Early Regional Pottery: Local History
Rich Clay Deposits Were Plentiful in Region
By ANGELA WAMPLER | A! MAGAZINE FOR THE ARTS | June 30, 2009Photography by Jeffrey Stoner and contributed by Case Antiques, Inc.
MORE Q&A with JOHN CASE
Who were the earliest known potters in our area?
Leonard Cain in Sullivan County is believed to be one of the earliest potters in the area. He was in the area as early as 1814. Leonard had three sons who became potters — Eli, Abraham, and William. Eli potted in Wythe Co., VA while William and Abraham potted in Sullivan Co, TN. There are also several potters listed in the 1820 census from Greene, Washington, Hawkins, and Carter County.
Do you know how many people worked for the largest potters?
There were some large pottery operations in the 19th century. For instance, we develop an understanding of the size of a pottery operation by the number of surviving examples attributable to the operation, the number of waste and kiln sites remaining, the value of the pottery output listed in old census records, and the number of potters associated with the given pottery. For instance, we know of more than one kiln site for the Cain pottery, and there are other potters associated with this pottery including Jesse Henshaw.
Where did they find their clay?
East Tennessee is rich with suitable clays for both redware and stoneware. Clays would usually be within close proximity of the potter's kiln. Consequently, suitable clay deposits were found close to the Cain's site in Blountville, Tenn.
There were so many potters working in the Mosheim area of Greene County that a town close by was referred to as "Potterstown." There were rich deposits of clay suitable for both redware and stoneware production in this area.
If it was local, did they fire the pots near the site of the source of the
clay or have it shipped to them?
In almost all cases, potters fired their wares near the source of the clay. Again, the large number of potters operating in East Tennessee during the 19th century was an indicator of the number of rich clay deposits available. The redware clay from East Tennessee is often recognized by an orange appearance versus darker red clays found in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The stoneware from the region will often have a red tinge and dark grey colors, indicative of iron deposits in the region.
Did each potter have a particular style and/or use of color? What materials/chemicals did they use to decorate the pots? Where did they find/purchase the material? What colors are found?
Glazes and decorative technique are very helpful to help determine information about the possible potter and region where the pottery originated. For instance, lead and manganese glazes are most associated with the Cain pottery. Lead glaze actually fires clear, so it will show the underlying clay color and often has an orange appearance. Pottery with lead glazes were often daubed with a manganese glaze to give a tobacco splotching appearance on the pottery form. Manganese glaze appears to be a dark brown or black color when fired. Sine wave incising was also commonly used on jugs and jars attributed to the Cain pottery.
Another glaze used predominately in Greene County was copper oxide and to a lesser degree, yellow slip. Copper oxide actually yields a green glaze color when fired. One of Greene County's most famous potters, Christopher Haun, used copper oxide extensively on his beautiful jars. Haun and other Greene County potters were also known to decorate their wares with beautiful stamps at the base of the handles of jars and on the upper shoulder of the jar. He would also use a stamp that would spell his name "C.A. Haun & Co.". Unfortunately, Haun was hanged by Confederates in 1861 for burning a bridge in Greene County. One of the potters who worked with Haun was J.A. Lowe. Lowe joined the Confederate Army shortly after Haun was hung. The only known marked jar by Lowe recently sold at our auction last year for a Tennessee pottery record. The glaze, stamping of the Lowe's name around the upper shoulder, and form closely resembled marked Haun jars.
How did they fire their pieces? What fuel did they use? How did they cure the pieces?
Wares were fired in brick kilns with wood used as fuel. There were several different kiln configurations used in the South. A couple of examples include the groundhog and beehive kiln. The firing process was long and arduous, often greater than 24 hours and required constant monitoring and restocking of wood for fuel.
What types of pottery were produced? Example – jugs, canning jars, butter churns, etc. Decorative pieces?
There was a wide variety of forms produced. The most common forms were cream pots, canning jars, jugs, pitchers, and jars. Less common were butter churns, bowls, plates, inkwells, cups, and presentation jars with names and dates with elaborate decoration. The more common forms of pottery were often unglazed and undecorated.
Was the pottery primarily sold locally? Was some shipped to major cities?
Most regional pottery was sold within the region. As I shared with you, the Cain pottery was noted for its importance in early historical references to Sullivan County (Historic Sullivan, 1909). The fact the pottery is notably referenced from such an early book indicates the Cain pottery was likely traded throughout the region. Indeed, we find pottery forms attributable to the Cain pottery with long family histories as far as Greene County and up into Washington County, Va.
When did the bulk of the pottery production cease in our area?
Around 1900 (in most areas it was in the 1920s).
In laymen's terms, what is the difference between ceramics and pottery? Between stoneware and redware?
Ceramics is a general term covering a broad category that includes pottery.
The most significant difference between stoneware and redware is the firing temperature of the clays.
Redware is fired at lower temperatures (1800-2100 F) than stoneware (2200-2400 F). The lower firing temperature of redware results in a higher porosity, often requiring it to be glazed to hold liquids.
The higher firing temperatures of stoneware means it does not have to be glazed to hold liquids. Stoneware clay becomes "vitreous" at the higher temperatures and essentially the clay transforms to a "glassy" surface that is essentially impervious to liquids.
More information about John Case
He completed a museum graduate course at Wake Forest University. He has served as an appraiser for the PBS show Treasures in Your Attic; the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Va.; and the Greeneville (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, he served as a contributing editor for the Frist Museum's "Art of Tennessee" exhibit in Nashville (Tennessee furniture descriptions) and lectured at the William King Museum in Abingdon on Earthenware from Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee. He also has served as a consultant to his family's business in Kingsport for the past 10 years.
— Recreating History
Left: This redware jar is also attributed to the Cain pottery of Sullivan County, Tenn. Features include a speckled glaze, pulled handles, and sine wave incising around the upper shoulder. Condition: stabilized cracks to the base of the jar, which is 13-5/8" tall. Circa 1860, the jar was valued at between $2,500- $3,500 and sold for $4,180. Right: The value of this extremely rare, glazed earthenware bottle was estimated between $2,500-$3,500. Only eight inches tall, it sold at auction for $3,740. The sine wave incising pattern, double rim, footed base, use of manganese as a second color, and crevice/roughness to the lead glaze base are all attributes of redware from the Cain pottery in Sullivan County, Tenn. The successful glazing of manganese to the neck to create the alternate color effect and bottle form are unique. Condition: shallow chips to the rim, a clean break to the base of the neck (reglued with minimal loss). (Photography by Jeffrey Stoner)
Left: East Tennessee jug (1840-1850) possibly produced by the Cain pottery, Sullivan County, Tenn. Right: Honey pot attributed to the Cain Pottery in Sullivan County, Tenn. Both are in private collections. (Photography by Jeffrey Stoner)