Unpaved Roadshow: The whys and wares of early-American pottery

Governor Gooch had a secret.

Virginia Gov. William Gooch had good reason to hide the truth in his 1732 annual report to the British Board of Trade. The colonies were forbidden to engage in manufacturing any products that were in direct competition with those imported from England, except for those that would benefit the mother country.

Redware plate by Edna Smith of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, 19th century, the interior decorated with a continuous circle trail of wavy green copper slip, overlaid with four brown manganese slip stripes.Courtesy of Crocker Farm
Redware plate by Edna Smith of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, 19th century, the interior decorated with a continuous circle trail of wavy green copper slip, overlaid with four brown manganese slip stripes.

Yet he and his government had long encouraged local entrepreneurs, including a Yorktown merchant known as William Rogers. An enterprising brewer and businessman, Rogers’s pottery works was one of Virginia’s most prosperous businesses, producing 23 types of redware and stoneware, which were shipped up and down the East Coast. Since the quality of Rogers’s vessels was comparable to anything imported from England, and clearly posed a conflict of interest, Gooch maintained his deception until the end of the decade.

Redware was the most utilitarian pottery available and one of the first necessities that the colonists made themselves. It’s no wonder Gov. Gooch was covert about this flourishing industry. Redware pots were used like plastic is used today. They were comparably cheap, plentiful and locally crafted, using clay with high iron content that gives redware its characteristic red or orange hue.

Five-gallon stoneware churn, circa 1861, won the highest bid ever recorded for a piece of American stoneware, $350,000. The slip-trailed design depicts four strong-jawed, mustached Union Civil War soldiers, each with distinctive kepi hat, buttoned coat and rifle with bayonet.Courtesy of Crocker Farm
Five-gallon stoneware churn, circa 1861, won the highest bid ever recorded for a piece of American stoneware, $350,000. The slip-trailed design depicts four strong-jawed, mustached Union Civil War soldiers, each with distinctive kepi hat, buttoned coat and rifle with bayonet.

Many times the hand of man is clearly evident on older redware jugs and vessels that were thrown on a crude potter’s wheel. It is the occasional thumbprint under the glaze that makes early American redware so charming. Plates were made by pressing clay into molds and were typically slip-decorated with yellow or red designs. Many times slip-decorated pieces were created to mark a family event, like a wedding or birth, and became family heirlooms, passed down through the generations. Some specialty presentation pieces can command prices in the thousands, and the more elaborate or unusual the design, the higher the price.

Redware jugs, jars, plates, various tavernware and bowls were used throughout 17th- and 18th-century America. If the housewife needed it, the potter made it. Unfortunately, the potter — or anyone who regularly used redware vessels — commonly developed such nervous disorders as palsy and tremors, which are associated with lead poisoning. People in the 19th century finally began to recognize that these prevalent medical problems stemmed from the lead glazing that was used to produce redware. Consequently, by the 1860s, redware was used mainly for flowerpots or decorative items.

Redware has an earthy, coarse look to it and minimal glazing. To this day, redware vessels, classified as earthenware, made during the colonial years and beyond are sought after by collectors who admire their utility and primitive beauty.

There are multitudes of contemporary pieces on the market that are being advertised as antiques; hence, collectors should educate themselves to be able to discern fakes. Examining the back of the piece to see if it is blackened shows that it was used on the hearth and is likely an old piece. Since tallow or fat leaches into clay, smelling the piece for faint remnant odors of either can help determine whether it’s an older item. Also, a glaze with a glassy quality is a sign of a modern piece.

Stoneware was developed due to fear of lead poisoning from lead-glazed earthenware. Made of dense, blended clays, salt-glazed and then fired to vitrification, stoneware was imported from England and Germany to the colonies. Although redware continued to appeal to the general public, stoneware’s hardness and durability were distinct assets and large-scale American manufacture began after the Revolutionary War, starting in the north and migrating south.

Early American redware potters rarely inscribed their names in the soft clay, but stoneware quite often bears the maker’s mark.

Seven-gallon large, ovoid  jar, circa 1840, stamped “S. Bell,” by Samuel Bell of Winchester, decorated with four large impressed and cobalt-highlighted designs of standing and cantering horses around the body. Courtesy of Crocker Farm
Seven-gallon large, ovoid  jar, circa 1840, stamped “S. Bell,” by Samuel Bell of Winchester, decorated with four large impressed and cobalt-highlighted designs of standing and cantering horses around the body.

Crocks, jugs, butter churns, chiefly utility items, were typically decorated with freehand cobalt decoration of flora, fauna and, occasionally, military motifs. An urn featuring Civil War soldiers recently sold at auction for $350,000. Again, the more elaborate designs command more interest and the highest prices.

The mellow, golden-colored yellow ware is a type of stoneware made of fine yellow clay that was found along riverbanks in New Jersey, and other surrounding mid-Atlantic states. Since the yellow clay contains a lower level of iron, causing it to vitrify at higher temperatures than red clay, yellow-ware items were much harder and more durable for kitchen use. The color can range from a buff color to deep mustard, depending on the clay, but it always has a clear glaze. Bowls, many having beautiful colored rings around the rims, are the most common form, and the most reproduced. Unusual forms include lidded crocks, funnels and rolling pins.

The collector can determine whether an older piece is American yellow ware by tapping it; American pieces will thud, English yellow ware will ring. Although most of the very old pieces are unsigned, some early 20th-century makers include Weller, McCoy, Hull and Bennington. Since yellow ware’s first use was in a kitchen or pantry, antique yellow ware should show appropriate wear – minor bumps, a small flake or glaze crazing.

It was a popular choice for kitchen use up until the 1940s, and was replaced by homemakers seduced by pieces made of more modern materials.

The South has a wide and diverse 200-year history of pottery covering multiple states. Southern redware and stoneware research has made significant strides in the last 25 years. Entire new schools of pottery have been discovered, uncovering new forms and traditions.

Yellow ware was hard and durable and used in the kitchen through the mid-20th century. Bowls were a staple and are the most common form of antique yellow ware found today. Courtesy of Doc's Crocks
Yellow ware was hard and durable and used in the kitchen through the mid-20th century. Bowls were a staple and are the most common form of antique yellow ware found today.

The pottery of the “Great Road” represents some newer discoveries of the southern pottery tradition. The Great Road, considered part of the “Great Wagon Road” starting in Philadelphia, was the primary route from Roanoke to eastern Tennessee. Regions of Southwest Virginia, primarily around Wytheville and Abington, provided ideal conditions for earthenware production. There was an abundance of workable clays, a rapidly expanding population base during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and ease of transportation along the Great Road.

A wonderful piece of antique American pottery folk ware, whether it is redware, stoneware or yellow ware, has its own distinct past. A potter, who probably dug his own clay, mixed his own glaze recipe and fired his pieces in old wood-fired kilns made each piece, and every piece tells its own unique story.

Michelle Galler (antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com) has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Georgetown and here in Washington. Contact her with any questions or about great finds you would like to discuss in future columns.

Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 25 Articles

Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.