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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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"Mermaid" ovoid-shaped stoneware cooler; 1835; 16 inches high; $63,250. Photo courtesy of Garth's
An old house in southern Pennsylvania was getting a facelift. As the workmen went about their renovations they stumbled into and unbricked an old bakeshop. A bakeshop so old no one alive had ever heard of it.

Once the dust cleared in the hollowed out area, the men spotted a large, skillfully designed earthenware jar. Full of yeast, the jar seemed to be waiting for its next loaf of bread. Time, dirt and neglect had left it untouched.

Long before mega-malls, Sam’s Club, and Tupperware, stoneware jars were the containers of choice for an up-and-coming country. In a world filled with environmentally damaging materials, they make sense.

What about stoneware coolers? Common sense says too much weight to be taken seriously. But, that’s how some coolers started out. In fact, an 1825 stoneware cooler surfaced recently at auction and commanded lots of interest.

For this 16-inch high, egg-shaped piece, weight was irrelevant. It had outstanding decoration. A large cobalt blue mermaid and a huge sea serpent said it all.

Sounds odd? From an aesthetic point of view, it was charming. Pure folk art. Naďve and whimsical. The stoneware also carried its maker’s name.

“Charles S. Brown, Cornwall Aug. 15, 1825,” was inscribed on the back. (The Cornwall probably refers to what is now Cornwall on the Hudson in New York just north of West Point.)

If you asked most stoneware collectors what the one thing is they look for in old stoneware, the answer would be great decoration. It’s the icing.

This mermaid cooler sold for $63,250. At auction, people vote on quality with their checkbooks. It’s the great equalizer.

Trying to figure out what makes great decoration? Simple floral designs and abstract patterns on old crocks command the least interest. They’re common.

People, patriotic symbols, mythical creatures, flags, eagles, animals or anything that seems unusual would be an indicator. Plus, any combination of the above would do it.

Animals, for example, were sometimes done by unschooled artists who never saw what they were drawing firsthand. As such, they have unique, expressive faces that epitomize the best in folk art.

After the Civil War, stoneware jugs, pickling crocks, butter churns and spittoons were in big demand. Potteries, located near huge clay deposits, produced the wares needed for a bulging economy.

Many of these early crocks were turned on a potter’s wheel and placed in a kiln for firing. After about 1890, machine-production took over. The earliest stoneware was egg-shaped. Straight-sided jugs came later.

Most of the designs on old stoneware were applied with cobalt oxide which turned deep blue during firing. The pigment could withstand high temperatures. After 1850, stencils appeared.

After decoration, shape, origin, type of glaze, condition and age affect value.

On July 30, Garth’s in Delaware, Ohio, featured the stoneware cooler described in its arts and antiques auction. Here are some current values for other stoneware pieces offered in the sale.


Jar; ovoid shape; pictures blue flowers; impressed “John Bell” Waynesboro;” circa 1850-1880; 7 1/2 inches high; $2,300.

Jar; ovoid shape; pictures cobalt blue flowers on one side and “Charlie Melick” on the other side; plus “Roseville, Ohio;” 9 3/4 inches high; $4,025.

Jug; ovoid shape; pictures three incised and intertwined cobalt blue swags and flowers; plus maker’s name and location; “Commeraws Stoneware; Corlears Hook,” New York; circa 1802-1819; 6 1/4 inches high; $4,255.

Crock; ovoid shape; pictures cobalt blue foliage and detail; impressed “J. Remmey, Manhattan Wells, New York;” circa 1813; 12 1/2 inches high; $5,175.

Cooler; ovoid shape; pictures freehand cobalt blue signature and date; “J. Lambright, New Port, Ohio, 1873;” applied twist handles; 16 1/4 inches high; $7,245.

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