Beachcombing Stoneware Sea Pottery

by Connor O’Brien

The majority of sea glass originates from mass produced utilitarian vessels, while tableware and art glass are less common sources. The same can be said about sea pottery. Yet due to the immense variety of ceramics, identifying sea worn fragments can be particularly challenging. A good way to start is by classifying shards into one of three categories: earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain. Ceramics are grouped into these categories based on the density and firing temperature of the clay. The clay mixture and body of a ceramic is referred to as paste, whereas the surface coating is known as glaze. Grouping ceramics by paste type is the first step in identifying the origin of a shard, and learning to distinguish different pastes and glazes is crucial to making accurate identifications. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. A small representation of earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. All three types are variable in color, appearance, and texture, so the best way to identify them is to learn the feeling of the differences simply by handling them.
Top row: Red earthenware fragments, brick and terracotta. The color of earthenware can range from cream white to red, dark gray or tan, depending on minerals in the clay used. It is distinguished from stoneware and porcelain by its relatively low firing temperature, porous and less dense paste.
Middle row: stoneware jug fragments. Stoneware is nonporous, hard and compact, fine textured but not glassy like porcelain. It requires a medium to high firing temperature but does not need glaze to be watertight. However stoneware is often glazed with salt or decorative slip glazes. Slip glazes are glazes comprised of clay in water, applied by dipping or washing the ceramic vessel.
Bottom row: Porcelain fragments distinguishable by the very hard dense body, vitreous nature and white color. Porcelain can be glazed and decorated in a variety of ways.

Investigating traditional and regionally relevant ceramics is a great place to start when studying sea pottery. Understanding the history of production is also very helpful when it comes to identifying and dating shards. For beachcombers in North America, especially those on the shores of the Great Lakes and east coast, stoneware is a common source of sea pottery because it was once popular and locally produced. With basic knowledge of vessel shapes and glaze types it is possible to know the origins of these stoneware fragments, despite the fact that they are highly altered from their original form. An immense variety of products were available in stoneware, the most common being jugs and pots. Learning to recognize the characteristics of these forms is another important part of identifying sea pottery. (Figures 2-5)

Figure 2. Stoneware sea pottery with distinct features.
Top Row: Decorative cobalt glaze applied to an incised design. Decorative cobalt glaze applied with a sponge, known as spongeware. Decorative cobalt glaze applied to a sculpted pattern. Decorative dot band applied with a rolling tool.
Middle Row: Slip glazed shard exhibiting pop out, a defect formed during the firing process. Slip glazed shard from a jug neck, the curve of the neck influences how the glaze is weathered. Slip glazed shard with concentric lines, small surface ripples left by the potter influence the exposure of glaze to abrasive forces.
Bottom Row: Dark colored Albany type slip glaze, the use of this glaze can date shards as early as 1860. Boarder between Albany type and Bristol type glazes, use of both glaze types dates shards before 1915. Light colored Bristol type glaze, use on both the interior and exterior dates shards after 1915. Note that these dates are approximate generalizations not strict limits.

 

Figure 3. Stoneware jugs are arguably the most common source of stoneware sea pottery. These containers were made in many capacities and styles, and used for storing and selling liquids in bulk; they commonly held molasses, honey, syrup, vinegar, liquor, cooking wine, and chemicals. Similar to glass bottles, stoneware jugs have many features that can provide identifying information, such as the handle, shoulder, closure, and base. One jug may produce dozens or even hundreds of sea pottery shards, and a single shard can be used to make an accurate identification. Stoneware shards can also be confidently matched by paying close attention to paste and glaze. The shards pictured here undoubtedly originate from the same jug. Although found at different times, each occurred in the same area of the beach and have a distinct feel and appearance that suggests a shared origin.

 

Figure 4. The mark of a twisted wire pulled in a loop in order to cut the vessel from the wheel. Subtle markings such as this can be used as clues to gain information about the shards origins, as well as the processes used to create it.

 

Figure 5: Squeezed clay lines resulting from clay being compressed into a mold, an indication that the original vessel of this shard was made by mold.

Stoneware ceramics in North America began with immigrants from Germany, England, and France who brought the craft over seas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Colonists continued to import English and German stoneware well into the 19th century, yet over many generations of master and apprentice, ceramic artisans blended old world techniques and styles to develop a distinctively American variety of stoneware. The earliest American stoneware was made from scratch in small batches and distributed locally. These ceramics were often plainly salt glazed, crudely shaped, and occasionally decorated with cobalt motifs. The nature of ceramics allowed for artistic expression, stoneware creations were individually handmade and often intentionally embellished with a personal touch. For these reasons collectors regard 17th and 18th century American stoneware as a folk art. The uniqueness and relative scarcity of these vessels make them a rare source of sea pottery that is difficult to trace. (Figure 6)

Figure 6. The appearance of plain salt glazing is often compared to the texture of an orange peal. The color of salt glazing is variable but commonly brown or gray. Plain salt glazing typically dates shards prior to the 20th century. This shard originates from a salt glazed ceramic water pipe, which was a common form of plumbing and drainage throughout the 19th century.

Potters’ firms and their networks grew alongside the development and expansion of the United States. By the 19th century utilitarian stoneware was an essential part of everyday life and potteries were established all across the country. Potters were able to obtain better and more consistent materials, improve their shaping techniques, as well as distribute their wares beyond local communities. These advancements, paired with the increasing demand for American stoneware, lead to a transition from small family businesses to unified potters’ firms. Individuals who specialized in specific tasks of an assembly line began to replace the tradition of master and apprentice. By the turn of the 19th century, the demands for American stoneware were met by the mass production of simple and uniformly slip glazed vessels commonly known today as crocks or crockery. (Figure 7)

Figure 7. Stoneware vessels typical of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Markings such as words, stamps, and capacity numbers can be used to help make precise identifications. Drips from the slip glazing process are indicative of the dipping used to apply the glaze. The combination of Albany type interior and upper exterior with Bristol type on the bottom exterior was a fashionable design that declined in popularity after 1915.

The quantity and consistency of mass produced vessels is what makes them common and identifiable. Glaze type can be used to date stoneware to a relative era (Figure 2). The iconic two-toned stoneware with brown Albany type glaze on top and white Bristol type glaze on the bottom began to replace plain salt glazed stoneware during the mid 19th and early 20th century. By the 1920’s, stoneware glazed entirely in white Bristol glaze was favored for the sanitary appearance and easy to clean surface. The great depression effectively ended the era of American stoneware, though it has been continually produced, it can be assumed that most fragments of stoneware sea pottery are near or over a century old. With basic knowledge of these ceramics even ambiguous shards are relatively identifiable. When dating sea found shards, the context and history of the beach is equally important as the history of the fragment and may help provide a more accurate identification. A perfect way to display these beachcombed shards is to store them in a stoneware vessel, such as an open container. (Figure 8)

Figure 8. A perfect way to display stoneware sea pottery is to store it inside a stoneware container. Adding a false bottom using cardboard and covering it with a thin layer of shards is an easy way to make an attractive display. Stoneware pots come in many forms and sizes and also make a good depository for storing shards in bulk.

 

Works Cited: Greer, Georgeanna H., Chris Williams, and Tina Griesenbeck. American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters. Exton: Schifftler, 1981. Print.

Connor O’Brien lives in Maine and is a college student and an avid sea glass and sea pottery collector.   http://www.seaglasssassociation.org

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