Robert Hunter

For several millennia ceramics have helped record the history of human culture. The shattered remains of clay pots have outlasted most other types of historical artifacts that embody information about general trends or specific people and places. As well, the heroes and myths of long-forgotten times often have been immortalized on ceramics, from the carved Moche pots of the Peruvian coast to the brightly painted wares of the Indus River Valley.

Yet the function of ceramics as documents of economic and political history or social and ideological rituals is not restricted to the distant past. During the formative years of American colonization, new ceramic forms were invented for imbibing tea, punch, and tobacco, and they were integrated into ritualized behaviors, becoming part of the everyday cultural landscape. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, mass-produced commemorative ceramics now read like a concise account of the events in the Western world. Ceramics made and used in America, both new and old, continue to be a rich source for understanding the myths, mythology, and rituals of our own heritage. 

It is perhaps fitting that the first article of the 2006 issue of Ceramics in America is an examination by Barbara Magid of ceramics made to honor the accomplishments and memory of George Washington, the most readily acknowledged hero in American mythology. Magid’s viewpoint derives from pieces of broken commemorative objects that have been recovered in archaeological excavations in Washington’s hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. From these sherds Magid demonstrates little-known connections to the Washington mythology that still thrives in Alexandria and elsewhere. 

Besides glorifying political leaders, ceramics have also documented the most despicable of America’s social ills. With the advent of transfer printing in the nineteenth century, many social, moral, and religious messages could quickly be disseminated among the middle classes. Many of these messages derived from literary works of the day. Jill Fenichell describes the outpouring of ceramics related to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arguably the most important novel of the nineteenth century. The visual imagery taken from Stowe’s book translated into a huge ceramic repertoire used in the cause for the abolishment of slavery.

A quite different connection between the written word and ceramics is examined by Arthur Goldberg and James Witkowski in their comprehensive analysis of the life and times of Southern potter David Drake, one of many slaves making large alkaline-glazed stoneware vessels in South Carolina’s Edgefield District in the nineteenth century. While most of these potters have remained anonymous, Dave is known from his signed pots, many of which he inscribed with personal, poetic expressions. As the authors poignantly explain, Dave’s work is a contradictory legacy, for his inscriptions were written in a time when slave literacy was not permitted in South Carolina. Dave’s pots show him to have been a master potter by any standard, but one who, during his prolific life, was bought and sold by several masters. Goldberg and Witkowski acknowledge the liberal stance of one of them, Lewis Miles, who at the risk of sanction permitted Dave to inscribe his name and poems for posterity.

Beyond the tales of individual potters, the history of specific forms tells a cultural story. John Burrison traces the jug from its beginnings in the Near East through Europe and the evolution of its form in America. In telling the story of this utilitarian vessel, Burrison makes connections with people and things and behaviors often overlooked. In particular he reviews the mystery behind the African-American face jug phenomenon, a distinctive horizon in American ceramic history and an almost ubiquitous emblem of the twentieth-century Southern “folk” potter. These African-American–made face jugs continue to tantalize collectors and historians as to their original purpose. Although the heyday of the ceramic jug has passed, Burrison’s passionate participation with the traditional stoneware potters working in the rural South will help keep the jug’s memory alive for future generations of material culture students. 

For students of the jug nothing could be more exciting than Mark Newell’s discovery of an archaeological site, located in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, where African-American face vessels were made. The first archaeologically recovered evidence of such activity, the face jug fragments Newell presents are attributed to a previously undiscovered John Miles pottery. In an attempt to understand the construction techniques of these fascinating objects, Newell enlisted contemporary potter Peter Lenzo to study and replicate the process. The several facsimile vessels that he created are illustrated here in marvelous detail and should facilitate assigning attributions of other extant face jugs to specific makers or places. 

In a stark leap from the slave potteries of South Carolina to the opulent mansions of Maryland, Diana Edwards and Lynne Hastings take a meticulous look at the household ceramic acquisitions of the most prominent family in Baltimore during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Using estate inventories and the surviving ceramics still preserved at Hampton Mansion, home of the Ridgely family, the authors examine what ceramics were chosen by succeeding Ridgely generations. Their analysis weaves together a story of changing styles, tastes, household economy, and familial connections. Such evidence is generally extremely rare and provides important insights into the specific acquisition behaviors of an American upper-class household.

As the above article illustrates, ceramics play many roles within a household and are integral to many daily rituals that we take for granted. In the seventeenth century, no single ceramic object had more cultural and ritual significance than the clay tobacco pipe. Al Luckenbach and Taft Kiser contribute an important new dimension to understanding the role of this implement in the Anglo-American Chesapeake. The locally made terracotta tobacco pipe, long a hallmark of seventeenth-century life in the Chesapeake, has been poorly understood. As many of these pipes are decorated with seemingly strange geometric and figurative designs, they have been the subject of much speculation. Through a careful analysis of archaeological evidence and corresponding information from sites in England, Luckenbach and Kiser provide a new framework for understanding the manufacture and distribution of these items. By rightfully elevating these decorative objects to “folk art,” they hold great promise for attracting scholars from sister disciplines to participate in an ongoing dialogue. 

In Part 1 of John Austin’s look at ceramicist Palin Thorley’s career, presented in the 2005 volume of Ceramics in America, we saw Thorley begin his professional life and work as an apprentice in 1906 with the Wedgwood factory and later travel to the United States to work as a designer for a number of American ceramic firms. Part 2 picks up the story with Thorley’s work for Colonial Williamsburg’s Craft House, for which he first designed and later produced ceramics as one of its licensed manufacturers. Thorley moved to Williamsburg in 1949, where he set up his studio to produce many of his licensed products. His creations from this period are beyond mere reproductions; they represent an important contribution in the colonial revival movement. Thorley’s other works reflect a broad spectrum of artistic and technological accomplishment. Ceramics historians will forever owe John Austin a debt of gratitude for his foresight and perseverance in his effort to preserve and document Thorley’s legacy.

Another ceramic type that exudes “folk art” but is little acknowledged for its social and historical significance is the delft wall or fireplace tile. Drawing from his diverse collecting experience, Ivor Noël Hume combines his interest in sea mythology and ceramics with an essay on collecting Dutch delft maritime tiles. In the course of his essay we are taken on a journey that travels from the primordial mermaid archetype to delft tile examples influenced by Greek and Roman mythology to the fireplace surrounds of colonial American homes and ultimately to Noël Hume’s own delft-tiled bathroom—proof positive that Noël Hume is one collector and scholar who practices what he teaches.

The articles in this year’s journal should make it clear that virtually any ceramic object can contain important messages about a particular time and place. The continued interest in deciphering some of these messages is revealed by this year’s diverse New Discoveries, edited by Merry Outlaw. Further evidence of this interest is confirmed by the twelve newly released books on ceramics, reviews of which have been edited by Amy Earls.

Ceramics in America 2006