American Stoneware – Norton Pottery
Stoneware was found in just about every early American home for its utilitarian and decorative value. Pottery made of specific clay and fired at a high temperature, stoneware was produced in a wide variety of forms and was used to hold liquids, meat, grain, jelly, and pickled vegetables. Forms ranged from crocks, jars and jugs to more specialized items like pitchers, water coolers, churns, spittoons, flasks, banks and much more.
Shape, decoration and quality of the clay/glaze vary widely directly impacting the value and collectability of a piece. Stoneware was produced by shaping clay by hand on a pottery’s wheel or in a wooden mold. A simple design was sometimes etched into the clay or drawn by freehand with cobalt blue paint. Different glazes could be applied; the most common is salt glaze which is a transparent glass-like coating produced by adding coarse salt to the kiln during firing of the pottery. Albany slip was a mixture made from clay available in the Hudson Valley of New York. It produced a dark brown glaze that was used both on the outside and inside of vessels.
A large percentage of American stoneware was signed using the maker’s mark. Jars and crocks often included the gallon capacity incised, stamped or hand drawn. Early American potteries have been well documented and often the decoration used, form, clay, etc can be used to determine the particular maker.
Stoneware was rarely dated but the shape and style of decoration can help in dating the piece. In the mid-nineteenth century, ovoid shaped jugs and crocks gave way to more cylindrical shapes. Decorations in the eighteenth century were formalized loops, flowers, animals, fish, birds, and butterflies. Gradually the designs became more naturalistic and more elaborate. They began to include domestic items, such as chickens, and also various political symbols, such as the American Eagle, bearing the national shield.
Salt glaze stoneware began to be produced in America in 1720. By 1770, there were numerous centers of pottery located along rivers for the water and transportation needed in production. In Bennington Vermont, two well-known potteries flourished during the mid-nineteenth century producing a wide variety of shapes and glazes. The first Bennington pottery was established in 1793 by Captain John Norton upon his return from serving in the Revolutionary War. Initially producing redware, lead-glazed earthenware typically with a red color to the clay, Norton began producing stoneware by 1800. Captain Norton and his descendants gained fame for brilliantly decorated stoneware featuring flowers, birds, and animals. Over the years the exact name of the pottery changed and the mark used on a piece can help date it. See here for a chronology. Pottery production ceased in 1894 but the company operated as a wholesaler until 1911.
Search for stoneware, ovoid jugs, Norton, salt glaze, crocks, Albany slip and more on Dig Antiques.
There are numerous references online and books available on stoneware. Here are a few interesting ones:
- Pottery Making After the Revolution, article originally published in 1940.
- Factories - Bennington, Ceramic Insight.
- Paul Cushman Exhibition Offers Insight Into Albany’s Famous Stoneware Maker, Mark Zipp, Antiques and The Arts Online, 2007.
- American Stoneware, Wikipedia.
- Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, Janine E. Skerry & Suzanne Findlen Hood, UPNE/Colonial Williamsburg, Nov 2009.
- Ceramics in American 2010, Robert Hunter & Luke Beckerdite, Chipstone, October 2010.
Dig Antiques has over a dozen books on antique ceramics in our resources section. Check them out here.
Connecting History and Antiques
One powerful reason that we love antiques is how history can come alive when examining a piece. We often find ourselves relating to the color or utility or marveling at how a piece was produced. Of course sometimes it’s just because the form is exquisite. But sometimes we end up with a more direct connection.
Stephen Griffing is Tom’s ancestor who served during the Revolutionary War in the Continental Line under George Washington. Ensign Griffing played a role in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Revolution – the treason of Benedict Arnold. Joshua Smith arranged the conference between British Major Andre and Arnold. Both Smith and Andre were confined and tried at Tappan NY. Ensign Griffing was appointed to guard Smith. In researching content for our stoneware article, we made an interesting discovery. Captain John Norton was one of the guards for Andre during his trial and execution. It is highly likely that Stephen and John met and may have even been friends.
Now when we look at a piece of Norton pottery, we will not only marvel at the beautiful decoration, we’ll also feel that extra connection to Tom’s ancestry and history.
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Tom & Sheila Baker
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