The press-molded figural bottles made in the Moravian pottery at Salem, North Carolina, in the nineteenth century are among the most iconic of American ceramics. Sold by the thousands in their own time, these objects continue to appeal to scholars and collectors today. In 2009 Old Salem Museums & Gardens aquired a previously unrecorded example of a rare turtle bottle that reputedly came from the Poe family of Alamance County, North Carolina, about fifty miles east of Salem (fig. 1).
The Salem pottery made at least two types of turtle bottles in a variety of sizes. The first type of molded bottle used an actual turtle shell as a model (fig. 2). The one extant mold and surviving bottles of this type show the plates from the turtle’s shell clearly delineated. The size and domed profile of the shell—with a ridge along the center top—suggest that an Eastern box turtle served as the model.
The second type of turtle bottle made by Salem potters was stylized after a pond slider or river cooter. The back of the shell has a carefully carved design reminiscent of some Native American representations of sun circles, with wavy lines radiating from a concentric central design, although the back plates of river cooters and some pond sliders exhibit similar markings (fig. 3). The bottom of the shell is much more flattened than that of an actual turtle and shows an exaggerated depiction of the turtle’s nails (fig. 4). Until the discovery of the Poe family example, only three Moravian turtle bottles of this style were known: one other with a green glaze and two with a mottled glaze (fig. 5).
Collectors generally refer to Moravian press-molded bottles as flasks, although most are not glazed on the interior, precluding their use for holding liquid. Yet this new example is indeed glazed on the interior, suggesting it could have functioned for the storage of some type of liquid.
Old Salem Museums & Gardens has the most comprehensive collection of figural bottles and the molds from which they were made. With its family association and its history of having remained in North Carolina, not to mention its excellent condition and the clear, crisp design on its back and underside, this press-molded earthenware turtle is an important addition to the collection.
Turtle bottle, Salem, North Carolina, 1800–1820. Lead-glazed earthenware. L. 8 1/2". (Courtesy, Old Salem Museum & Gardens; unless otherwise noted, photos by Gavin Ashworth.) Rudolph Christ, the second master potter of the Moravian settlement at Salem, North Carolina, began making press-molded figural bottles about 1800, the year “turtles,” first appear on the annual pottery inventory.
Turtle bottle, Salem, North Carolina, 1800–1850. Lead-glazed earthenware. L. 7 1/4". (Courtesy, Wachovia Historical Society.)
Detail of the back of the bottle illustrated in fig. 1.
Detail of the bottom of the bottle illustrated in fig. 1.
Turtle bottle, Salem, North Carolina, 1800–1820. Lead-glazed earthenware. L. 8 1/2". (Private collection.)
Johanna Brown, “Tradition and Adaptation in Moravian Press-Molded Earthenware,” Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter and Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University of New England Press for the Chipstone Foundation, 2009), pp. 105–38.
Inventory of the Pottery in Salem, April 30, 1800. Inventories for the years 1772–1829 are in file R701 at the Moravian Archives, Southern Province, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Translations of most of the inventories are available in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts Research Center, Winston-Salem.