In visiting the lovely Fountain Elms Historic Site in Utica, NY, recently, I noticed a very large room filled with displays of salt glaze ceramic pottery. I paused to look around and take a closer look. I believe my mother used to own some pottery like this when I was a kid; it’s very heavy but it’s also relatively hardy. Apparently, the Munson-Proctor families amassed quite a collection!
I love the steins, and there were dozens of them.
As you can see, the pottery has a gauzy glaze and rather crude cobalt blue designs. These pieces were all crafted by Noah White and Sons of Utica, NY. He was one of many potters in the United States who created the salt glazed pottery for the Americans’ everyday household purposes. The Munson-Proctor collection was extensive, with many plain pieces but just as many more ornate pieces (such as the steins and the Masonic Fair bowl you can see below).
I did a little research and discovered more about the salt glazing techniques used for this kind of bourgeoisie pottery. Salt glaze pottery, or salt ware, was first done in Germany, when salt was thrown into the kiln with the pottery. The salt at high temperature creates a smoky residue (and a by-product of hydrochloric acid into the air) that gives the pottery a glassy appearance and slightly-smooth texture (the texture has been compared to that of an orange peel). The technique became popular in Staffordshire, England, where it migrated to the kilns of the United States.
One Staffordshire historian made an account of the gauzy smoke in the air:
“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.” William Shaw. (source is antiqueshoppefl.com/archives/april05/salt%20glaze.htm)
By the 1790s, American potters and merchants had taken hold of the salt ware industry. The useful, utilitarian pottery and the industrious Americans made a perfect fit. Before long, salt glaze pottery was everywhere in American homes. Some of the largest pottery crafters in America were in New York State: 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. Each business became known for their own decorative motifs, and the most popular designs were those of birds and flowers. A swish of cobalt provided the most common decoration, although I saw some Staffordshire pottery that was very ornate and colorful.
The pottery at Fountain Elms was from the local White and Sons, in the city of Utica.
Apparently, salt glaze pottery is still made today, but it’s popularity as a household utensil is largely gone (thanks to Tupperware and Rubbermaid!). It’s more or less an art form within the ceramic art genre. I think it’s beautiful in its own way; and being an American and Upstate New Yorker at that, I greatly admire its practicality and utilitarian style.