EUREKA! The word was first shouted by the Greek scientist Archimedes when, while in his bath, he discovered the relationship between displaced water volume and weight. Although some of my best thinking occurs during shower time, ceramic discoveries are usually made in the less hygienic environments of grimy flea markets, dusty archives, or in the dirt and mud of archaeological digs.
Yelling “Eureka!” is most often associated with the unearthing of gold by nineteenth-century frontier miners working grubstake claims, but ceramic scholars and collectors are known to use it in the context of new insights or new treasures. The articles for the 2016 volume of Ceramics in America are, to varying degrees, the result of just such Eureka! moments. Historian Martha McCartney was scanning through yet another roll of grainy microfilm when the long-hidden inventory of George Thorpe came into view. Thorpe was one of the victims of the uprisings in Virginia in 1622, when the Powhatan Indians decided to rid themselves of the English trespassers. McCartney immediately recognized the importance of the document as the earliest Virginia household inventory yet revealed. She discusses the frontier context of Thorpe’s belongings in her article “George Thorpe’s Inventory of 1624: Virginia’s Earliest Known Appraisal.”
Accompanying McCartney’s text is a beautifully illustrated photo essay by Bly Straube titled “Ceramics in Early Virginia.” Straube has made a career out of curating exciting ceramic finds from this country’s earliest English settlements. In this combined presentation, she shares that knowledge, bringing three-dimensional life to the George Thorpe inventory while also reminding us that inventory data are often biased, particularly when it comes to household breakables.
Researchers of all sorts have a fundamental understanding that historical documents on paper offer only a partial glimpse into our past. We sometimes forget that fired clay has long been a medium on which to record the written word. Richard Miller uses writings found on ceramics to explore the origins and meanings of a well-known but poorly understood type of American nineteenth-century slipware. In his broad-ranging article “Norwalk (Connecticut) Slip-script Pottery, the Potters, and Related Ware,” Miller deciphers the literal and hidden meanings of the slip-decorated slipware to offer a provocative glimpse into the relationships between New England potters and consumers.
Private collections are among the best sources for finding overlooked nuggets of information in the ceramics field, but these closely guarded spaces often require special access; lacking that, we usually have to wait for estate sales or gifts to museum repositories. One such recent gift, to the Cleveland Museum of Art, led scholar Tom Folk to a rich vein of research. Ceramic artists throughout history have always found inspiration across time and space. In his article “The Allegory of Europa in Twentieth-Century American Sculpture,” Folk contextualizes a group of enchanting ceramic and bronze objects that invokes this theme. Of particular note is ceramic artist Russell Aitken’s Americanized version of the ancient allegory, which serves as this year’s cover.
Sometimes new discoveries are the result of a change in perspective. Isaac Asimov said that “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny. . . .’” Revisionist thinking is a big part of the literature on contemporary crafts, whereby the latest theory is adjudicated against the canon of makers and their products. Ezra Shales takes such an approach in his article “Throwing the Potter’s Wheel (and Women) Back into Modernism: Reconsidering Edith Heath, Karen Karnes, and Toshiko Takaezu as Canonical Figures.” He casts a fresh critical eye on three women’s careers in art, craft, and design in the mid-twentieth century, connected by their use of one of the world’s oldest ceramic tools—the potter’s wheel.
Deciphering the physical history of repairs, alterations, and outright fakes is a basic element of ceramic connoisseurship. We are fortunate this year to have several interrelated submissions that explore these aspects. A fascinating tale of deceit and fakery is told by Ellen Archie, Ronald W. Fuchs II, Jennifer Mass, and Erich Uffelman in their study “‘The most dangerous imitations’: A Group of Spurious Chinese Export Porcelain Decorated with Fame and the American Eagle.” Buyer beware!
Not all alterations to ceramics are made with an intent to deceive. In some cases, honest wear can alter the surface of an object, hiding its embellishments. In their article “A Chinese Export Porcelain Mystery Solved Using Intensive Surface Analysis,” Shirley M. Mueller and Matthew Bunney utilized high-powered optical analysis to reveal the original armorial decoration on an important early-eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain service.
Archaeology and personal experience show us that ceramic objects are among the most fragile of human artifacts. Breakage is nearly inevitable and cuts across all social and economic boundaries. Even the rich and famous have experienced the tragedy of a dropped tray of porcelain teaware. Fortunately, such pieces are among the most easily repaired. Angelika R. Kuettner’s “Simply Riveting: Broken and Mended Ceramics” provides some fascinating historical examples of the various methods used in America to repair household china.
A surprising archaeological case study of home-repaired ceramics relating to the Fredericksburg Ferry Farm of George Washington’s mother is presented by Mara Kaktins, Melanie Marquis, Ruth Ann Armitage, and Daniel Fraser in “Mary Washington’s Mended Ceramics: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Glues.” After they detected residues on previously mended creamware fragments, the authors undertook an exploration of eighteenth-century glue recipes that might have been available to the widow Mary's household.
A fortuitous flea market find led George L. Miller and Emily Brown to a twentieth-century repair firm in Philadelphia that used the time-honored technique of riveting to fix cracked and broken ceramic objects. The authors’ research, presented in “A Harry A. Eberhardt–Repaired Chinese Porcelain Saucer,” shows that Henry Francis du Pont, one of America’s greatest china collectors, sought out Eberhardt and his riveting technique to repair damaged ceramics in the Winterthur Museum collection.
The development and application of scientific techniques have the greatest potential for uncovering new information for students of historical ceramics. For the past decade, geologist J. Victor Owen has been applying methodologies, initially created for geologic research, to what he calls “artificial rocks”—the soft-paste porcelains of eighteenth-century British and American manufacturers. His work has yielded some excellent physical markers for identifying specific porcelain bodies and their firing characteristics along with a mountain of data. In “Statistical Evaluation of Analytical Data for Eighteenth-Century American and British Sulphurous Phosphatic Porcelains,” Owen and coauthors John D. Greenough and Nick Panes began to look at data using multidimensional scaling techniques that offer further refinement of Owen’s porcelain-divining capabilities.
During my active days as an archaeologist, I knew that the next turn of the shovel or trowel might uncover a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. Since taking on the editorship of Ceramics in America in 2001, I have been sorting through the boxes and cabinets of artifact collections with the same anticipation, that the next drawer might contain “the one.” During a recent visit to the laboratory of the Commonwealth Heritage Group to look at eighteenth-century slipware being excavated in Philadelphia’s Old City, I had one of those lifetime encounters with the American ceramic equivalent of the Holy Grail.
The search for physical evidence of American hard-paste or true porcelain manufacture has eluded researchers since the twentieth-century publication of circa 1743 claims by Andrew Duché. Duché boasted that he had found “the true material and manner of making porcelain,” although no example of this feat had ever been found—until now. In “An Eighteenth-Century American True-Porcelain Punch Bowl,” my colleague Juliette Gerhardt and I discuss this recently recovered object from the site of the newly constructed Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
When I first examined the small, white punch bowl sitting among the thousands of other Philadelphia ceramic artifacts, I immediately thought to myself, “Could this be it?” To be certain, I had to send a sample of the body to Victor Owen in his lab at St. Mary’s University. After a few nearly sleepless nights, Victor’s email arrived four days before Christmas and was filled with his palpable excitement: “I analysed your sherd this morning. It has a silicious-aluminous composition. Two types of ware can have this: (1) true (hard paste) porcelain, and (2) fine earthenware.” I am thrilled to share this Eureka! moment in the pages of this journal. For the rest of the story, the results of the analysis are fully presented by Victor, Joe Petrus, and Xiang Yang in “Bonnin and Morris Revisited: The Geochemistry of a True Porcelain Punch Bowl Excavated in Philadelphia.”
A materials science approach to sorting out relatively anonymous American ceramics is becoming increasingly common. An example that makes clear the utility of clay analysis is presented in “A Comparative Scientific Study of James Morgan and the Kemple Family Stoneware” by authors Johanna R. Bernstein, Arthur F. Goldberg, and Jennifer Mass. It is important to acknowledge that their groundbreaking stoneware study was submitted in 2009 and is finally coming to publication here.
Publishing new discoveries is an important aspect of ceramics scholarship and the advancement of knowledge in the field, although the shelf life of articles, books, and blogs can vary immensely depending on subsequent finds. In the 2014 issue of Ceramics in America, Noël Hume published his analysis of an English pearlware puzzle jug ostensibly made for John Bloome, owner of the ship Hopewell. We thought we had the final word on its interpretation, but in just two years another commemorative ceramic, a pearlware pitcher celebrating Lord Admiral Duncan’s victory over a Dutch fleet in 1797, led Noël to revise his thinking. When encountering evidence that conflicts with their theories, some scholars react with “Oh damn” rather than “Eureka!”, but in his article “A New Bloome,” Noël turns it into a triumph of wit, research, and substance for ceramic historians.
At first glance, the remarkable pair of mid-nineteenth-century porcelain water pitchers with painted ships and gilt-inscribed names seemed destined to reside among the innumerable memorialized ceramics that never fully tell their story. Much to my surprise, when Oliver Mueller-Heubach began his document search for Baltimore steamship captain George Russell, up popped a local newspaper account of the pitchers’ presentation, down to the day, hour, location, and names of the presenting parties. I wasn’t around to record Oliver’s “Eureka!” or perhaps “thar she blows” moment, but the excitement of his discovery is still being celebrated. Even more of the story was to surface and is recounted in “The Captain George W. Russell Presentation Pitchers,” a remarkable tale of mid-nineteenth-century dealers.
Apparently print-based scholarship is alive and well in this digital age. Amy Earls has compiled and edited six reviews of recently published ceramics scholarship, which conclude this issue of the journal. The reviews suggest that a high standard for ceramic-based publications will continue for the foreseeable future in the study of ceramics in the American context.
Online digital databases for archaeological collections, still appearing at a frustratingly slow pace, will one day make comparative research between various American sites fruitful and commonplace. In the meanwhile, for the 2017 volume of Ceramics in America, I asked archaeologists from fifteen American historical cities or towns—from Boston to St. Augustine to New Orleans—to select and discuss their “top ten” ceramic artifacts from their localities. It is my hope that this exercise will be an enlightening and entertaining way to expand our knowledge about the history of ceramics use in America and to pave the way for future comparative studies.