Pottery With a Past

Stoneware held a place in every household. Curators Janine Skerry and Suzanne Hood describe the innumerable forms.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. My guests today are Suzanne Hood, associate curator of ceramics and glass, and Janine Skerry, curator of metals. Thanks so much for being with us today.

We’ve asked you to come by today to talk about, uh, a new exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Museum, called “Pottery With a Past,” as well as a companion book that goes with it. Let’s talk about the exhibit first, what does that exhibit encompass at the DeWitt?

Janine Skerry: It includes the whole spectrum of stoneware that was used, and in some instances made, in early America. The earliest object in the exhibition date-wise is a piece from Germany that was made about 1550 to 1575, and then it goes all through German objects, English-made objects, and American-made items up to about 1800 in date. So the focus really is on the types of stoneware that were used here in early America.

Harmony: What would some of those specific objects be?

Suzanne Hood: Well there is everything from very high-style pieces like teapots in white salt-glazed stoneware made in England in the middle of the 18th century to chamber pots made in all sorts of different places – America, England Germany – and used throughout the duration of the the time period that the exhibit covers: approximately 1600 to 1800.

Harmony: In the collection at the DeWitt, we see a progression from Germany, then to England, then to America. How does that actually play out in the pieces that you have?

Janine: Well, those three major countries or regions that are making and exporting this type of material, the Germans come first, the English come second, the Americans come third. The glory days, from an American perspective, in the ownership and use of German stoneware are mostly in the 17th century for the brownwares coming out of the Freschen Region, and throughout the 18th century for the ubiquitous blue and gray wares that are associated with the Westerwald production.

England comes along a little bit later in date, they’re making brown stoneware in a German style by about 1675. Of course, American stoneware is being made by individuals who are being transplanted from England and Germany, so they’re bringing different working traditions with them.

The earliest American stoneware successful production is happening here in Virginia, in Yorktown Virginia actually, beginning in the 1720s.

Harmony: Do you find that stylistically they attempt to imitate one another, or appeal to a certain consumer?

Suzanne: I would say during the 18th century, almost all the American-made stoneware is very much trying to look like either English or German wares, predominantly because the American potters are making fewer objects and they’re trying to compete with this very large quantity of imported goods coming in from England and Germany. So it makes sense that they would try to make their product look just like the stuff that American consumers were already used to buying from England and Germany.

Janine: Stoneware has some really distinctive characteristics. What we’re talking about, in fact, is salt-glazed stoneware. A very specialized product that is remarkably resilient. It can withstand some pretty heavy usage. Unlike most other types of ceramics, it has a glaze – in this case a glaze made of salt, or sodium chloride, that is very tightly chemically bonded to the elements within the clay, which have a lot of alumina silicates in them. So stoneware is remarkably durable, and it’s also resistant to both acidic solutions and saline solutions. Stoneware is great for pickling and salting and preserving foods.

So you have this aspect in American production especially where the utilitarian aspects of it are enhanced and played up to create these very robust large forms that were used to basically ensure that you could live a happier life. You could eat better because you had a wider range of foodstuffs available for those lean winter months when there were no kitchen gardens that were giving anything useful in the colder climates.

Harmony: Is stoneware going to be in every household in the colonies, in some form?

Janine: Pretty much. One of the things that we heard again and again from the various archaeologists we consulted with is that if it is an 18th century American site, especially pre-colonial, and you do not find some evidence archaeologically of the German Westerwald stonewares, the blue and gray wares, you really need to reassess your evaluation of the site and your dating of it. Because they are such common objects that you expect to find them at virtually every domestic site, and certainly that is also true for most public sites, like taverns or other public meeting places.

Harmony: I wonder if because these objects were so common, maybe they weren’t treasured. Does that make them harder to find, because they would have been discarded?

Suzanne: Actually, that was one of the things that was very frustrating to us when we were working on the project. We spent over seven years working on this project, and we found ten objects that survive above-ground that have histories of ownership going back to the 17th or 18th century – reliable histories of ownership. I think that really does speak to the fact that for the most part, these things were fairly utilitarian.

Even the really refined things were beautiful, but they weren’t quite as rarified and quite as expensive as some Chinese porcelain, for example, and so may not have been kept, passed on, and have their histories still attached to them. So that actually was a really interesting thing for us that we thought, “Oh surely we’ll find, you know, 50 or so with histories,” and -- ten.

Janine: Suzanne and I got to joking, and came to the conclusion that, in many respects, salt-glazed stoneware from these various nations is not all that distantly removed from Pyrex and Tupperware. It’s an essential object of everyday life. You really can’t conduct your household well without it, but you rarely celebrate it or preserve it as an icon of your family history.

Harmony: Do you find that the study of an object like that which is found in all levels of society gives you a different level of insight into the 18th century than, say, the writings or a diary of a historical figure?

Janine: I think that’s a fair statement. For me, we used a lot of documents. We used inventories and shopkeeper’s accounts, records of merchants buying things for specific individuals here in America, including George Washington. Those words are very, very compelling. But still, when all is said and done, there is nothing like being able to hold that three-dimensional object – that literal, tangible piece of the past. To put it in a better context and understand it, for me, it just makes history come alive. These objects speak volumes, even though they might do it in a very quiet way.

Suzanne: There are things you can understand about an object only when you hold it. We have people that often will bring objects in for us to look at, because in the Historic Area or in a museum, they think “Oh I have one like that at home.” They bring their object in for us to evaluate it and look at it. A lot of times what happens is, I we’re in the position of saying to them, “This does look a lot like the object you saw in the Historic Area. But if you could have held that object, you would see that your object is very different from that object. The only way to tell that is to be able to hold it, or to have studied it very closely.

Harmony: What do fingers tell you that your eyes don’t?

Janine: Oh goodness. Well the weight of an object is a tremendously useful clue. We find quite frequently, especially in the field of ceramics and glass, that modern reproductions tend to be much heavier than their period counterparts. So there are all these little tiny clues that you need to look for when you’re handling it.

Harmony: Do you have a favorite object that you’ve curated for this collection?

Janine: The oldest object in the exhibit I mentioned earlier is a piece of German brown stoneware. It was made about 1550 to 1575. It’s a rather simple little plain drinking mug. What makes it really special is that we know that this object was already old when it came to America, it was brought across the Atlantic by a man named John Winthrop, who was traveling to Massachusetts, where he would become the governor of the Bay Colony.

It was a family heirloom given into his family by a British noblewoman named Lady Mildmay. Because it was considered such a special object at that point in time, it had been recorded down through the generations it passed from father to son. It’s one of my absolute favorite pieces. It just speaks volumes about how objects are viewed now and then as symbols of continuity and tradition and family history.

Suzanne: One of my favorites is the, there’s a lidded pipkin. Pipkins are cooking pots. They have this very distinctive shape. They sort of look like a sack or a bag, and then they have a tubular handle attached to them – a hollow, tubular handle attached. But they’re everywhere at a lot of archaeological sites. There are lots and lots and lots of them that I looked at while I was doing different surveys of archaeological collections. And they’re nice and they’re very utilitarian objects.

But I was in Delaware picking up another object for the exhibit, and the curator there of the collections the archaeological collections said, “Would you like to get a tour of these other things,” and I said, “of course.” He was pulling open drawers and opening cabinets, and he pulled this one drawer out, and I about died -- a whole drawer full of these pipkins. Very small-sized ones, sort of individual sized saucepans, and they all had lids. We had never seen or heard of a pipkin with a lid.

Harmony: When you, when people come to see this exhibit, what do you hope to impart to them? What do you hope that they will leave with?

Janine: Well, I really hope that people will realize that the term stoneware encompasses a very broad range of goods. An awful lot of collectors and curators hear the word stoneware and automatically think of the more common and sometimes-ubiquitous later 19th century pickle crocks. They’re an important part of the story, but there is so much that precedes it. It’s so rich and varied.

Suzanne: If anyone takes anything away, if they see an object that sparks an interest to read a label or see an object that they think, “Oh, that looks like something I have at home.” Anything that gets them thinking about these things that connect people of hundreds of years ago with the people of today and make history and the past come alive, that’s a success. I mean, it’s wonderful to give tours in the exhibit because people do really like it and get so interested and excited. They think, “Oh, I had no idea!” They say that all the time. That’s just wonderful.

Janine: We are really so grateful. There are more than 45 private individuals and public institutions who have been incredibly generous in lending objects for the exhibition and for illustration in the book. We are very, very grateful to the Von Hess Foundation. They provided the funding and the encouragement for us to work for seven and a half years on both the exhibit and the book.

Harmony: Well thank you both for being here today.

Suzanne: Thank you.

Janine: Thank you.

Harmony: And we hope you’ll come out and see the exhibit on display now at the DeWitt Wallace museum now through January 2, 2011. The book, “Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America,” is available for purchase at history.org/publications and at Colonial Williamsburg stores.


  1. this is great info for my colonial pottery research.

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