Redware, America's Folk Art Pottery" says: " One important thing I've come to realize about redware is that these fragile pieces of pottery provide us with an integral link to the past. Indeed, for those who are willing to take the time to look and listen, redware can tell us many things about the life and times of the early American settlers."


Good references on these subjects 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


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