How Old is That Thar Jar?

By Peter Wingard

One aspect of evaluating pottery, in my case Southern pottery, is determining its relative age. Most collectors know this by experience. But I get questions from new collectors often that basically ask, how do I know if a particular piece of pottery I have is old? My answer is a question in return. When you walk in the woods, how can you tell a pine tree from an oak? My point is that to identify pine trees from oaks, you could first learn that pine trees are green year round. Then you build on your knowledge from there.

Deborah Abernethy Appraisers

What follows is a couple of good first steps to help identify the age of Southern pottery.

FORM. Early on, Southern pottery was ovoid. Within a few short years it became more bulbous.

The first potters were English trained. These potters followed the English tradition of ovoid-shaped pottery. Later, as others became involved in turning pottery in Edgefield, notably Germans and African slaves, the shape became more bulbous. Bulbous is rounder in the middle as opposed to ovoid, which is more rounded toward the shoulders. Bulbous pottery soon replaced ovoid pottery after a short period. Then, over time, the sides began to flatten out from bulbous to rounded and then straight sided to finally tooled shoulder or stacker jugs.

Why did these changes in form occur? There are a number of reasons. Before the Civil War, the plantation economy required large storage vessels, 10, 20, even 40 gallons in size. Bulbous pottery could hold more than ovoid, therefore, bulbous pottery became the norm. After the Civil War, these large storage vessels were no longer needed with the demise of the plantations. Potters produced smaller containers like churns and canning jars for the local farmers and merchants. These forms tended to be less bulbous, but still had somewhat rounded sides.

Technology and transportation also improved towards the turn of the century. You could ship more jugs in a box if the sides of the jugs were straight. Large-scale potteries out West and up North were producing straight-sided jugs and jars and shipping them all over the country. These industrial-scaled potteries employed machinery. The machines could easily produce straight-sided jugs with unskilled labor.

With a flood of pottery from outside the South, the cost of pottery in the marketplace fell. The local potters had to cut costs or go out of business. This generally happened earlier in the urban potteries around cities like Atlanta where competitive goods could be easily shipped in from many miles away. In relatively more remote areas, the competition from the outside came much later so the styles did not change until later, if at all.

Another factor was the way potteries were run. After the plantation potteries ceased to exist, many of the potters began to migrate, finding work in whatever shop would hire them. These itinerant potters were paid by the piece or gallon. Because of this, they turned out pieces quicker and with less care. The straight-sided jug or jar was easier and quicker to make. Quantity became more important than quality.

Technology also brought cheaper or better alternatives to traditional stoneware. This included mason jars and refrigeration. This also decreased the demand for local stoneware, which increased pressure to lower costs.

DETAIL. The better the apparent workmanship in the stoneware, the earlier the piece. As stated above, because of competition and technology, local potters had to make their ware faster and cheaper. Frills such as decorating the pottery became less common. Add to this the compounding factor that the Southern economy was ruined after the Civil War. The locals could not afford extravagance. This is not only evident in lack of decoration, but can also be seen in the reduction of the general quality of the workmanship as well. How much care was put into making and attaching the handle? How graceful is the shape? How delicate was the workmanship in the shoulder, collar or rim? Pay attention to the fine details or lack thereof. The earlier pieces tend to have better workmanship.

A Fancy Handle on a North Carolina Jar and a Catawba Valley large two-handled jug with extraordinary workmanship.

GLAZE. Alkaline glaze is the defining characteristic of Southern pottery. It is what makes it distinctive from other pottery and very collectable. But there are other glazes on Southern pottery, most notably salt glaze and slip glaze. There are regions in the South where pottery has a long tradition of salt glazing. This is true in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

What began as an experiment quickly became a unique Southern tradition in stoneware manufacture. Using alkaline glaze on Southern stoneware is first attributed to Abner Landrum who borrowed the idea from the ancient Chinese. The alkaline glazing is believed to have first begun at the Pottersville pottery site in Edgefield South Carolina in the early 1800s. Alkaline glazing of stoneware spread to other potteries in Edgefield and other locations of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and even as far west as Texas in a very few short years.

Why did alkaline glazes come about? Alkaline glazing avoided the dependence on expensive, hard-to-get salt and could be made out of materials found locally in abundance. Salt glazing remained predominant up north. Alkaline glaze posed no health hazard, as did the lead-based glazes. There was a dawning awareness at that time that lead glazes, very popular up till then, were actually dangerous. Stoneware was primarily used to store food. The acids naturally occurring in some foods would dissolve the lead from lead-based glaze, allowing it to be absorbed into the food. When consumed over a long period of time, this tainted food could cause lead poisoning.

What does glaze have to do with age? Again, as a generalization, alkaline glaze was used extensively in many Southern potteries from the early 1800s until the end of the century. Although it could be made out of readily available materials, it was a time-consuming process. When competition increased, the local potters began to look for alternative methods that were less time consuming. In some cases, they switched to salt glazing, which had become somewhat more affordable as the country's transportation system grew more dependable.

But many potteries switched to slip glazes. Slip glazes were not as attractive or as durable as alkaline glazes, but they could be bought by the bagful or could be easily mixed using local clays. By the turn of the century, most potteries were using slip glaze, especially in the more urban areas. Remember, this is a generalization. Some areas in the South never used alkaline glaze while other areas rarely used slip or salt glazing, even after 1900.

MARKS. If a piece of pottery is marked and you know whose mark it is, you can attribute the age of the pot to sometime during that potter's (or pottery's) active period. The marks may clearly be a potter's name and even location, or the marks may be more cryptic, like slashes at the top or bottom. It could be initials or small symbols like horseshoe-shaped marks, circles, crosses, etc . Some people collect nothing but signed or marked pottery, in part because it reassures them that what they are collecting is in fact old. Marked pottery also helps in dating similar, unmarked wares.

IMPERFECTIONS and VARIATIONS. Older pottery has more imperfections and variations. Not really flaws, but subtle differences in the finished product. In older pottery, the clay would always be hand dug. The glazes would always be homemade. That means that the clay would have all manner of things mixed into it. Even though the potter would process the clay (some more than others), it would still have bits of rock or flecks of minerals or even organic substances in it, causing color and texture variations in the glaze or on the surface. The finished product, the unique combination of clay, glaze, and firing, could vary dramatically from piece to piece and firing to firing.

Over the course of the 20th century, commercial clays and glazes became readily available. Large wood-fired kilns were replaced with smaller, more dependable, temperature-controlled gas or even electric kilns. The overall effect of this technological shift is a reduction in the variety and amount of imperfections and variations that can be seen in the pottery. These variations not only help in judging the age of pottery, but sometimes they give added interest as well.

There are potters who make pottery the old way, even today. Digging their own clay, mixing their own recipe glazes, and firing the wares in the old wood-fired kilns.

WEAR. Finally, I will mention wear. If it is old, it should have some wear. Keep in mind that alkaline glazes are very tough and can, even after 150 years, look like the day they were made. Even so, you should still be able to detect some wear. There should be some wear around the base edge. You should feel no or few sharp points running your hand over the surface of the piece.

There are plenty of exceptions to the above generalizations. The two handled jug cited above as an example of exceptional workmanship was from the shop of Samuel Propst. He made pottery up through the first quarter of the 20th century in Catawba Valley North Carolina. So this is not a particularly early piece as the quality might suggest. Why?

Samuel Propst ran his own shop and made all his own ware. He obviously took particular pride in his work. It also helped that he was in an area that rewarded his workmanship by paying a little extra to buy his pottery when cheaper alternatives existed.

Form, detail, glaze, marks, imperfections or variations, and wear are some keys to look for when estimating the age of Southern pottery. Becoming more familiar with these concepts should help the novice collector.

Each area has its own distinct past that often will defy simple generalizations. The South has a wide and diverse area of pottery to collect from. With a 200-year history covering multiple states, there is plenty to explore and learn while collecting pottery. Good hunting!


Pete Wingard is the owner of Mud, Sweat and Tears Southern Antique Stoneware at 216 Heatherdown Rd., Decatur, Ga. He is available by appointment at 404-378-9471 or netlatch@hotmail.com. Visit his website at www.mudsweatandtears.com . 

All photos courtesy,
Pete Wingard.

Bulbous jars held more, but weren't efficient for transporting. They pre-date rounded and stacker jugs.

Early decorated Edgefield,
S.C., jar.

Detail, decoration or a fancy
handle point to an earlier jar.

These slashes help date this jar to pre-Civil War.

E.L. Stork, Orange, Ga., jar, ca. 1910. Marks make dating easier.

B.S. Salter mark, ca. 1900.

"L" mark from unknown potter in Crawford or Washington Co., Ga.

Horseshoe with slash.
Slaves often marked their work
with symbols.

(left) Tooled shoulder or stacker jugs were created for shipping.

 

Ca. 1860 salt-glazed
North Carolina jar.

Rounded jar shapes followed bulbous jars.

Generally, the better the
workmanship, the earlier the jar, such as this exquisite two-
handled Catawba Valley jug.

 

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