Six Pots or the Meaning of Objects After Death

Stuff. My mother is gone, my father before her, and what we are left with is stuff. Lot’s of stuff. And it all must be dealt with.

Material things, philosophers and religious leaders tell us, are of lesser importance than the immaterial.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” Matthew urged his early Christian followers. “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly,” Thoreau wrote. Who would disagree? Yes, of course, love and happiness and character are what matter. “You can’t take it with you,” is oft repeated in conversation when referring to other people’s acquisitions. And yet, the majority of us leave behind a raft of stuff, most of it quite ordinary.

With my mother gone, what we are left with, my siblings and I, like so many other adult children of deceased parents, are the objects and furnishings that they accumulated and in some cases made, over the years. They are gone, but their objects, the material goods in their lives, remain. I am perplexed, confused, troubled when I am confronted with the realization that the pots and pans and blankets and books and furniture and photos are all still here while our mother, a woman of passion and furies and dreams, is not. I am forcefully reminded that the inanimate outlasts the animate.

It’s hard work to understand what is in the house, to decide what to dispose of, what to keep, and who keeps what. We have made spread sheets. We send emails and texts to one another. We walk from room to room with our notes. It’s a small house, 1300 square feet but the task seems overwhelming.

Of course, what I chose for myself was pottery: four jugs, a jar, and a small tureen, all nineteenth century. Two of the jugs are small, one squat with broad shoulders in excellent condition; the other taller, narrow, swelling ever so slightly, with a look-at-me, hands-on-the-hips jaunty handle. Both are glazed in Albany Slip type glaze, so favored by early American potters. The taller jug is dark and glossy, almost black from a hot spot in the kiln. The squat one is a rich brown. I also brought home two two-gallon jugs, salt-glazed with nice cobalt slip trailed floral designs and a two-gallon salt-glaze jar, also with nice cobalt slip trailed floral design. The three salt-glazed pieces are each glazed with Albany slip type glaze on the interiors. And lastly, a small flow blue sauce tureen with ladle from my mother’s fairly large collection of flow blue china.

The smaller jugs are in my kitchen now, on a shelf, visible from almost everywhere in the room. I placed them so that I can easily pick them up, run my hand over the glazes, feel the curves, understand the potter’s moves. I hold the taller glossy one and remind myself that by the time it came into my mother’s possession, it had already outlasted at least several prior owners. The two salt-glazed jugs now sit prettily in my living room, on the floor in front of bookshelves. I set the salt-glazed jar on top of the kitchen cabinets next to a Bartram pot from Guy Wolff.

In their house, the small brown jugs sat one on each end of the large fireplace mantle. The taller glossy one has a crude handmade wooden stopper that has deteriorated. I do not know if the stopper is original to the jug, or if it was made later as a replacement. A spray of bayberries or bittersweet always graced the shorter jug.

My mother’s dream was to live in an old house in Connecticut. Instead, she remained in the 1957 tract house, originally a 900 square foot ranch, identical to thousands built the same time, until her death a year ago. But in that house, she and my father recreated an old house with hand hewn ceiling beams, a large open fireplace where our Dad cooked in iron pots on holidays, paneling made from wide boards, and cupboard doors made from old barn wood boards. The oldest of five children, I had already moved out when they made this room, but came back with my family for gatherings.

For my parents the antiques were objects of beauty, something to surround themselves with (though they did use their iron cookware). For the various antique dealers they dealt with, the pieces were inventory. But at some point before being offered for sale in the antique shops where my parents liked to browse, the jugs and jar and tureen were in other households, bought perhaps from earlier antique dealers or passed down from older family members. My parents began purchasing antiques for the house in a small way in the sixties and more in the seventies and eighties. The earlier twentieth century owners would have also displayed them as decorations, or perhaps stashed them in an attic or barn as no longer useful.

I like the jugs and jar because they are well thrown, because they are beautiful, because jugs and jars are two of my favorite shapes and because I am a potter steeped in pottery history. I like them because they belonged to my parents. When I see them, I think of the brick room and the enormous fireplace. I think of the family gathered around the table. I think of my mother’s love of houses and early Americana. In some way, these objects that have outlasted my parents, give a lingering suggestion of who they were.

That is what families do. We cherish the things our parents or grandparents leave to us. We attach meaning. Yet, the memories and feelings that prior owners attached to the very same objects have vanished. Nothing remains of the place theses pots held in the previous owners’ psyches.  The pots, inanimate objects, are unchanged throughout the centuries; it is the meanings we humans impose that change.

We know that the earliest owners would have used all of these pieces in the preparation, storage and serving of food. These were utilitarian pots. The jar might have held apple butter, pickles, eggs layered in salt, butter or maybe soft soap. The jugs would have held cider or vinegar, water, perhaps homemade wine. The two-gallon jugs would have been heavy when full, and used for long-term storage. The smaller ones would have been refilled from larger jugs for more immediate use.

Fortunately, the pots do yield information about their manufacture. Except for the flow blue sauce tureen, they are all thrown on a potters wheel, wood-fired and American made. The salt-glazed jar and one of the jugs are stamped with the name Edmands & Co. so we know it was made in the shop of Barnabas Edmands. Edmands opened his business in 1812 in the old pottery town of Charleston, Massachusetts (now the part of Boston where the Bunker Hill Monument stands). Here he introduced stoneware, made from clay he had shipped from New Jersey.  He promoted it as being safer than the lead-glazed redware previously made by the numerous potters in this area.

Edmands came from the brass trade and was not a trained potter himself. He relied on Frederick Carpenter, a highly skilled potter from Lebanon, Connecticut who served as the master potter from the shop’s opening days until his death in 1827 at the age of 56. With the loss of Carpenter, Charles Collier, a potter and inventor became the master potter. Though a small operation, with at most five men working in the pottery, Edmands & Company entered “a very large stone jug at the second annual fair of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association” in 1839 and won awards. When Edmands retired at the age of 72 in 1850, he sold the pottery to his sons who ran it in partnership with Charles Collier. At this time they also purchased jugs “by the dozen” from the Norwich, Connecticut potter Sidney Risely. In 1868 the name changed to Powers & Edmands and later it changed to Edmands & Hooper. So, from the stamped name across the fronts of two of my mother’s pots, we know that they were made sometime between 1812 and 1868 but most likely around 1860.

The two smaller Albany slip type jugs are not stamped or signed and there is no decoration so it is difficult to know where they were created. True Albany Slip made from glacial clay dug near Albany, New York was widely used in New York and Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, the slip clay was mined and shipped to potters all over the United States. At the same time, potters dug and used similar local clays as slip glazes. I have no way of knowing whether it was true Albany or a similar locally dug clay.

You can see the marks of the potters’ hands. When the potter attached the handle on the taller glossy jug, he pressed the clay with his thumbs, harder with his right than his left, making the tail of the handle slightly longer on the left side. I often do this too! I smile to myself at the similarity. The potter who made the shorter jug was more fastidious about his handle, and smoothed it evenly as he attached it. Still, I like the lilt of the first handle best.

My mother loved flow blue china and over the years she added many pieces to her collection: plates of various sizes, a platter, cups, and eggcups. She kept the collection in a particularly beautiful antique oak china cupboard with two small-paned glass doors above three drawers and cabinet. I brought the sauce tureen home and set it next to the Royal Albert bone china teacup with hand painted daffodils from my grandmother’s teacup collection. I like having a single piece from each of their collections next to each other.

The tureen is decorated in the Manilla pattern, with willows and palm trees and a sailing ship in a very dark cobalt blue with heavy bleeding. It was made in the bustling potting town of Staffordshire, England, by Podemore  & Walker sometime between 1845, when the Manilla pattern was first introduced and 1860 when the firm became Wedgewood and Company.

Created by accident when attempting to copy Chinese hand painted blue and white porcelain, the bleeding edges of the cobalt transfer images, a flaw, appealed to the public. It was far less expensive than Chinese porcelain. British factory potteries produced quantities of flow blue for the American market. Though it was called porcelain, it was earthenware. Podemore & Walker formulated a clay body that could be fired to a higher than usual earthenware temperature, making it more durable than other earthenware. Dealers today refer to Podemore & Walker flow blue as ironstone.

Flow blue china, factory-made and imported from England, was more highly valued by homemakers of mid-nineteenth century America than hand thrown, locally made stoneware. Many households could not afford this fancy tableware. Those that could displayed it prominently and used it for special occasions. Very popular, it was produced and exported in large quantities, and in time became more affordable. By the mid-twentieth century, it had become collectable.

I am more drawn to the “folk pottery,” the thrown jugs and jar but I enjoy the fact that together, the jugs and the tureen give a snapshot of a time period in ceramic history and in material culture, the Industrial Revolution, which was changing how people lived and how they perceived the things of everyday life. The tureen, made in a factory where there was a separation of tasks, where whole families were employed for long hours, where smoke polluted the skies for miles around, where there was extraordinary technical innovation and scientific research taking place, was influenced by wares coming from China that British potters had not yet discovered how to replicate. It was transported thousands of miles across the Atlantic in a sailing ship before ending up in someone’s parlor.

The other pieces, masterfully made, using traditional methods represent the end of an era in ceramics history. With the advent of railroads and refrigeration, and the rise of cities and factories, there was no longer a need for the crocks and jars and jugs that potteries like Edmands produced. To survive, they turned to drainage pipes and used jiggers and jollies. The old skills were lost. Kilns fell into disrepair and ruin. Small potteries closed.

There is a seventh pot, a blue colander that my mother made, that I brought home. It is somewhat painful to look at, but it was her favorite amongst her own pots and she kept it by her sink. We took our first pottery lessons together from a woman who taught at her home studio, and then attended Wesleyan Potters together for a while. I was completely smitten. I thought she was too. She bought a Shimpo wheel and set it up in the basement. She fired a few things, including the colander, in the hardbrick kiln I built. But then, inexplicably she stopped. She hated the cellar. She had bursitis. She had too much to do. She wanted the backyard shed for her studio. The reasons were numerous. I worried, I still worry, that somehow my own obsession led her to let go of it. I felt guilty but could not understand why.

Looking at her things now, I realize how many crafts she took an interest in and began – rug braiding, needlepoint, cross stitch, candle making, doll making, stenciling – a compendium of early American activities. And she could draw. But mysteriously, she did not follow any of these pursuits for long, though she appeared ever ready to resume with supplies and books about them at hand. She kept the few pots that she made on display in the living room and kitchen the rest of her life.

My mother lived for 88 years and then she was gone. The six pieces of pottery have already been around twice as long. They will last for many more years, perhaps thousands. I think a lot about ceramics, objects, material culture but I still do not understand what it means that our possessions outlast us. I only know that they do. Perhaps that is why we are so outraged when ISIS destroys ancient temples and artifacts. With this destruction, we lose our connection to people who have gone before us. The only way we can know of them, is through what they left behind. Ceramics, notable for longevity, have always been crucial to understanding history and how people before us lived.

Over the years, the jugs and jar and tureen that I have inherited meant different things to their various owners. They provided an income to those potters who made them and to the antique dealers who sold them. They were important household items for the first families that used them. For my parents and probably the owners immediately preceding them, they were antiques to be enjoyed as decoration. For me, they are objects of beauty and study and a trigger for memories.

Needless to say, there are far more things than the pots that I claimed, for my siblings and me to deal with. We had made progress; searched the house together drawer by drawer for the letter we thought she had written us detailing what to do with her things but could not find, made a spread sheet of the contents of the house, decided who would take what, when one of us, the younger sister nearest to me in age, grew ill unexpectedly and died, leaving her own possessions behind. Now what?

She had a collection of seashells, hundreds, perhaps more, that she gathered herself from the beaches that she loved to roam. Spiraled shells. Scalloped shells. Shells like unicorn horns. Smooth pearly blue shells.  Her daughter, my niece, has shared these shells with all who loved her, letting us each take one at the memorial service, later giving us glass jars filled with assortments of shells.

I think then, what to do myself about what I leave behind. First, I must make a list of everything and what it is so that anyone who must deal with it will know what is here and how it came to be here. I will write down why the flow blue sauce tureen next to the daffodil cup, both so unlike any other ceramics in the house, was important to me. I will try to make suggestions for dispersal, though you can never really know what others want and what would be a burden. And, inspired by my sister’s shells, I wish to leave gifts. Should I throw a quantity of tea bowls that I pack away for that, hopefully, very far off day? Make little clay books wrapped in tissue paper?

Note: I have left bookselling to write and make pots fulltime. I will continue to focus this blog on books about ceramics and hope that publishers will keep me informed of their new titles. However, from time to time, my posts may depart from strictly reviewing books. I also hope to redesign and move my web page and with it this blog, though I approach this task with trepidation. At a later date, I will ask Joe to take pot portraits of my mother’s six pots as only he can do. For now though, these photos will have to serve.

Two books that I have referred to often throughout my potting life that were helpful in researching my mother’s pots for this blog are American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters by Georgeanna H. Greer and Early New England Potters and Their Wares by Lura Woodside Watkins.

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