Chester County potters were often farmers who found clay in their land and made lemonade out of lemons.
“He observed that a good earthenware clay occurred in some of his fields and accordingly transferred his skill from leather to clay,” says Arthur James in The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, describing farmer and saddler Daniel High’s discovery. By the second half of the 18th century, potters in the colonies throughout the Eastern seaboard were making redware out of local clay.
Redware, an earthenware with enough iron content to turn the pottery red (from salmon pink to red-brown) when fired, was generally used to make useful, everyday pottery. The word earthenware explains itself; it is ware made of earth. General usage calls pottery “ware with a porous body, which may or may not be covered with glaze.” Like the Greeks, Egyptians, and Native Americans before them, Chester County potters dug clay deposits out of the earth and made pots.
Redware was easy for farmers to make as a side business, as it required only a small capital investment, few tools, and coal and wood to fire. It was made from surface clays that were “abundant and easily accessible,” according to Kevin McConnell in Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery, and “could be fired at a low temperature (between 1600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit) in a small, crude kiln.”
Pennsylvania was the national leader in pottery production from the earliest times, and pottery was an important cottage industry in the province, according to James Whisker in Pennsylvania Potters 1660 – 1900. It wasn’t until 1810 that any industrial figures were available, but in that year, Pennsylvania had 164 “pot houses” out of only 194 in the entire nation.
When, in 1820, businesses were required to report products valued at $500 in the past year, there were “only a handful” of pot-houses, according to Whisker. “Most of our early potters were operated on a part-time basis,” James concurs. Still, Chester County listed six pothouses in the 1820 industrial report.
Unlike the Pennsylvania Germans, the mostly Quaker potters of Chester County did not generally decorate their wares. In their rare spare time, they might decorate a pot, such as one by John Vickers, a Quaker potter of the “Uwchlan Anti-Slavery society” whose verse above is inscribed on a flowerpot. “That flowerpot is unusual,” Ellen Enslow of the Chester County Historical Society says. “We don’t know whether items like that were made as presents, but redware was generally a very utilitarian pottery.”
Vickers walked his talk, helping many escaped slaves in his Lionville home. According to Arthur James, John Vickers and his father Thomas “each typified the Chester county trilogy of Quaker, Potter, and Abolitionist.” When forwarding runaway slaves to the next station on the Underground Railroad, Vickers often signed a letter of introduction, “thy friend pot.” “Not infrequently, escaped slaves were concealed in the hay among the pottery in the wagon,” James says.
John Vickers also created the flowerpot for Sarah Sheeleigh, pictured on page 75. It is a good example of the distinctive Chester County ruffled or crimped edge flowerpot, and also of sgraffito decoration. Sgraffito, meaning “scratched,” was a common form of decoration used by the Pennsylvania Germans.
Describing the decorative process in Antique and Fine Art magazine, Greg Kramer and Lester Breininger write, “In the decorative process, a vessel was either dipped directly into an opaque white slip (watered down clay) or the slip was poured over … the piece. After the slip set, designs were scratched through the light-colored coating of clay, revealing the body of the ware; the object was then coated with a lead glaze and then fired.” In his book McConnell includes a “Redware Rarity Chart” in which “Group Three/Very Rare and Valuable” consists of “any examples of sgraffito, examples of slipware with names, dates or folk sayings….” Auction records confirm this.
In January 2008, Pook and Pook set another world record for redware at $300,000 (without premium) for a sgrafitto plate dated 1785. The plate is attributed to George Hubener, of Montgomery County, “one of the most renowned of the identified potters” according to Pook and Pook auctioneer Kellie Seltzer. “It had the trifecta of redware,” she continues, “Sgrafitto with great design and color, American, and topnotch condition.” The Massachusetts folk art dealer who bought it says, “It’s something you only find in a museum.” In fact, the Philadelphia Museum of Art confirmed that they have three similar plates by Hubener in their American gallery 115.
Less than a year earlier, Pook and Pook had set the previous world record for redware. Seltzer quotes a collector who said then, “Things have sure changed. Ten or 20 years ago, no one would have dreamed of six-figure redware sales. The big collectors and dealers keep pushing the spending ceiling for the truly amazing pieces higher and higher.”
While it’s possible to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on redware, it is also easy to spend less than a hundred. It was made in such quantities and of such variety that collectors can chose their price range. At the low end, redware’s earthy appeal can forgive chips and worn glaze, which McConnell calls “an inescapable fact of the ware or the nature of the beast.”