On Early American Pottery

Thomas Chandler Jar

I love the Ceramics in America series. Ostensibly a journal, published annually by the Chipstone Foundation, each volume is, in fact, a lavishly illustrated book. The 2013 edition, which came out late this winter, covers topics such as African-American face vessels, medieval English money boxes, and 19th century stoneware in South Carolina and Virginia. There is a lot of archaeology here, as well as historical research.

Robert Hunter, the editor for 2013 writes, “What is astonishing…is the magnitude of the new discoveries and reinterpretations of even well-known ceramic traditions. Most American ceramics research and collecting is regional if not local. Collectors hoard information as well as pots, and the competition for either can be ferocious. Clay-based feuds among collectors frequently result in resistance to publishing new research, in an arguably counterproductive belief it will protect one’s interests. With the advent of the internet, it is auction houses that disseminate regional information, some of which is decades out of date.”

Ceramics in America sets out to rectify this situation.

In one chapter Philip Wingard investigates the life of the great stoneware potter, Thomas Chandler, Jr. and discovers that he likely trained in Baltimore, then a pottery hub, as a teenager. His father kept a chair shop in close proximity to four stoneware and two earthenware potteries where the young Chandler would have been able to learn the craft. Wingard belives that later, while AWOL from the army in Georgia, Chandler worked with the potter Cyrus Cogburn and was exposed to southern traditions. Sometime in the mid-1830’s Chandler made his first appearance in Edgefield, South Carolina working at various shops. Here he married a potter’s daughter. Chandler’s pots are beautifully thrown and skillfully decorated. Wingard gives us a good look at his life, his  influences, the impact he had on other potters and the methods he employed.

Later in the book, Jacqui Pearce contemplates 15th and 16th century English money boxes. Though the journal focuses on American ceramic history, contributing scholars are free to study antecedents. “When Noël Hume first emailed me about pinholes in money boxes from London,” he writes, “I had to confess I had never noticed any, but the next day I went to see what I could find in the Museum of London’s Ceramic and Glass Collection. A quick examination brought to light six money boxes in Surrey-Hampshire Border Ware with the tiny telltale hole, still perfectly visible, just as Noël had said.” Pearce is immediately intrigued and goes on to explore the reason for these pinholes and the purpose of the boxes themselves.

The new edition Ceramics in America is stellar. The research is strong, the writing is clear, and the photos are, for a potter, inspirational and for a collector, lust inducing.

Note: Photo above is of a 10-gallon storage jug attributed to Thomas Chandler. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. 1841-1845.