by Diana Bulls
Last month, I confessed my obsession with buttons. This month I have to confess that I am equally obsessed with stoneware crockery. It doesn’t matter to me if it is a bottle, jug or jar, I love them for their various shapes, colors and decorations. Before refrigeration, crocks were used in American kitchens to hold foodstuffs such as butter, salted meats and pickled vegetables. They were America’s major house ware from 1780-1890. I use them to hold kitchen utensils, flowers, magazines or kindling. I don’t care if they aren’t in perfect condition.
Stoneware is durable pottery that originated in Germany in the 1400s. It has a very coarse outer texture before it is glazed, is heavy and hard to break. It’s thrown on a wheel or hand worked from clay, and fired in a kiln at a very high temperature. A fired piece is able to hold water, even if it isn’t glazed, but most finished pieces are salt glazed and then decorated with bright blue designs. Now days, we use the general term “crocks” when referring to this stoneware. It shouldn’t be confused with ironstone or yellow ware, made in the same time period.
In salt-glazing, the most common type of glaze seen on American Stoneware, salt is added to the kiln. When fired it vaporizes and bonds with the clay to make a glass-like finish. You can also find pieces of stoneware with a dark brown glaze called Albany Slip. This clay is found in the upper Hudson River region of New York. Crocks were sometimes dipped in the slip to cover the outside, or the slip was used to coat the inside surface.
Blue decorations often seen on stoneware crocks were made by using cobalt oxide. Occasionally potters used manganese or iron oxide to produce the much rarer brown decorations. Other decorative techniques included stamping or incising, where a design was cut into leather-hard clay. Most designs are simple, freehand squiggles or swirls but crocks from the latter part of the 19th century tend to be more elaborate, with designs of birds, deer or even people.
A lot of American Stoneware was signed using maker’s marks or incised signatures. Pieces can be attributed to certain makers based on the decoration, clay body, or form, but that takes a real expert’s eye. The size of the crock was often put on by stamping, incision, or freehand.
Americans first produced salt-glazed stoneware circa 1720 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Yorktown, Virginia. By the 1770s, salt-glazed stoneware production had spread to many centers throughout the eastern United States. By the turn of the 19th century, the Crolius and Remmey families of New York set the standard for American stoneware. As the name stoneware suggests, the crocks could be very heavy and hard to ship, so as families moved west, potteries sprang up in almost every urban center.
Some well-known potteries are White’s Utica Pottery, Ohio Stoneware and those located in Bennington, Vermont. Red Wing is probably one of the best known and most collected. Crocks will have a “red wing” as part of the decoration. These crocks will also cost more but possibly be worth more because they are so highly collectible.
American Stoneware was the 19th century’s answer to today’s Tupperware®. It held everything from water, beer and foodstuff and was considerably safer to use than the lead-based earthenware being produced at the same time. The stoneware was produced in a huge variety of shapes, ranging from common jugs, bottles and jars to pitchers, spittoons, and poultry waterers. It was even used to make grave markers.
By the turn of the 20th century, potters were mass producing stoneware with a white, non-salt glaze that was commonly called Bristol Slip. These clay crocks usually lack the decorations of the earlier salt glazed stoneware, but they come in interesting shapes and sizes.
There are a lot of reproduction stoneware pieces out there—some are absolutely delightful and very useable. My advice is to buy from a reputable dealer and if not, make sure it something you really, really like. A few steps to help you identify vintage stoneware:
• Hold the piece up to the light. If it is translucent, it is not Stoneware.
• If the bottom is unglazed, dark colored and textured or sandy to the touch it is more than likely Stoneware.
• A shiny, glass-like surface with occasional bumps, which indicates that the crock was salt-glazed.
• Simple decorations, which appear to be painted on freehand, rather than printed or stamped, and that are beneath the surface of the glaze, instead of painted on top.
• Hand-drawn or stenciled numbers and letters, rather than precisely printed markings
• A thick wall, which may bow out in the center
• A patina of use, including duller spots, dark areas, and crazing
• Look for a maker’s mark. It may or may not have one. Do some research if you find a mark.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.