American pottery comes of age in 1876


The 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia revealed to many alert observers, if not all, that American industry had come of age.

This exhibition of the products of many artisans awakened most Americans to the realization of just how much was getting accomplished.

It proved to set in motion a stimulation of competition and a momentum as America had never before experienced.

Until this period only the well-to-do could afford or enjoy art material. At this turning point in American history, medium income folks could also indulge in art decor, and of a kind they could afford.

Artistic styles up to then were copies or slightly altered replicas of European trends.

But with other countries exhibiting their best products, utilitarian and art, the comparison was evident to all. America was not up to European standards. The lack of originality in most fields was clear to all observers.

After the exhibition artisans began to develop true American styles, especially in art forms. Greater progress was evident after 1876 than in the two centuries prior.

This awakening was true in pottery. Prominent potters from New York, New Jersey and East Liverpool, Ohio, displayed porcelain hardware and table wares, hotel wares, toilet sets, china, white granite and stoneware.

John Bennett, formerly Lambert Pottery, London, England, settled in New York City after the Centennial Exhibition and introduced his method of decorating “faience” under the glaze.

His first products were imported English biscuit wares. Later he employed potters to make a plain cream-colored body ware, this off white coloration enhanced his warm colors. Later still he employed a white body ware from Trenton, N. J. The articles shapes were simple without molded ornaments or handles.

The applied decorations were rather plain, mainly flowers with foliage, rather animated and ornate in finish and painted rather scantily. Background colors were added after the subjects were applied, all this outlined in black or a dark color.

Other styles of his own imagination enlivened ceramic body articles.

A few items were produced in Limoges “faience” styles by adding colored slips to the unfired clay.

In Tarrytown, N.Y., Odell and Booth Brothers began a pottery in 1878. Their products were mainly “faience” and majolica with the decoration applied before the glaze. This establishment was only in business a few years, later Owen Tile Company made decorative tiles in the plant.

Similar to glass manufacturers, potteries sprung up in many places along the Ohio River and east to the Atlantic shore.

As was true of most industries during America’s development, raw material sources and transportation were the main considerations.

The existence of coal supplies, clay materials, the Ohio River and the large Pan Handle Railroad made Ohio practical. Enterprising men, lead by A. B. Beck, formerly of England, opened a plant in Steubenville, Ohio. The Steubenville Pottery Company fired up their first kiln in 1881.

The factory produced decorated wares, table and toilet services, and – similar to other local potteries – white granite ware.

Shortly after the plants beginning natural gas replaced coal as fuel The constant heat allowed a much superior finish to the ware and better results in firing.

By early 1890 the plant began producing semi-vitreous, cream colored, opaque wares, light in weight, called “Canton China”. This was very fancy ware, i.e., vases, jardinieres, and bureau sets. These had an overglaze decoration on tinted and gold stippled ground.

Over the years after the exhibition wares destined only for display abounded in every conceivable size, shape and decoration imaginable.

Middle income and labor class people usually purchased articles that could be employed for some use. Only the well-to-do could purchase articles that appeared as pure art, for display and china closets.

Of the thousands of pottery items produced probably the most durable is the hotel service sets, i.e., bowls, ewers, cuspidors, soap dishes, table settings, and toilet sets to name a few. These were usually devoid of much decoration, relief decoration, or fancy edges. These are semi-vitreous and usually white granite.


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