Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection
This exhibition features 40 uniquely decorated stoneware vessels, including jugs, crocks, pitchers, jars and water coolers. The artful designs on the 19th-century stoneware are today considered to be prime examples of American Folk Art. Most pieces were created in cities and towns across New York State. Many are “presentation pieces” – oversized and frequently decorated with elaborate and unusual cobalt blue designs. Tools used to decorate the stoneware are also included in the exhibition, as well as broadsides, a rare portrait of a potter and photos of potteries and their staffs.
Adam J. Weitsman of Owego acquired all of the stoneware in the exhibition and loaned or donated the pieces to the State Museum. Weitsman began collecting stoneware in 1980 when he was 11 years old. Since then he has scoured New York State and the East Coast, continuing to acquire rare pieces at antique shows, estate sales and auctions. In 1996, he donated his collection of 100 pieces to the State Museum to ensure that the collection would be preserved, studied and appreciated for years to come. Pieces acquired since then form the basis for the current exhibition. Most have never been displayed before.
History of Stoneware
Stoneware was the basic utilitarian ware of the nineteenth century. Stoneware containers served many useful functions. They were primarily used in the preparation, storage, and serving of food. Other uses of stoneware might have included such household items as inkwells, match holders, flowerpots, and pipes for smoking tobacco.
Stoneware and New York State
New York State was well-suited for stoneware production. The transportation network provided by its canals, rivers, and turnpikes enabled New York State to become one of the leading producers of this ware. The white clay needed to produce stoneware was shipped from the Bayonne, New Jersey, area to potters located along canals and turnpikes. The finished products were then sent out to markets along this same transportation corridor.
How It's Made
Stoneware vessels were shaped by hand on the potter’s wheel or formed in a wooden mold. After the freshly shaped vessel had air-dried, an awl or pointed stick was often used to scratch a simple design into the surface. Freehand decoration was also applied with cobalt blue paint (this color withstands the high temperature of the kiln). Albany slip clay, a dark brown color, was used to coat the interior. The decorated pieces were then placed in a beehive-shaped kiln and fired at about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the heat was at its height, a bucket of coarse salt was thrown into the kiln. The salt vaporized, covering all exposed surfaces with a shiny and somewhat pitted or pebbled finish referred to as “salt glaze.”
Fun Facts: Did you know?!
- Among the common decorations of birds and flowers were special presentation pieces, or stoneware made for family members. They featured unusually well-crafted, unique designs.
- In the twentieth century, plastic and aluminum replaced pottery as the chief material for kitchen equipment.
- Although most potters were not trained artists, the whimsical, sometimes crudely incised or cobalt blue decorations they created on stoneware are now appreciated as prime examples of American Folk Art.