Milwaukee Art Museum,
Gift of Samuel Jacobson Collection
Puzzle Jug, 1773
Earthenware with lead glaze
Lent by the Chipstone Foundation 1998.11
The international success of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century pottery factories in Staffordshire, England came at the expense of the workers’ health. The shiny, clear glaze used to decorate the pottery was made from ground lead, which was applied in either powered or liquid form prior to the last firing. Male and female glazers or “dippers” inevitably suffered from lead poisoning, which caused weakened joints, respiratory ailments, miscarriages, and problems with the central nervous system including paralysis and epilepsy. Scientists discovered the health risks of lead in the early 1700s but the English government did not outlaw its use in the ceramics industry until 1899.
In almost all cities there are other workers who habitually incur serious maladies from the deadly fumes of metals. Among these are the potters…their mouths, nostrils, and the whole body take in the lead poison that has been melted and dissolved in water; hence they are soon attacked by grievous maladies. First their hands become palsied, then they become paralytic, splenetic, lethargic, cachectic, and toothless, so that one rarely sees a potter whose face is not cadaverous and the color of lead. Ramazzini 1700
Knife and Fork, ca. 1760
Stoneware handles and steel blades
Lent by the Chipstone Foundation 1970.3
Silicosis, a respiratory ailment caused by inhaling silica dust, plagued many eighteenth-century metal and stone workers. The “grinders” who shaped and sharpened razors and knives on whetstones breathed in the fine particles of silica kicked into the air by the grinding of the metal against the stone. Particulate matter built up in the lungs and led to reduced lung capacity, today called pulmonary fibrosis, and also was linked to lung cancer. Grinders also suffered from vision and balance problems from focusing their eyes on a spinning grindstone all day.
“After they have been working all day, grinders are commonly attacked by dizziness and vertigo, especially those who are rather weak in the head; so that even after the work is over they are? imaging that they still see the grindstone spinning round.”
Copper and brass
Lent by a private collection
Early metal-workers of all sorts suffered from a variety of maladies. Coppersmiths and silversmiths were particularly prone to chronic ringing in the ears and eventual deafness from the non-stop hammering of metal against metal. Blacksmiths, working in a era before the use of protective goggles and face-shields, suffered eye injuries from the tiny metallic splinters produced by heavy hammering and file work. All metal-workers were prone to chronic joint and muscle damage from these repetitive tasks.
One may observe these men as they sit on the ground…, bent double while all day long they beat the newly-mined copper, first with wooden then with iron hammers…the ears are injured by that perpetual din, … so the that workers of this class become hard of hearing and, if they grow old at this work, completely deaf. Ramazzini, 1700