While there are many kinds of ceramics, rural shops like the one at OSV usually produced a low-fired earthenware commonly called "redware," since the clay took on a brick-red color after it was "fired" (baked) in a kiln. Rural redware potters commonly made inexpensive containers for the home and kitchen such as jugs, bake pans, and mixing bowls.
Potters in the 19th century made jugs, mugs, pitchers, flower pots, pans for baking pies and puddings, lard pots, clay tubes ("thimbles") for insulating iron stovepipes, pans for setting milk (to allow the cream to rise) and mixing bowls were just some of the items commonly made by rural New England potters. You will see examples of these items at OSV in the Pottery Shop, in the households, and in the re-created Asa Knight store exhibit.
Materials & Tools
Rural potters usually dug clay from the earth on their own farms, often near the bend of river where good clay was sometimes found.
A potter’s tools were relatively few and fairly simple. His hands were his most important tools in shaping the clay. (Some also used bits of string, small pieces of wood, and rags.) He also needed a horse-operated "pug" mill for preparing his clay, a foot-operated wheel on which to shape it, a stone mill to grind his glaze, and a kiln to fire (bake) his pots.
After clay was washed to remove impurities, and worked into a uniform consistency, most vessels were "thrown on a wheel." A lump of clay was put a horizontal disk turned by the potter's leg. With wet hands the potter formed the clay into the desired shape. He then set the piece aside to dry. When dry, it was often dipped to a water-based slurry of ground sand and metallic salts called a "glaze," and again allowed to dry. Dried pieces were then stacked in the large brick kiln outside of the shop. The kiln door was bricked up and fires started at the base of the kiln. After a day or two of firing, the kiln reached a temperature of 1850° F, which transformed the clay into a durable ceramic. The loaded kiln was then allowed to cool slowly, after which the pottery was removed, ready for use.
Making pottery is somewhat like baking cookies: since they are made in batches it is difficult to say how much time it takes to make a single piece. Throwing a pot on the wheel may take anywhere from a few minutes to a quarter of an hour or more, but it took a potter several days beforehand to prepare a load of clay. Then each pot must dry for several days. After that, glaze is prepared and applied, the pot dried again, and then stacked in the kiln with hundreds of other pieces. The kiln firing takes several more days, not to mention the time it took the potter to cut and split the wood he burned in the kiln. The few minutes spent forming a lump of clay into a desired shape is only one small part of a larger, more time-consuming process!
Pots are coated with a mixture of finely ground sand, metallic salts (usually "red lead"), clay and water before they are fired (baked) in the kiln. In the heat of the kiln this coating melts to form a thin glassy layer on the pots called a glaze. Glazed pottery is impervious to liquids, but unglazed pottery remains porous.
Most redware pottery was very utilitarian and lacked decoration. Some pieces, however, were embellished with crimped or tooled edges. Others were decorated with a material called slip. This was really a colored glaze (often yellow) that was applied as a liquid, almost like icing is trailed across a birthday cake today. After firing in the kiln, the slip became a permanent part of the pottery. Sometimes words were written with the slip, while other decorations were as simple as black daubs on a brown base.
The Potter & His Business
Some worked full-time as potters, while others, including Hervey Brooks (whose shop is at OSV), farmed for a living and only worked at the trade part-time to supplement their farm incomes.
While larger pottery works distributed wares far and wide, potters like Hervey Brooks (who worked in this shop from 1819 to 1864) operated on a smaller scale. He sold some of his wares to country stores on contract, and exchanged smaller lots with neighbors for goods and services. Peddlers who traveled from town to town also sold some pottery.
The redware pottery produced in shops such as this was generally considered utilitarian and inexpensive, but was not the only kind of pottery used by 19th-century New Englanders. Many other kinds of ceramics were also in everyday use. Some of these were made in other parts of the United States, while some were imported from England, Europe, and even China. They were made from different types of clays, often with different glazes and more decoration, and fired at higher temperatures. Most were harder and more durable than redware, and often considered more fashionable. As you visit the houses and the Asa Knight store in our Village, you will see many of these other kinds of pottery in addition to the redware made here.
Most towns did not have a potter, while some communities had several potters. The local availability of good clay was an important factor in establishing a pottery. Even in towns that had a potter, residents bought and used different types of ceramics from around the world, not just local redware.
Redware was relatively inexpensive. Some items sold for only a few cents, while larger redware pieces cost more. Keep in mind that monetary values were different in the 19th century than they are today. For example, a young girl working in a neighbor's kitchen might earn the price of a simple mixing bowl with a day's labor.
Boys learned to be potters by working with an experienced potter. As with many other trades, a potter usually began as an apprentice. Sometimes a boy learned from his father. If he apprenticed with someone else, the boy usually lived with the master potter and became a part of his family, trading his labor for food, clothing, shelter, and a practical education in the "arts and mysteries" of the potter's trade. The length of an apprenticeship was not regulated, although it usually began sometime in a boy’s teens and ended when he reached his majority at the age of 21.
Up to a thousand dried pieces of pottery could be stacked for firing inside the kiln outside the Pottery Shop.
After loading the kiln with pots, the door was bricked shut. Wood fires were then started at the base of the kiln. After a day or two of heating, the kiln and the pots inside reached a temperature of 1850° F. This transformed the clay into a durable ceramic, and melted the glaze on the pots into a shiny and waterproof glass coating. The kiln was then allowed to cool slowly, and the pottery was removed, ready for use.
Hervey Brooks, who built this shop, fired his kiln once a year from 1828 to 1864 (when he was 85 years old!). His kiln does not survive; ours is a working reproduction.
Lead in Pottery
People have known for centuries that oxides of lead are potentially toxic, causing damage to the central nervous system. Yet lead also has many useful properties. Adding a lead flux (usually as an oxide called "red lead") to pottery glazes, for example, makes them work better by lowering the melting point of sand.
It was not until the late 20th century, however, that people realized how dangerous even minute amounts of lead can be, especially to growing children. Despite this, lead is still used for many things in our modern world, especially in batteries and electronics. Leaded pottery glazes are still used in parts of Asia and Latin America, and leaded solder was used to join new water pipes in the United States as recently as the late 1980s. Before we judge the past too harshly, keep in mind that no one in the 1830s contaminated their drinking water by burning leaded gasoline or disposing of batteries and appliances made with lead in landfills, as the modern world has done.
The use of lead oxide in early pottery glazes was actually more dangerous to the potters who worked with them than to the consumers who used the pottery. Nonetheless, most early New Englanders knew to take some basic precautions with redware pottery in order to prevent lead poisoning. For example, redware was not generally used to store acidic foods and drinks, that could leach lead out of the glaze. They used glass or wooden containers instead, or other ceramics such as salt-glazed stoneware that contained no lead.
Today we use only safe, lead-free glazes in our reproduction pottery.