The term “American Stoneware” refers to the predominant houseware of nineteenth century America–stoneware pottery usually covered in a salt glaze and often decorated using cobalt oxide to produce bright blue decorations.
Pictured right: Fenton & Hancock Water Cooler sold at auction for $88,000 in Nov 2006 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
The vernacular term “crocks” is often used to describe this type of pottery, though the term “crock” is not seen in period documents describing the ware. Additionally, while other types of stoneware were produced in America concurrently with it–for instance, ironstone, yellowware, and various types of china–in common usage of the term, “American Stoneware” refers to this specific type of pottery.
Pictured left: Baltimore Stoneware, (H. Myers) Water Cooler, Made By Henry Remmey, Sr. Water Cooler sold at auction for $72,600 in July 2004 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
Stoneware is pottery made out of clay of the stoneware category, fired to a high temperature (about 1200°C to 1315°C). The pottery becomes, essentially, stone. Salt-glazed pottery is a type of pottery produced by adding salt to a kiln to create a glass-like coating on the pottery. At just over 900°C, the salt (sodium chloride) vaporizes and bonds with the clay body. The sodium in the salt bonds with the silica in the clay, creating sodium silicate, or glass. A very commonly employed technique seen on American Stoneware is the use of cobalt decoration, where a dark gray mixture of clay, water and the expensive mineral cobalt oxide is painted onto the unfired vessels. In the firing process, the cobalt reacts to produce a vibrant blue decoration that has become the trademark of these wares.
While this type of salt-glazed stoneware probably originated in the Rhineland area of Germany circa 1400’s, it became the dominant houseware of the United States of America circa 1780-1890.
Pictured right: Early NY Figural, Stoneware Jar, Inscribed “Bill Remey” sold at auction for $63,250 in March 2008 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
Americans began producing salt-glazed stoneware circa 1720 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Yorktown, Virginia. By the 1770’s, the art of salt-glazed stoneware production had spread to many centers throughout the United States, most notably Manhattan, New York. There the Crolius and Remmey families (two of the most important families in the history of American pottery production) would, by the turn of the nineteenth century, set the standard for expertly crafted and aesthetically pleasing American stoneware. By 1820, stoneware was being produced in virtually every American urban center, with potters from Baltimore, Maryl and, in particular raising the craft to its pinnacle.
While salt-glazing is the typical glaze technique seen on American Stoneware, other glaze methods were employed by the potters. For instance, vessels were often dunked in Albany Slip, a mixture made from a clay peculiar to the Upper Hudson Region of New York, and fired, producing a dark brown glaze. Albany Slip was also sometimes used as a glaze to coat the inside surface of salt-glazed ware.
Pictured left: Taunton, MA, Stoneware Figural Cooler, 1834 sold at auction for $34,500 in March 2008 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
While decorated ware was usually adorned using cobalt oxide, American Stoneware potters used other decorative techniques. Incising, a method in which a design of flowering plants, birds, or some other decoration was cut into the leather-hard clay using a stylus, produced detailed, recessed images on the vessels; these were usually also highlighted in cobalt. Stamped or coggled designs were sometimes impressed into the leather-hard clay, as well. Potters occasionally substituted manganese or iron oxide for cobalt oxide to produce brown, instead of blue, decorations on the pottery.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, potters in New England and New York state began producing stoneware with elaborate figural designs such as deer, dogs, birds, houses, people, historical scenes and other fanciful motifs including elephants and “bathing beauties.”
A significant percentage of American Stoneware was signed using maker’s marks and, much more rarely, incised signatures. Many pieces can be attributed to particular makers based on the cobalt decoration, clay body, form, etc. The gallon capacity of the vessels was often denoted using numeral stamps or incised or cobalt oxide numbers or hash marks applied in freehand.
Pictured right: John W. Bell, Waynesboro, PA, Redware Figure of a Whippet Dog
sold at auction for $41,800 in May 2005 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
American Stoneware was valued as not only a durable, decorative houseware but as a safer alternative to lead-glazed earthenware pottery produced in America before and during its production there. This earthenware, commonly referred to today as American Redware, was often produced by the same potters making American Stoneware.
Pictured left: “Anthony W. Bacher / 1879”, VA Redware Wall pocket sold at auction for $35,650 in March 2008 at Crocker Farm Inc auctions
Stoneware was used for anything we might use glass jars or tupperware for today. It held everything from water, soda, and beer to meat, grain, jelly, and pickled vegetables, and was produced in a very wide variety of forms. These ranged from common jars and jugs to more specialized items like pitchers, water coolers, spittoons, and butter pots, to much rarer banks and poultry waterers and exceptionally unusual pieces like bird houses, animal figures, and grave markers.
With the proliferation of mass production techniques and machinery throughout the century, in particular the breakthrough of John Landis Mason’s glass jar (see Mason jar), the production of what had been one of America’s most vital handcrafts gradually ground to a halt. By the turn of the twentieth century, some companies mass-produced stoneware with a white, non-salt glaze (commonly referred to as “bristol slip”), but these later wares lacked, for instance, the elaborate decorations common to the earlier, salt-glazed stoneware.
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