American pottery from the 19th and early 20th centuries is a favorite collectible, valued as an artform as well as for its functionality. Here is a basic guide to three types of early American pottery: redware, yellowware, and stoneware.
Also known as earthenware, redware pottery was produced in the colonies as early as 1630. Made from soft red clay and fired at a relatively low temperature, redware tends to be fragile, and early pieces are relatively rare.
Most redware was hand-thrown on a wheel, and glazed with white slip, which is not paint but thin clay with pigment added. Some redware vessels were fired with a glaze of manganese oxide to produce a metallic black coloring, or with copper, which produced a green coloring.
Redware is not water-tight, and early potters often used a lead glaze to seal it, a practice that resulted in poisoning if the vessels were used for food storage. The use of redware fell out of favor with the adaptation of higher kiln temperatures that could produce more durable (and less dangerous) pottery.
Yellowware is a type of stoneware made from yellow clay.
The area around East Liverpool, Ohio, contained large amounts of this yellow clay, and as pottery manufacture followed the westward establishment of cities in the U.S., this yellow clay was used to produce great quantities of yellowware pitchers, plates, platters and bowls for mid–to-late 19th century households.
Since it was manufactured after the rise of pottery factories, yellowware is almost always molded rather than hand-thrown.
Stoneware is created using a much finer, denser clay than redware and is fired to a higher temperature, reaching the point of vitrification which results in a finished piece that does not absorb water. Traditional 19th century stoneware features salt-glazing, in which salt is added to the kiln during the firing process to produce a signature speckled or “orange-peel” appearance on the surface of the piece.
While it is a much stronger product than redware, most stoneware from the 19th century was created for everyday use, and surviving pieces will likely bear some signs of wear in the form of chips and cracks.
Hand-thrown stoneware will sometimes show fingermarks on its interior, visible in pieces like bowls and crocks, and you can sometimes spot a fingerprint or two in the area around the handles, if the piece has them. Molded stoneware — dating from the late 19th century into the early 20th — will often feature elaborate decoration or raised images of fruit, animals or scenic depictions.
Early American pottery was often decorated by incising in the clay itself, using sharp tips from nails or other objects to scratch images, names and dates into partially-dried (“leather-dried”) clay. Later potters used cobalt to decorate their work, applying the pigment with a brush or by a slip method in which the color was poured by hand in a thin stream to produce swirls, flower forms, animals and other illustrations.
Stenciling became common in the late 1800s as pottery came to be produced in factories rather than by individual artisans.
Decoration on molded stoneware, as noted above, became increasingly elaborate by the early 20th century, with raised images on the surfaces and birds and deer, in particular, adorning the lids.
Identifying and Valuing American Pottery
Few early pieces of American pottery bore a maker’s mark, though later pieces will often carry one, sometimes in the form of a stencil or a stamped impression of their manufacturer. Collectors today rely on shape and decoration to determine the age and value of a given piece.
Early jugs and crocks tend to be pear-shaped and ovoid, becoming more cylindrical as the 19th century progressed. Intricate slip-cast designs add considerable value, as does an Albany glaze, a slip made from the deep brown clays found around Albany, New York. Cracks and chips are to be expected in pieces created for their utility, while the more decorative pieces from the early 20th century can often be found in near-perfect condition.
For additional reading:
Wikipedia provides a brief history of American stoneware.
Warren F. Hartmann’s Early American Stoneware website offers considerable information on identifying and collecting American stoneware.
Potter Steve Earp writes an entertaining and informative blog about pottery called This Day in Pottery History.