Stoneware was the basic utilitarian ware of the nineteenth century. Stoneware containers served many useful functions. They were primarily used in the preparation and storage of food, and in serving food at the table. Other utilitarian household items included inkwells, match-holders, flowerpots and tobacco pipes. In the twentieth century, plastic and aluminum replaced pottery as the chief material for kitchen equipment.
The shape of stoneware vessels changed in the mid-nineteenth century. Classically ovoid shapes of crocks and jugs became more cylindrical; thus stoneware containers can be dated by their shape. Ovoid vessels date from the first half of the nineteenth century, while cylindrical containers date to the second half.
Stoneware vessels were shaped by hand on the potter's wheel or in a wooden mold. After the freshly shaped vessel had air-dried, an awl or pointed stick was used to scratch a simple design into the surface. Freehand decoration was also applied with cobalt blue paint. Albany slip clay, which was dark brown in color, was used to coat the interior. The decorated pieces were then placed in a beehive-shaped kiln and fired at about 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the heat was at its maximum, 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".
Once the kiln cooled, usually after two to three days, the stoneware was loaded onto flatboats or wagons (later trains) and shipped to distributors and merchants, often several hundred miles away.
Flowers and birds were by far the most popular designs, but a variety of animals were also used. Lions, dogs, stags, horses, goats, and even fish are often depicted. Patriotic motifs were popular. Unusual designs featured buildings or people engaged in some activity. Punches and coggle wheels were used to apply bands of impressed decoration in the form of circles, stars, floral devices, and other motifs. Sometimes the potter's name and location and the size of the vessel would be stamped on the piece.
Adam as a young boy
In 1987, at age eighteen, Weitsman acquired the finest piece of American decorated stoneware; a pitcher of incredible size, tweny-eight inches high, with an intricate and elaborate blue design featuring an American eagle. The pitcher was made by Thompson Harrington and John Burger of Rochester between 1852 and 1854. It was displayed in their shop window as an advertisement, and oral tradition indicates that the pitcher was displayed at a World's Fair. Weitsman purchased the pitcher from a descendant of John Burger.
In 1996, Adam Weitsman agreed to donate his impressive collection of stoneware, consisting of about one hundred pieces, to the New York State Museum. By doing this, he has ensured that the collection will be preserved for appreciation and study by the public. Weitsman continues to add pieces to this collection.
For additional information on New York State stoneware see: Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650-1900 by William Ketchum, Jr., (Syracuse University Press, 1987).
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