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Early American Pottery: 18th to 19th Century Ceramic Ware

Ancient art and architecture are not only for historians but for people like us who’ve always been interested in periodic art and crafts.

The earliest American pottery of some interest was first made in the State of Pennsylvania, in the mid-18th century. Though practically all pottery objects made were required for everyday use of the early colonial settlers of the 17th century, none was made with any form of decorative patterning except perhaps for an imprinted mark that identified one owner from another.

That there is no known earthenware pot with any artistic value begs the question of why they were exactly formed, save for the fact that they were molded strictly for utilitarian purposes.

18th century American pottery, made more for functional use than for decorative value.

18th century American pottery, made more for functional use than for decorative value.

18th Century American Pottery Art

American pottery and other simple ceramics with decorative value were first produced by the Germans around the mid-18th century. At the time, earthenware ceramics (slip) had decorations of crudely scratched carvings. They were called sgraffito ware. Sgraffito was typically made on slip before firing and was applied on wall plaster or stucco.

Sgraffito refers to a method of decorating pottery (or any other) surface with scratch-like patterns which then exposes colour finishes beneath the top layer. There are variations of this early pottery art where the deep scratches are coloured with contrasting or enhancing colours.

The main body colours were cream, red and brown, and the slip was blue, green and pink. The result is the colours of the main body showing through the 'ornamental' carved scratches on the slip body.

Subjects of the Sgraffito Ornamental Motifs

Sgraffito scratched characters and subjects include the following crudely created ornaments:

  • Strangely shaped animal sketches
  • Flowers
  • Human figures
  • Dates pottery was produced
  • Names of the maker or the owners
  • Other types of personalised inscriptions

All marks, shapes, and inscriptions are incised or cut into the wet clay after the shapes have been created, just before firing.

The Pennsylvanian potters also produced some ceramic ware with a marbleized finish. Some creativity started to evolve in the art of pottery making at this time in the history of American pottery.

And in Massachusetts and Connecticut, ceramic ware production soon evolved on a more serious note because of the recognition of the fact that the objects not only possess practical values but also decorative value as well.

It was a time when Americans began to appreciate the art of beautifully formed and finished ceramic ware.

Ceramic Ware Production in 19th Century America

Around the third quarter of the 18th century, many English potters, trained by some of the well-known English pottery firms of the time migrated to America, bringing with them the technical training and knowledge they had acquired in the art of ceramic ware.

The influx of the new migrant potters prompted and inspired the colonial American potters to attempt to produce ceramic art of a better quality than they previously produced.

The most sought-after 19th-century American ceramics were terra-cotta objects and salt-glazed stoneware made from kaolin which was found in large quantities in Bennington, Vermont.

The factory also produced copies of English cream ware, which were ceramic objects with a cream form, coloured by metal oxides dabbed on the surfaces with a sponge, creating a tortoiseshell effect.

Designs were richly and brilliantly glazed and were generally heavy and quaint, with many of them humorous in appearance.

The Bennington factory reached its zenith between 1847 and 1857, and their production line consisted of both ornamental art and utilitarian objects.

From this period on, and continuing to the end of the 19th century, there was a corresponding improvement in the style and quality of American ceramic products.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the pottery and finer ceramic ware production industry had expanded to virtually every major city across America.

Why America's Development of Decorative Pottery Stalled

Importations of fine earthenware and porcelain from England, both before and after the Revolution, hampered the full development of decorative pottery production in America.

The beauty of imported ceramics, coupled with their popularity, often made the American potters copy them and try to disguise their origins by knowingly omitting their own stamped names or factory inscription marks.

Also, the French and Oriental productions that were readily available to buy didn't help much either as large quantities of transfer-printed ceramic ware from England flooded the ceramic art market after the American Revolution.

These are the some of the major things that affected a full-blown American pottery art development. It also greatly affected the production and capital investments of the American potters.

The First True American Porcelain

The first authentic American porcelain ceramics were produced in Jersey City, New Jersey in the early 19th century while simultaneously in Philadelphia an ambitious porcelain production factory was also operating.

Their porcelain wares were gilded with banding and were painted with sprays of flowers, styles that were influenced and inspired by Rockingham of England. The two factories also copied the French Empire forms.

Thereafter, porcelain and earthenware ceramics were produced in Baltimore, Maryland; Kaolin, South Carolina; East Liverpool, Ohio; Trenton and South Amboy both in New Jersey; and many other places across the US.

Most of their imitated porcelain products were poorly made and artistically crude, with most of them made for commercial use.

By the end of the 19th century, America's production of ceramic art declined, and there was little, if any, of their pottery that was fit to be classified as decorative pottery art.

Further Reading

History of Earthenware Pottery and Ceramics

Ancient Greek Pottery Designs

History of Decorative Metal Works

© 2011 artsofthetimes


yes on November 26, 2019:

yes yes yes yes yes yes

Arlene V. Poma on December 02, 2011:

Wow! This Hub is loaded with information, so I bookmarked it for reference. I am familiar with the art potter from Zanesville, Ohio, and that's about it. I really enjoyed this Hub and the videos. Voted up!

jenubouka on December 02, 2011:

Jersey would be the last place I would of thought to have produced porcelain! I love terra-cotta, I had a whole dish set that was made out of it.

Great history lesson on art thank you!