Cobalt-Decorated Stoneware

Stoneware supplanted redware as the dominant American ware in the early years of the nineteenth century and was manufactured in enormous quantities throughout the 1800s. The sturdy, decorated storage containers and other wares produced by potters in such places as Bennington, Vermont, Troy, New York, and Charlestown, Massachusetts, have been favorites of collectors for many years.

Stoneware is a hard, dense-bodied pottery which, unlike porous earthenware, will hold liquids without a glaze. Because stoneware is fired at a much higher temperature than earthenware (typically 2300 degrees Fahrenheit versus 1500-1800 degrees needed for earthenware), it is made of special alluvial clays that can withstand the intense heat. The silica in these clays melts and vitrifies during firing, tightly binding the clay and creating the characteristic body for which stoneware is named. Stoneware clays are considerably more refined than earthenware clays but far less common and widely distributed than the redware clays, which could be found in quantity throughout the United States.

Stoneware was brought to America by immigrants from the Rhineland, where it had been made since the 1400s. The Germans were the most adept of Europe's stoneware potters, and many of the earliest and most influential American potters were German immigrants, among them William Crolius and John Remney, who both established potteries in New York City early in the eighteenth century. Their products are among the most sophisticated and elegant ever made in this country; one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American stoneware is a punchbowl with incised floral designs colored with cobalt made by the Crolius family in 1811.

Despite the excellent productions of such urban firms, however, stoneware was not widely made in the United States until after the Revolutionary War because access to quality stoneware clays was limited. Small amounts were found in many areas and used by local potters, but the major deposits capable of sustaining significant commercial production were located in New Jersey and on New York's Long Island. The development of transportation systems in the early 1800s enabled stoneware manufacturers to obtain raw materials and transport finished wares throughout the country, encouraging the growth of ever larger pottery firms.

Whereas redware potteries were usually small, independent shops that sold their wares locally, some nineteenth-century stoneware potteries developed into small factories that employed dozens of potters and decorators and shipped their stoneware as far away as Texas. At the Norton pottery, founded in 1793 at Bennington, Vermont, eighteen potters and decorators were producing $35,000 worth of wares annually by 1860. The firm made everything from plain soap dishes and beer bottles to large, decorated storage containers, which were sold on a wholesale basis to general store keepers and other retail outlets. The Nortons also did custom work; one of their most spectacular pieces is a fifteen-gallon water cooler made for the Stark Hotel in Bennington. Now in the collection of the Bennington Museum, the piece is decorated with a central landscape that includes a pair of deer, a spotted dog, a preening bird, and several small houses and trees.

Most of the stoneware made by northern manufacturers was salt-glazed. To produce this glossy, light gray glaze, the potter poured rock salt in the top of the kiln when firing temperature was reached. The salt vaporized on contact with the intense heat, producing chlorine gas as a by-product and covering the pots inside with a hard, glasslike surface that was impermeable to moisture and easy to clean. These attributes, which were not possible in redware, made stoneware popular as it became more readily available in the nineteenth century. Because pots were stacked in the kiln, however, salt glaze usually did not completely coat their interior surfaces, and water could permeate the inside walls of the ware. To address this problem, many potters poured "Albany slip," a special mixture of clay and water, into their vessels before firing. The slip melted to form a dark, chocolate brown glaze at the same temperature that the stoneware hardened in the kiln, thereby guaranteeing that the wares would be completely watertight. Albany slip was named for the vicinity (Albany, New York) where clay with these special properties was first discovered in quantity. Some early upstate New York potters, such as Paul Cushman, used Albany slip on the outside of their pots as well, dipping the entire pot in the mixture before firing. Albany slip was also used extensively on undecorated, utilitarian ware in the later years of the nineteenth century.

The majority of salt-glazed stonewares made in the northeastern United States were decorated with liquid cobalt oxide; when fired, it produced various shades of blue that contrasted with the light gray of the salt glaze. Using a slip cup to control the flow of liquid, the decorator drew linear designs on the face of the dried, unfired pot. Although freehand decoration allowed far more creative variety, some decorators employed stencils, which saved time and created identical designs on their wares. New York and New Jersey potters, such as the Crolius family, incised or stamped designs or lettering into wet clay and then filled the design with a wash of cobalt. These earlier, more time-consuming decorating methods became obsolete in the early 1800s, however, as the demand for stonewares and the number of competing potteries increased. Although a considerable amount of this utilitarian pottery was unmarked, many large-scale manufacturers stamped their names or other identifying symbols into their pots as a means of advertising. In addition to potters' names and locations, many pots were marked with their sizes; the most commonly encountered mark is a 2, signifying a two-gallon capacity.

Potters produced a wide range of utilitarian forms, but the most common were storage vessels such as jugs, jars, and crocks ranging in size from one-half to six gallons. Unlike lead-glazed redware, which was not safe for storing acidic foods and liquids, salt-glazed stoneware was leakproof and acid-resistant. Narrow-mouthed jugs stopped with a cork or wooden plug were made in a variety of sizes and stored liquids of all kinds: water, cider, whiskey, beer, wine, vinegar, maple syrup, and turpentine. Since ice was the only refrigerant available until late in the century, Americans preserved many foods with salt or brine. Straight-sided, wide-mouthed jars and crocks were used to store salted meats, pickles, sauerkraut, fruit butters, and soft soap. These wide-mouthed vessels could be purchased with or without a lid and were often covered with a cheesecloth and/or a piece of wood to keep insects and vermin away.

Stoneware was also used to haul, prepare, and store milk products on the family farm; butter churns, open and covered cream pots, and covered butter pots could be found in every nineteenth-century dairy.

Stoneware did have its limitations, however. Unlike open-bodied redware, which expanded and contracted in response to heat, stoneware's vitrified body could not withstand the effects of intense heat and so was unsuitable as cookware. For the same reason, it was rarely used for table and serving ware such as plates, bowls, and platters, which remained the field of the redware potter. Because the two types of pottery complemented each other's uses, many stoneware makers also offered a line of redware products to their customers.

Collecting Cobalt-decorated Stoneware

Decoration is everything in salt-glazed stoneware. While some collectors specialize in rare stoneware forms such as kegs, tablewares, flowerpots, toys, banks, and whimsies, most look primarily at the varied cobalt decorations of more common forms such as jars and jugs. The quality, interest, complexity, and rarity of a piece's decoration determines its market value and collectibility.

Prices for cobalt-decorated stoneware range from a couple of hundred dollars for a typical Bennington pot to well into five figures for pieces with particularly rare and unusual decorations. Larger forms such as multigallon storage jars and jugs, pitchers, churns, and water coolers gave cobalt decorators the most space to show off their skills and are highly sought by collectors. The most common decorations were stylized plants and animals--flowers, vines, leaves, and wild birds. These are followed in popularity by barnyard animal designs--chickens, cows, pigs, and horses. Deer were the most frequently drawn wild animals; any other animals are rare and desirable. Patriotic symbols such as eagles, flags, laurel wreaths, and shields were quite popular with customers and commonly employed by decorators; less frequently used Masonic and other fraternal symbols are choice. While Bennington and other large potteries produced hundreds of pots that repeated the same basic designs, decorators sometimes created one-of-a-kind designs for special orders or as presentation pieces. Stoneware collectors covet such pieces. Among the decorations known are a somersaulting circus equestrienne, a tippling town drunkard, and a ferocious lion surrounded by lush vegetation. The collector should familiarize himself with known decorations and be on the lookout for out-of-the-ordinary designs.

In addition to the Crolius and Remney firms in New York and the Nortons of Bennington, desirable labeled stoneware was made by Jonathan Fenton of Boston and his son Richard L. Fenton, who worked in East Dorset, Vermont, Thomas Commeraw of New York City, Barnabus Edmonds of Charlestown, Massachusetts, Israel Seymour of Troy, New York, A.K. Ballard of Burlington, Vermont, Paul Cushman of Albany, New York, Thomas Harrington of Lyons, New York, and White's Pottery in Utica, New York, among others.

Condition is also important. Stoneware is an extremely strong and durable pottery, and many, many pieces have survived. Stoneware should be free of major chips and repairs, although small nicks and other signs of wear are to be expected in utilitarian pottery. Be sure to inspect the bottom of the pot as well for signs of damage. Some wear will often reassure the collector that the piece is truly an antique.

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