Monday, February 15, 2010

The Traditional Southern Potter.

Stoneware pottery has been around in the South since the Southeastern US began to rise out of the huge forests of pine and red clay. Most of the early potter were English and German trained. Most were not overly fond of having to reinvent themselves in this land where none of the traditional materials they used in Europe had really been prospected for here in America. Most folks here were trying to stay warm and dry and keep from starving to death. Someone had to find, tested and validated these materials.  We'd still be eating Cheerios out of cupped hands if someone hadn't done the work.

Stoneware is what the name indicates. Clay fired into rock. Stoneware will be here in some form when Gabriel blow he hawn. Red ware, the other pottery medium is softer and more or less usless for storage, but is used for table ware, churns and garden ware. Both Redware and Stoneware are made in the Southern States, but stoneware wins the prize for vessels were vital in those days.

So, how did the process come to be a cottage industry in the South? Clay is as prevalent as rock. Erosion of ancient rocks and mountains left long trails of water that contain the fruits of the erosion process. These trails were creeks, streams and rivers. As they tumbled along they deposited mud, silt, and  CLAY. Potters use various methods of finding it on creek banks and in swampy places and bottom lands.

Glazes were another problem. The glaze is what give a pot it's color, protects the surface from abuse, and keeps the contents from a certain amount of spoilage.  Most of the glaze materials used in Europe weren't readily available, but were there for the digging...and dig they did.

The German  and Moravian potter had brought a salt glaze tradition with them. Simply said, they start firing the pots in the kiln, and toward the upper end of the firing cycle, salt is introduced into the kiln chamber through port. NaCl sodium and chlorine...table salt. The chlorine goes up the chimney as a gas,(just don't take a deep breath) and the sodium adheres to the pot...a beautiful gray green surface. It isn't a very hard glaze, but it did the job. Now, folks in the South had more uses for salt than using it to glaze pots...curing meat, for one, not having the advantage of built in refrigeration like our northern neighbors, but we didn't have to shovel snow...

Providence provided...a Jesuit priest came into South Carolina, and announced he'd been to China and seen potters there use a glaze made from wood ashes mixed with water and "other ingredients" . Those are always a potters secret...sorta like magic potions. No Yankee ingenuity required; the Southern potters had an abundance of ashes, clay and "fines" or fine silica found in streams and ditches to stir up together and dip the pot in. A hard, simple to make, beautiful glaze was the result.

 The glaze makers rule of thumb the FAG code. F for Feldspar, found as one of the three ingredients of granite, pretty common in the US. A for alumina, found in clay, and G, for a glass maker, something like silica from a road ditch, or ground up glass. Add a little water, cook it to about 2000 degrees. 2000 degrees! How do you get that kind of heat?


A kiln is a confined space into which heat is introduced, and a chimney to let the excess gases out. By introducing a constant supply of fuel, a much higher temperature can be achieved over a period of time than with an unconfined fire. Most kilns are sprung arch, dome, cantenary arch, or a combination of both.

My cousin Lynne is what I call an architectural archaeologist. She has a Doctorate and has done all kinds of studies on the Roman Empire and it's cities and buildings. She has come up with a some interesting question and some surprising answers. All the tools in the Southern potters arsenal had already been invented in Roman. The technology just had to wait for the right moment. and transportation across the big pond. 

Lynne came to the University of Georgia and gave a talk on some of the architectural archeology she has been involved in, and later sent me this amazing picture of an arch she and a friend built in his office. The walls of the room are the butress, and the thickness in the middle is one inch where cousin Lynne is sitting on top of it. It was the simple arch that allowed the Southern potter/farmer to build big inefficient  "ground hog" kilns. They were much less sophisticated than the one Lynne built, but you can get an idea as to how strong and unsupported "sprung " arch can be. The potter dug a trench, laid the brick against it and started an arch using a wooden arch form, which could be burned out, or removed in other ways.

Here's Jerry Brown of Hamilton, Al, inside his big"ground hog" kiln. Jerry is a 9th generation folk potter and Smithsonian Institute National Heritage Fellowship Winner. We're getting ready to unload some 200 pieces of pottery. This particular kiln, a ground hog kiln, is fired with gas, converted from wood some 15 years ago.

The potter was now in buisness, a raw material, glaze materials, a kiln in which to fire the pots.  He had his neighbors had serviceable vessels to keep his moonshine and molasses in. They had churns, pitchers, bowls and jars store  meat, jelly, fruits  and other neccessities. He never had to eat Cherrios out of cupped hands again.

Here's a.parting shot of Jerry Brown's mule, Blue, grinding clay with Jerry supervising the operation at his pottery in Hamilton. Alabama. Mule power was essential to the early Southern potters. Blue has been photographed more than any mule in Alabama, I'd say.

No comments:

Post a Comment