The Enduring Gleam of Salt-Glazed Ceramics

By Robert Reed
   It was a simple idea, combining common salt with intense heat for a special effect in ceramics. The result was remarkable.
   Salt thrown in a kiln and then superheated virtually vaporized in the process settling and fusing on the enclosed ware in tiny droplets. The droplets become a thin glaze. To the eye the glaze was gleaming but transparent. To the touch the surface was smooth but imperfect, like that of an orange.
   Thus, the salt glazing process was created.
   The fundamentals of salt glazing were in use in Germany as early as the 15th century. In the view of some, German potters initially made use of the process in an attempt to imitate the more preferred metal ware. Toward the end of the 17th century the process was being refined by English potters who were in search something better than the dull glaze ware they had previously produced.
   By the early 1700s the salt glazing of ceramics was widespread in the Staffordshire region of England where every effort was being made to establish a less expensive substitute for high-grade porcelain.
   Salt-glazed ware was being extensively produced by Staffordshire potters by the 1720s, and in some cases the ‘new’ stoneware was produced in shapes very similar to the other earthenware. At times it seemed to represent a style of Asian porcelain popular at the time. Among the leaders of the 18th century salt glazing process in Staffordshire was Thomas Whieldon. Whieldon’s own thin ware often was given a blue or green hue to add to its salt glaze brilliance.
   Whieldon and others made Staffordshire the salt glaze center of the world for many decades. In fact the production was at times so intense that the after effects of its toxic fumes created its own industrial pollution. Writing in The History of Staffordshire author William Shaw noted of the situation:
   “The intense heat (of salt glazing) produced vast clouds of smoke and vapor, which not only filled the streets and houses in the town (Burslem), but spread far over the adjacent county. These firings up took place together on Saturday mornings during the hours of eight and twelve so that though the nuisance was of no lengthened duration, but during its continuance travelers approaching the town mistook their road and persons in the street ran against each other.”
   Initially the stoneware which was given a salt glaze emerged only in gray or brown tones because of the demands of the extreme heating process. However in later years craftsmen at Staffordshire were able to develop a whiter stoneware which was also able to withstand the vigorous heating process. Moreover the more skilled potters were able to provide further decoration during this period by adding enamel colors over the basic salt glaze.
   Certainly by the 1790s the process of salt glazing stoneware was prospering in the population centers of America. In New City, for example, Clarkson Crolius offered such ware with decorated stylized flowers filled with cobalt blue. Such American made crocks and jars were basically utilitarian in purpose, and with the exception of a flower or bird were basically plain.
   In the 19th century vast numbers of salt glazed stoneware were produced in the United States. Much of it was in the standardized style of established makers like Crolius and Thomas Commeraw rather than in the elaborate designs of 18th century England.
   During the 1820s enterprising potters had moved as far west as Indiana and Kentucky to market salt glazed stoneware. As documented in the book Ceramics in America, one Jacob Lewis determined Louisville, Kentucky to be the perfect place to “sell his utilitarian salt-glazed crocks, pitchers, and churns. By 1823, he felt the time had come put American-made dishes on American tables.”
   Another example of such enterprise was in Strasburg, Virginia where Solomon and Samuel Bell established their own stoneware pottery during the early 1840s. Among the best pieces to come from the factory was a large, gray salt-grazed stoneware water jug (sometimes called a fountain). On the body of the jug were boldly painted tulip designs in rich cobalt blue. Like many manufacturers of that era, the name of the makers was also stamped on the product.
   Generally by the middle of the 19th century a growing number of American crafted stoneware pieces were molded and given plainer, more regular shapes. A prime example was the large preserving crock, sometimes referred to at the time as a putting-down jar. There are also some indications that other salt-glazed wares were given different names during their zenith early in the second half of the 19th century. Historical records show that stoneware terms were sometimes based on size. Small crocks (about six inches or less) were cake pots and often came with a cover or lid. Larger crocks were butter pots, and the very large crocks (30 gallons or more) were on occasion referred to as meat tubs.
   Interestingly the concept of salt-glazed stoneware was not limited to jars and crocks during those developing decades. The process was also applied to roof tiles, drainage pipes and even flower pots. The greatest usage however still centered on containers for household and commercial usage. Selections in the 1860s and 1870s might include a two-gallon jar decorated with a floral spray from Ottman Brothers and Company in New York State, or a stoneware pitcher also with flower decorations from Walter Donaghho in Pennsylvania.
   Numerous United States makers during the latter part of the 19th century included Howe and Clark of Athens, New York; N.A. White and Son of Utica, New York; White’s Pottery of Utica, New York; McQuoid and Company of New York City; Lyons Pottery of Lyons, New York; and the Williams Roberts Company of Binghamton, New York.
   Toward the end of the 19th well in to the early 20th century salt-glazed stoneware was still being produced in many parts of the country although its uses were not as wide spread as in previous years. Today early examples, especially those distinctively marked with cobalt blue decorations, are especially prized.

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