Stoneware: The Tupperware of the 19th century

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The reclining deer design has long been associated with the Norton factory in Bennington, Vermont. This 2-gallon cake crock is impressed with the mark of J. & E. Norton and dates to 1855. It's valued at $18,700. Photo courtesy Waasdorp, Inc.

Stoneware is described in Webster’s dictionary as “an opaque pottery that is fired at a high temperature, non porous, that may be glazed and that is commonly made from a single clay.” Stoneware was produced primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries in this country as a utilitarian household necessity. We like to define it as 19th century “Tupperware.” Stoneware containers were used to store dried corn and grains, cooking fats and oils, and salts and seasonings. They were also used for preserving foods in pickling  mixtures and brines. Smaller stoneware pieces such as pitchers, milk pans and mugs were used for serving food and drink. In any case, you could find stoneware in abundance in any 19th century American household.

History of American stoneware

Around 1750, we saw the first stoneware production in the United States. It began in the larger settled coastal areas of New York City and Boston. The European Old World influence can be seen in these first potteries. This stoneware is identified by classic ovoid shapes, open applied handles and an overall crude appearance compared to later American pottery. Some of the first factories were those of Crolius, Remmey, and Morgan in New York and Fenton and Carpenter in Boston. The decoration was primarily fine line incised designs of stylized flowers and birds. Pieces were usually further enhanced or accented with a blue cobalt wash before firing. Little has survived from these early potteries. Today a collector should expect to pay premium prices of $1,000 and up for good signed examples of this early decorated stoneware.

As we approached the middle of the 19th century, there was tremendous growth in this cottage industry. The development of the U.S. river and canal systems made for easy transportation of raw material and finished goods throughout the Northeast. Literally hundreds of these wood fired pottery kilns began production to service the demand of the burgeoning population. They varied in size from one- and two-man operations to large factories with as many as 50 employees.

This was when decorated stoneware really became Americanized. Straight-sided crocks and jugs were the standard shape in the industry. Since product lines were now so similar, decoration became an important selling point in a very competitive industry. The type of decorating technique also changed at this time. The painstaking detailed incised lines and cobalt wash decoration gave way to the less time-consuming method of applying cobalt blue. (Cobalt blue was used as it could withstand the high firing temperature of a stoneware kiln.) Salt was thrown in during the firing and, vaporizing at this high temperature, created a shiny glaze. Hence, the name of this collecting field: blue decorated salt-glazed stoneware.

Stoneware became a medium for unsophisticated folk design. The unfired clay crocks and jugs provided a large “canvas” for the new itinerant imaginative artists. Now the design was an integral part of the marketing of stoneware. Some factories could be recognized by their trademark designs.

The paddletail and running birds are associated with the Whites’ Utica, New York, factory. The peacock on a stump and reclining deer designs have long been associated with the Norton factory in Bennington, Vermont. Norton’s distinctive bird and stylized floral dotted spray are also signatures of this large Vermont pottery. The long-running pottery in Fort Edward, New York, was known for its robin-style bird on a plume design and bull’s-eye stylized floral motifs. Designs on pottery from the highly prized Rochester, New York, factories include artfully executed flowers, birds and animals. The factory names to look for are Burger, Harrington, Stetzenmeyer and Clark. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, the rolling flower and vine designs are prevalent from the Remmey and Bell factories. In the Midwest later factories in Red Wing, Minnesota, and Monmouth, Illinois, provided pieces with stylized gallon designations and leaf designs that are highly prized today.

Unfortunately for this industry as a whole, refrigeration and the use of glass and tin containers brought about its demise. Most factories had closed by the turn of the century due to lack of demand. A few exceptions like the Whites’ Utica Pottery and Robinson Clay factory in Ohio continued in business. They began making molded souvenir stoneware to compete with the Flemish ware from Europe. These factories finally succumbed in the early 20th century.

Today, interest in decorated stoneware as Americana is very high. Today’s collector has found its decorative and display appeal works in any setting from country to modern. When you consider the many forms, factories and designs involved in stoneware collecting, the possibilities for focusing a collection on a particular theme are endless.

Methods of decoration

There are basically four methods that were used to decorate stoneware. Incised and then blue accented lines were the first method. Impressed into the wet clay were vines, florals and stylized bird designs. Occasionally more elaborate fish, serpents and sailing ships were executed. The more ambitious the design, obviously, the more expensive the piece. One-of-a-kind, dated, special order or commemorative designs that are highly detailed can go for well into the tens of thousands of dollars today.

This time-consuming deliberate decorating gave way to the faster applied methods. The first is brush application. A small paint brush was dipped into the cobalt blue and then painted designs were applied to the clay “canvas.” Generally, these designs consist primarily of stylized flowers, vines and gallon number capacity. Most are repetitive and hastily done, but complex figures of people, animals and houses have been done using this method. This was the most common decorating tool in the mid-19th-century heyday of the industry.

A slower but more precise method was the slip trail method. Much like squeeze cake decorating, deliberate lines were applied to the clay to create the designs. This is probably the most sought after artwork, as the designs are imaginative and distinct in many forms. Unsophisticated, self-taught artists created repetitive signature trademark designs and large freehand folk painting on clay. Prices run the gamut. Common wreaths, flowers and birds are priced in the hundreds to the low thousands of dollars. On the other end of the scale are one-of-a-kind special orders, animals, figures, patriotic motifs and presentation pieces. Today, prices approach $100,000 for these rare American folk art masterpieces.

Focusing a collection

Stoneware was produced throughout the United States, and many collectors choose to concentrate on a specific region. Signed examples and signature-attributed designs from a specific locale are categories collected by many people. Other collectors seek obscure one- or two-year marks of early factories. The Norton Factory in Bennington, Vermont, Cowden & Wilcox in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and John Burger in Rochester, New York, produced some of the most dynamic and imaginative art work. These “Cadillacs” of the industry are synonymous with stoneware and the focus of many great collections today.

Form and size are other considerations. For example, collectors may choose pitchers as a theme and line an open cupboard with many varied examples. Larger open crocks can accent a wall in a family room. Small jars and mugs can hold kitchen utensils or desk accessories. Large pieces are used in entrances for umbrellas and boots. Space constraints might make you look to miniatures or small sizes as an alternative. Some other common forms to complete your collection are spittoons, inkwells, footwarmers, batter pails, and bottles.

Early vendors, grocers and liquor dealers saw the potential in stoneware for advertising their businesses. They commissioned potters to imprint or script their names and wares across the fronts of the jugs and crocks. Today’s collector looks for these as a way to expand their regional interests.

Condition

Remember, stoneware pieces were not originally intended as elegant expensive objects created for beauty and display. They were utilitarian goods meant to be used as well as admired. Therefore, minor flaws like rim chips, hairlines and stains have to be accepted or your selection will be limited. Cosmetic restoration may be necessary if the damage is too distracting or severe. The extent of this damage helps determine price on each individual piece.

Always buy from reputable dealers and auctions that stand behind their sales. Rely on knowledgeable sellers that guarantee authenticity, age and condition. Buy what you like and the best you can afford.

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More Images:

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The paddletail bird design is associated with Whites' Utica, New York, factory. This circa 1870 4-gallon crock comes with the impressed mark "N.A. White & Son - Utica, NY - 4" and is valued at $798. Photo courtesy Waasdorp, Inc.
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This crock is decorated with a slip-quilled floral design enclosing the numeral "3" to indicate gallon capacity and the impressed mark "Burger & Co. - Rochester, NY." Dating to circa 1869, it's valued at $248. Photo courtesy Waasdorp, Inc.
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Space constraints might make a collector look to miniatures. This circa 1900 jug features blue stenciled advertising for "Phill. G. Kelly - R - Straight Whiskey - Richmond, VA." Standing only 4 1/2 inches high, it's valued at $110. Photo courtesy Waasdorp, Inc.
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This unsigned circa 1860 jug features rare applied grape cluster and leaf designs and a dark brown alkaline glaze. It's valued at $440. Photo courtesy Waasdorp, Inc.
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Prices can approach $100,000 for rare pieces decorated with patriotic motifs. This late 19th century cylindrical crock boasts a spread-winged eagle with shield surrounded by the marking "T.F. Reppert - Eagle Pottery - Greensboro, PA," decorative scrolls and "10" at the bottom to indicate gallon capacity. It's valued at $2,875. Photo courtesy Skinner Inc.
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Antique Trader's Stoneware and Blue & White Pottery is now available for $19.99 at www.krausebooks.com.

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