Collecting Early North American Redware and Stoneware

Collecting Early North American Redware and Stoneware

Imagine for a moment that you are an 18th Century European who has just immigrated to North America. You've brought with you the essentials for survival: tools, seeds, clothing, firearms and powder, household implements, and basic foodstuffs. You were encouraged to bring enough supplies to last a year.

A year later you've built a shelter, cleared, planted, and harvested a field, and laid-in a supply of dried venison and meats. You're all set for winter, save for one thing: the only storage containers you have are those that contained the supplies you brought with you, and those aren't nearly enough to meet your needs. What you generally have available are barrels, and they are prone to dampness, insect infestation, and rodent damage. Ideally, you need storage jars to keep your food safe. But, where do you get them? And, in their absence, how do you store enough food to get you through the winter?

The ways in which colonists dealt with their storage problem provides an interesting cultural and industrial narrative. To cover all manner of the pottery created during this period exceeds the scope of this article; here, I'll focus on the two most popular and durable types being collected today: redware and stoneware (for serious collectors even this focus is too broad; I write here to introduce the topic to novice collectors). The redware and stoneware produced during the 18th and 19th Centuries provides enthusiasts with the ability to develop historically significant and investment-worthy collections. North America's premier auction house for redware and stoneware, Crocker Farm of Sparks, Maryland, regularly achieves prices of five and six figures for collectible pottery.

All early colonists faced the lack-of-storage-containers issue. There weren't enough jars to fill the demand and, while under British rule, colonists were prohibited from engaging in the production of durable pottery (although there were those who did it anyway). Containers made from the red clay of the Mid-Atlantic States were fired at low temperatures, so they weren’t very hard. Most of the clay pottery produced at that time soon went to shards. It was also porous, and tended to weep liquids; consequently, it couldn't be used for long-term storage of wet foods.

To curtail the viscosity of red clay pottery (redware), glazes were used. In North America, the most common glaze was lead ground into a powder and rubbed onto the surfaces of the wet clay of containers before they were fired. The lead would bond to the clay when heated, and the viscosity of the resulting pottery was significantly reduced. Unfortunately, glazes leached lead whenever vessels came into contact with acidic food. Lead poisoning was commonplace, especially among the potters who handled lead powder.

Despite the problems, the production of clay pottery flourished in the early 18th Century. After all, the need for storage containers was universal. After the American Revolution, commercial pottery shops opened in every major American city. With high demand and the political freedom to pursue pottery-making unimpeded, high-temperature kilns became more common and once-hard-to-find stoneware became more available. In New England alone, records show that 250 potters were producing wares; by 1850 that number had doubled. Stoneware clays were not available in New England, but supplies were brought in by boat from northern New Jersey and Staten Island. Potteries in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states greatly exceeded New England's number due to the ready availability of proper clay.

Stoneware had several advantages over redware: no lead glazes were used, so the product was safer; stoneware was harder and less likely to break; and the containers didn't weep liquids.

Above: This ca 1829 Remmey 7 gallon water cooler set the world record auction price at $483,000USD

Stoneware is fired at a much higher temperature than redware; typically between 1200-1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperature removes all molecular water from the clay, melting its minerals, bonding them, and causing it to become rock-hard and impervious to water. Stoneware was ideal for household uses, and durable enough to be used for years.

Although not functionally required, stoneware was frequently glazed with salt. While a kiln was hot, a handful of salt was thrown into the oven, resulting in salt particles fusing to the clay as it baked. Salt glazes added an "orange peel" effect to the surface of a jar. Unlike redware, which may have been colorfully glazed, stoneware was minimally decorated with cobalt blue designs.

As with all popular collectibles these days, reproductions abound. It's important for novice collectors to develop a methodology for inspecting redware and stoneware, to be consistent in applying one's method, and to add new information to the method as it is acquired. Below are some factors that will impact the value of antique pottery:

  • Is the item complete? If a jar appears to have once had a lid, and it is missing, the piece will have little value.
  • Are the wear marks consistent with how the item would have been used? For example, handles may be worn, and the belly (widest point) of a jar may show rub marks from storage. Whenever other marks are found, one should ask: "how might that mark have gotten here?" If you can’t think of an answer that is consistent with an item’s use, the item may be a fake.
  • Condition is paramount: chips and cracks (even small ones) will make an item undesirable to collectors, and its value will plummet.
  • Where was the item originally manufactured? Look for maker’s marks, and cross-reference them to a reliable marks database. Some collectors seek out regional pieces and will pay a premium for certain manufacturers.
  • Do the decorations appear to have been painted freehand, or by stencil? The designs on reproductions are often decals and have the sharp edges of modern printing rather than a flowing freehand style or the ragged edges of a stenciling.
  • Do the decorations appear to be beneath the surface of the glaze? Stoneware was decorated before a glaze was applied; any decoration that appears to have been applied on top of a glaze is a poor reproduction.
  • All things being equal, bigger pots will bring more money than smaller pots. The exception to this rule is that a small, scarce, special-purpose pottery item may bring a higher price than a large, commonplace item.
  • Beauty counts. Pottery with detailed, colorful artwork or particularly pleasing shapes gains value on its artistic merits.

Reproduction redware and stoneware abounds in antique stores and online. Use common sense when evaluating a purchase: if a deal "sounds too good to be true", it probably is. Genuine antique redware and stoneware hasn't been made for hundreds of years, and authentic items have long since been acquired by collectors and passed through dealers and auction houses. If you are lucky enough to find a credible piece, expect to pay top-dollar for it.

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