At the beginning of the twenty-first century, scholarly attention in ceramics is at an all-time high. Professional organizations with interest in the topic abound. In the United States, these include the American Ceramic Circle, the Wedgwood International Seminar, the Wedgwood Society of New York, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the American Ceramic Society, and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. In England, major ceramic groups include the English Ceramic Circle, the Northern Ceramic Society, and the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology. All of these societies have publications and newsletters that are widely distributed. Regional study groups and collectors clubs such as the Boston China Students Club, the Washington Ceramic Seminar, the Transferware Collectors Club, and the San Francisco Ceramic Circle provide a regularly distributed bulletin or newsletter.
The continuous stream of publications that flows from both established and private presses reflects the current interest in ceramics. The Magazine Antiques, Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of Early American Culture, and the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, among other periodical publications, offer material culture essays on ceramic topics. The ceramic catalogs of the world’s major auction houses remain a significant source of documentation and reference as well. With the advent of the Internet, web pages proliferate for every type of ceramic subject, and this development promises to continue at a staggering rate.
Perhaps the largest audience for ceramic publications is made up of those who actually make pots. Working ceramists are well served with a number of publications, including Ceramics Monthly and The Studio Potter, both published in this country. Such internationally distributed periodicals as Ceramic Review, published in England, and Ceramic Art and Perception, published in Australia, aim at the ceramic practitioner and the collector of contemporary works.
In light of this considerable professional interest and the diversity of publications, is the time right for a new member of the international ceramic community? The Chipstone Foundation believes that Ceramics in America is a much needed addition. In a time when specialization increasingly defines the professional ceramic circles and publications, this journal strives to offer an alternative model. Its aim is to explore the broad cultural role that ceramics have played in North America from the first European settlement to the development of American ceramic industries to the present. To make this happen, Ceramics in America must provide ceramic scholars with an interdisciplinary forum from the fields of decorative arts, art history, historical archaeology, social history, economic history, and contemporary studio pottery. In short, this publication seeks synthesis by crossing many of the traditional boundaries that demarcate disciplines of the ceramics world.
The inaugural issue of Ceramics in America offers a diverse lineup of essays by an equally diverse group of authors. With any interdisciplinary undertaking, consensus is not usually possible, nor is it even the intended goal. While most ceramic specialists share a nearly inexpressible passion for the material, opinions and specific interests vary considerably.
The close relationship between ceramic collecting and ceramic scholarship often raises challenging ethical issues both for individuals and institutions. Ivor Noël Hume’s essay offers a personal perspective on the practical choices that scholars sometimes face. With his encyclopedic guides for identifying and dating historical ceramics, his contribution to the field of historical archaeology is legendary. Yet it is Noël Hume’s ability to find and to tell the story embodied in virtually any ceramic object that gives such life to his rigorous scholarship.
With the development of material culture studies in the 1970s, students of ceramics have adopted theories and methods from the fields of anthropology, art history, linguistics, and literary criticism, among others. Ann Smart Martin shares her approach for finding the hidden meanings in the ceramics made and/or used in America. As a material culture teacher, her challenge is to provide a framework for the uninitiated student looking at ceramics in new and creative ways.
Archaeological research continues to lead the way in providing the best contextual data for ceramics scholars. Bly Straube, curator for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, is conducting exciting new research at the site of America’s first permanent English-speaking colony. Her article challenges many long-standing notions about the types of ceramics used in early America. Diehard Anglophile collectors will be surprised to see that America’s early ceramic heritage was anything but English in character. Curators of those seventeenth-century “period rooms” should take particular note of the culturally diverse profusion of color, pattern, and form represented in the broken ceramic fragments at Jamestown.
England eventually made sure that the preponderance of goods brought to their colonies in America was of English manufacture. With the establishment of trade acts in the 1660s, England began to protect its domestic ceramic industry. The rise of the great English potting centers soon followed, coinciding with the growing interest in fashion, commerce, and the introduction of new ceramic technologies. David Barker’s article discusses the importance of understanding the Staffordshire potters, who produced virtually all the household ceramics used in America until well into the nineteenth century.
At the heart of all ceramic stories are the technological processes of manufacture, some of them thousands of years old. Potters generally have remained silent, sometimes leaving behind only recipe books with their clay body and glaze formulas. The finished product is usually left to speak for itself. Ceramic historians have tried to decipher the technology behind the pot but their observations are often inadequate. Ceramics in America will include a regular series of illustrated essays that investigate the technological history of ceramic production. In this initial volume, Michelle Erickson and this author explore a variety of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century decorative treatments common to English slipwares. Donald Carpentier and Jonathan Rickard pick up the story by discussing the slip-decorating techniques of the industrial age, beginning in the late eighteenth century. The mechanization of this time-honored method of ceramic decoration offers a fascinating glimpse into a potting tradition that merged with modern technology.
The search for cross-disciplinary synthesis in Ceramics in America also extends to significant investigations of terminology—both past and present. A central part of artifact analysis is the exploration of distinctive descriptive terms used by potters, consumers, and today’s scholars. For instance, a contextual reconstruction of how potters described their ideas, processes, and materials is a useful first step that promises to lead toward a deeper understanding of the meaning or intent behind historical ceramic terms. Using documentary sources and archaeological evidence, George Miller and this author challenge the relatively well-established term “pearlware,” used today almost universally by archaeologists, collectors, and curators.
The presentation of innovative scholarly methodologies is also a goal of this journal. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling provide a model of research that illustrates many points raised by other authors in this issue. In telling the story of an early-nineteenth-century earthenware pottery in Louisville, Kentucky, the Stradlings use a wonderful combination of historical research, traditional connoisseurship, archaeology, and ceramics technology analysis.
One regular feature will be collectors’ essays, which will more fully introduce into the scholarly discourse an examination of questions relating to all of us who collect things. The first-person essay by Troy D. Chappell provides the opportunity to hear the motives of one American collector. An unusually high level of precise thought and purpose informs Chappell’s collection of English ceramics.
Another exciting aspect of this publication is the inclusion of “New Discoveries,” edited by Merry Outlaw. Readers are encouraged to contribute those important bits of ceramic information that might otherwise not appear in print. While some of this information will be generated by actual new discoveries, there is much research yet to be conducted in the drawers and cabinets of existing archaeological collections. Ceramics in America also intends to play an important role in the history of ceramic scholarship by directing the reader’s attention to the wide range of scholarly work in the ceramic field. With the ever-growing number of professional organizations, an expanding base of collectors, and an increased number archaeological protection excavations, the book reviews and annual bibliography, edited and compiled by Amy Earls, will emerge as an essential reference.
The first volume of Ceramics in America is just that: a first volume. The goal of the editorial staff and the Chipstone Foundation is to be attentive to the needs of the readers and to the evolution of ceramic scholarship, to provide an innovative and well-reasoned merging of multiple voices, and to be open to new approaches of study. For the moment, however, Ceramics in America offers a starting point for a new level of dialogue regarding the production, use, and meaning of historic ceramics in America.