Review by Ivor Noël Hume
Salt-glazed Stoneware in Early America

Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood. Salt-glazed Stoneware in Early America. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in association with University Press of New England, 2009. 271 pp.; 300 color illus., appendixes, bibliography, index. $75.00 (hardcover).

Mounting an exhibition of stoneware at Colonial Williamsburg was an excellent idea, and publishing a book about it was even better. The foundation has a large collection of English and European wares associated with those that were in use in Virginia in the eighteenth century, and illustrating all the pots in the historic buildings and in the reserve collections would make many rarely seen specimens available to other scholars and collectors. Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood admirably handled this visual challenge in a book that is beautifully illustrated, a pleasure to hold, and a joy to display on one’s coffee table. The authors were then faced with the problem of how to make their book needed by fellow curators and collectors.

For specialists a catalog could have been enough, a task easily accomplished by quoting from the accession cards of previous registrars and curators. This book was intended to reach a wider audience, however, but how wide was wide? Ceramics collectors are usually well versed in the literature of their specialty, be it seventeenth-century Rhenish jugs or the nineteenth-century products of Lambeth’s Doulton & Watts. To satisfy such people, a book has to break new ground and thus become an indispensable addition to their libraries.

One part of this book does fulfill that need: Angelika Ruth Kuettner’s appended study of white salt-glazed stoneware rim designs—a useful expansion of Arnold Mountford’s classic The Illustrated Guide to Staffordshire Salt-glazed Stoneware. At his time of writing Mountford said most of what needed to be said about his subject, as did Adrian Oswald, R. J. C. Hildyard, and R. G. Hughes in their seminal English Brown Stoneware, 1670–1900 and David Gaimster in his German Stoneware, 1200–1900.[1] To earn its spurs alongside those experts, Salt-glazed Stoneware in Early America had to provide new insights. To that end the authors elected to build their chapters around the words “in early America” and drew on archaeological evidence as their keystone. John C. Austin’s previous Colonial Williamsburg book, British Delft at Williamsburg, was a catalog that consistently used fragments excavated in the city to justify the presence of purchased delftware.[2] Within those parameters the approach worked extremely well. But John Austin was writing about one type of ceramic ware and one town. The title of this new book leads purchasers to believe that they are buying a book that embraces all of early America and perhaps to assume that the focus is on stoneware found in its earth. Why else would the dust jacket feature a rare English mug not in the protectively gloved hand of a curator but in the dirty hands of an archaeologist? This would make sense if the mug were newly dug from an archaeological site, but it was not. It came from an antique dealer’s shelf in 1958.

No less open to misunderstanding are the title words “Early America.” How early and how late? Does that include French and Spanish America or is this only Colonial Williamsburg’s thirteen-part version of it? The second map suggests limitations from Florida to Maine and is titled “Key Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century American Stoneware Archaeological Deposits.” One might assume that the stoneware is of American manufacture, but that would be presumptuous. It means stoneware of any sort from anywhere as long as it was found on American sites—though not, for example, in French Louisiana, where the famed “Tunica Treasure” yielded diagnostically important German stoneware—or in Bermuda.

One might counter that Bermuda is only Americanized and not American. Nevertheless, the wreck of the Jamestown-bound Sea Venture in 1609 yielded the most closely datable examples of German stoneware discovered in the New World and might justify their inclusion in a book on stoneware found in early America. Critics inevitably will pounce on archaeological sherds that have been overlooked or choices that should or should not have been made, but there can be no denying that the authors have done a thorough job of noticing evidence from up and down the East Coast. However, the reader who does not care that “Similar examples have also been found in Virginia on the Governor’s Land site (44JC637) and Martin’s Hundred” may ask where are (or were) the Governor’s Land or Martin’s Hundred sites, and what do these sherds tell us about themselves and the places in which they were found?

The same can be said of every archaeological site in the erstwhile English colonies, be they in Michilimackinac or Williamsburg. They all absorbed goods imported in English and Dutch ships and so, except in rare cases, when you have seen one, you have seen them all. Thus a white salt-glazed plate fragment from Vermont can be expected to parallel another from Charleston, but with both imported from the same source neither has anything new to say. Merely listing stoneware fragments from hither and yon quickly loses the reader’s attention, particularly if the description is insufficiently evocative and the fragment is not illustrated. The study of ceramics—any ceramics—is an essentially visual experience. Therefore, seeing precedes believing. Without a photograph or a drawing to illuminate what one is being told, the reader soon starts skipping.

Nevertheless, the photographs by Colonial Williamsburg’s Craig McDougal and Hans Lorenz are spectacular and make the book a noble addition to any coffee table. Helen M. Olds’s excellent layout is carefully considered, with images conveniently placed adjacent to the related text. One might wish for more expansive captions, particularly when one sees an unmentioned pinhole in the center of a medallion of a Westerwald jug that may have something to say about the method of attachment. On reaching the more decorative English salt-glazed wares in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, one wishes for detail images of the justifying fragments or a caption reference to their existence. This frustration is exacerbated by the inclusion of unnecessary space-stealing details alongside page-filling master images that clearly need no such reinforcement. More cross-referencing between images and chapters also might have been helpful. For example, the reference to Yorktown saggers on page 187 could have usefully drawn attention to the illustrated New Jersey example on page 206—particularly since no Yorktown sagger is pictured. It also might have been helpful to have included an appendix further identifying the discussed archaeological sites, along with their dates and significance in the story of imported stoneware.

These picayune quibbles aside, Salt-glazed Stoneware in Early America provides a valuable summary of earlier published research and has an excellent bibliography of the works cited in the text, although a surprising omission is the first major work on German stoneware in the English language: M. Solon’s two-volume The Ancient Art Stoneware of the Low Countries and Germany published in 1892.[3]

In modern scholarship it has become customary to give credit wherever it might appear to be due. This handsome book is no exception, containing as it does five pages of helpers’ names and even graciously including this reviewer and his wife, though we actually made no contribution.

Ivor Noël Hume

Ceramics in America 2011

  • [1]

    Arnold R. Mountford, The Illustrated Guide to Staffordshire Salt-glazed Stoneware (New York: Praeger, [1971]); Adrian Oswald, R. J. C. Hildyard, and R. G. Hughes, English Brown Stoneware, 1670–1900 (London: Faber and Faber, 1982); David R. M. Gaimster with Robin Hildyard, German Stoneware, 1200–1900: Archaeology and Cultural History, Containing a Guide to the Collections of the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Museum of London (London: British Museum Press, 1997). 

  • [2]

    John C. Austin, British Delft at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in association with Jonathan Horne Publications, 1994).

  • [3]

    Louis Marc Solon, The Ancient Art Stoneware of the Low Countries and Germany (London: Chiswick Press, 1892).