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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Rare double-jug with images of chickens & trees, circa 1830, sold for $17,250. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers
A plain stoneware jug is just a plain stoneware jug. But a piece with intense decoration is not only folk art, but also a highly sought after collectible.

Elaborate decoration is the way potters maintained a competitive edge in the 19th century. A salt-glazed, pear-shaped, double stoneware jug, circa 1830, decorated with incised, cobalt blue chickens, sold at Skinner Auctioneers in Bolton, Mass., on Aug. 9, for $17,250. Another pear-shaped stoneware jug, circa 1815, ornamented with a figure of a girl, realized $10,350.

Not all the stoneware commanded such prices. A floral-decorated four-gallon jug from Maine, circa 1837-41, realized $1,265, while a two-handled stoneware butter churn from New York, finished at $345. Due to demand and availability of natural materials, hundreds of stoneware companies began operation in the eastern United States between 1800 and 1850.

But, making stoneware during the 19th century was risky; kiln explosions and fires were common and routinely put manufacturers out of business.

Well-known makers include the Zoarites, a religious sect in Zoar, Ohio, and Johannes Neesz who, with his son, John Nase, established a well-known company in Pennsylvania. Potters viewed their stoneware as purely utilitarian, not art. So, they seldom marked their work and little is known about the early companies.

By 1925, most stoneware companies were gone, replaced by a new glass industry which provided bottles and jars to consumers.

Some of the purest veins of clay available were found in the fields and topsoil of the eastern United States. Families like the Whites’ in Utica, N.Y., and the Hamiltons’ and Joneses’ of Pennsylvania, produced popular wares in the late-19th century. These stoneware jugs, jars and churns formed the backbone of a booming local economy.

Farmers were also skilled potters sometimes who dug their own clay and worked impurities out in a quern, a device similar to a grain mill. Next they would wedge the clay much like a baker kneads bread. This maneuver removed air that could cause fractures.

The clay was then molded, modeled, or thrown on a wheel. The unfired clay was sun-baked until there were enough pieces to fill the kiln. The process ended with glazing and firing.

Bennington has become a generic term in the field and refers not so much to a type of pottery, but rather to the Vermont town where potters like John Norton worked. Some family operations expanded into big companies, like The Norton Pottery in Bennington, which Norton established in 1793.

The company was operated by succeeding generations until 1894, and produced a prolific amount of stoneware, ranging from water coolers and pitchers, to jugs and crocks.

Origin and age are important characteristics in valuing stoneware. But it’s the glaze, decoration and shape that most collectors notice first.

Much of the antique stoneware was glazed with salt prior to firing for an even, easy-to-clean surface. In the South, where salt was hard to come by, potters coated the unfired pottery with a glasslike mixture based on sand and another alkali, such as wood ash or lime. The glaze created a variety of colors including green, tan and a dark brown that is sometimes called “tobacco spit.”

The decorations on stoneware also distinguish pieces and greatly impact value. Based on size, simple bird patterns and floral designs range from $300-$1,200. Higher in value are stoneware pieces displaying lions, zebras, people and patriotic emblems including eagles or flags. Most of these designs were applied in cobalt oxide, a pigment able to withstand the high firing temperatures.

The earliest stoneware form is an ovoid-shape, handmade before 1850. After that, straight-sided cylindrical forms were the most common and comprise the majority seen in collections today.

Suggested Reading:

Bennington Pottery and Porcelain, by Richard Barret: Bonanza Books, New York, 1958.

Early American Folk Pottery, by Harold Guilland; Chilton Book Co., Philadelphia, 1971.

Collector’s Guide to Country Stoneware & Pottery, by Don and Carol Raycraft; Collector Books, Paducah, Ky., 1996.

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