If These Pots Could Talk

This past Monday, I drove up to Lake Forest College to interview an urban archaeologist. Lake Forest, the North Shore suburb that houses the school, is a fantastical place; the streets are all mazy, narrow dead-ends flanked by twenty-foot hedges, apparently designed to baffle and intimidate outsiders in equal measure. Brief glimpses of the massive houses penned inside the foliage are enough to verify that Chicago’s old industrial class, like the members of the meatpacking Armour family, collectively chose the suburb as a retreat in the late 19th century. A particularly opulent stretch of Lake Drive (next to, well, the lake) runs past breakwater and bridges to the gates of the cemetery where John Hughes is buried. (I felt a bit like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink; if anyone had stopped to talk to me, the smell of their wealth might easily have scared me into silence.)

But enough prelude; I want to tell you a little about ceramics. While we were in the archaeologist’s lab—really, a large room with ziploc bags of artifacts strewn everywhere, along with a bookshelf that housed titles like “Collecting Bottles” and “If These Pots Could Talk”—I found some shards of yellow ware. It was a fragment from a cream-colored bowl, the type of object I’d ordinarily look past easily; it was only here, where I was being forced to think about the layers of meaning to be uncovered precisely in the mundane, that I became curious about its materiality. How did it get to be this way?

As the name suggests, yellow ware is pottery made from yellow clay; initially manufactured in England, it migrated to the US along with potters from Staffordshire, a county in Central England famous for its ceramics. Many of the English potters settled in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the clay from nearby river valleys allowed them to continue to ply their trade. The pottery industry found its informal capital in East Liverpool, an Ohio city bordering both Pennsylvania and West Virginia—the town eventually garnered the nickname “Crockery City.” As the East Liverpool Historical Society tells it, Englishman James Bennett founded his manufacture there after hearing about favorable clay from the Kittanning cyclothem. A cyclothem—it derives from the Greek for “cycle” and “deposit”—is a formation of rock layers created by changes in sea level. The Kittanning was most famous for its rich seams of bituminous coal, part of an Appalachian Basin full of natural resources like gas and oil that, when Bennett arrived at the then-hamlet in 1839, were already furiously being extracted from the earth. (East Liverpool’s fate, by the way, is a sad one: residents are experiencing the neurotoxic effects of manganese pollution from the few remaining parcels of industry that haven’t already left the city.)

Post-industrial malaise aside, how exactly was yellow ware produced? It’s a little difficult to find exact information about its manufacture, but I did stumble upon a letter in a history of Shenandoah County, Virginia, that gives us some indication. Written in 1925 by John D. Hurn, an eighty-nine-and-a-half-year-old former resident of the county, it contains a paragraph on the production of pottery, “a fine grade of earthenware, crocks, jugs, jars, pitchers, vases, drain tile, etc.” As Hurn tells it, the yellow clay was first ground by horsepower in a “crude mill,” then shaped by the potter using a foot-powered pottery wheel, and finally “burned hard” in a brick kiln. During the firing, the potter would toss in coarse salt as a glaze. (Apparently, the salt is what gives pottery a slightly glossy look.) Though it seems as if a few potteries were still operating in 1900, “they were driven out of business by too keen competition of similar wares made in the Middle West.” Hurn himself followed the money, settling in Olney, Illinois.

Obviously, there’s more to earthenware manufacturing than horsepower and salt glaze, particularly since mechanization became more widespread. But I want to highlight just one other element, from Notes on the Manufacture of Earthenware, a 1901 tome (nearly 400 pages!) by Ernest Albert Sandeman. (If you are thinking of picking up this book, I’ll just note that the small note on the front promising “numerous illustrations” is, if not a lie, at least a pretty pernicious exaggeration.) Sandeman devotes a small section of the book to discussing coloring agents. They’re necessary, he suggests, because, after it’s been fired in the kiln, the body of a piece of earthenware will almost always have “a yellowish tinge caused by the presence of oxide in the iron of the clays…it is impossible to free the body completely from it, even after taking all possible precautions by passing it over magnets, etc.” The reason it’s bad to have a piece of pottery that’s slightly yellow goes back to something the archaeologist mentioned to me: much of the history of Anglo-American ceramics was an attempt to imitate the pure, pretty whiteness of Chinese porcelain and bone china without a recipe. Sandeman’s solution is to mix a small amount of cobalt oxide—a blue powder, “properly ground to an impalpable fineness”—into the body of the ware before firing. That neutralizes the yellow of the iron oxide, “much in the same manner as the blue-bag used in laundries for whitening linen, and gives the ware a pure white appearance.” (The cobalt oxide itself is derived from nickel; it’s produced through calcination—fired at high temperatures in “the hardest part of the biscuit,” the oven where the pottery is first burned.)

By way of an ending: Sandeman also produces, indirectly, one of the better arguments I’ve read for why we should care about pottery. It’s a quote he cops from the French chemist Alexandre Brongniart (whose name he spells “Brogniart”). “I know no industry,” Brongniart writes, “that affords in its practice, in its theory, or in its history, so many interesting considerations in the wealth of its scientific and economic application, as the ceramic art or the manufacture of vessels and utensils out of baked earth. Nor do I know one that offers productions more simple, more varied, more easy to make, or more durable in spite of their fragile construction. In no other human product are so many qualities united.”