Stoneware is the roughhewn cousin of porcelain. Like porcelain, it is fired at very high temperatures (1,200 to 1,400 degrees), literally melting the minerals (usually feldspar) within the clay to create a non-porous ceramic. This makes stoneware an excellent container for food storage, which is why so many 19th- and 20th-century stoneware pieces were made in the shapes of crocks, jugs, jars, and other household items. Stoneware also has terrific insulating properties, which means it keeps items cool, but can also handle the heat.
In the late 1700s, Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potteries popularized the ware. Because it is non-porous, stoneware could be used unglazed, but most English potteries glazed their pieces by adding salt to the kiln in which the stoneware was being fired. Upon being heated, the salt would vaporize, leaving a glossy layer of sodium silicate on the object.
Just after the Revolutionary War, American potters practiced roughly the same techniques. A rich vein of feldspathic clay ran through Staten Island and New Jersey, so New York an...
Since salt glazing was not a perfect science, potters in northern New York devised a brown liquid known as Albany slip to seal the interiors of their pieces. Sometimes the slip was also poured over the outside of items to give them a darker hue and enable potters to scratch designs and legends onto their surfaces. Toward the end of the 19th century, spongeware glazing treatments were also found on stoneware.
Though initially dominated by potters, a few factories used stoneware to produce commodities like sewer tiles. For collectors, one of the most interesting footnotes to this aspect of U.S. stoneware history is what happened at the end of a factory’s shift. That’s when workers would fashion everything from animals to busts to baseballs from the leftover clay. Naturally these pieces are highly prized by contemporary stoneware collectors.
Another stoneware player of interest to collectors was Anna Pottery of Illinois. From 1859 until 1896, the Kirkpatrick brothers who ran the pottery made stoneware tobacco pipes, butter churns, storage jugs and jars, and hanging baskets. Today, though, they are best known for their so-called railroad pigs and snake jars.
Usually fashioned as a horizontal flask, with a stopper plugging its end, the kneeling white or brownish pigs featured railroad routes and local, geographic maps on their ample sides, incised and then highlighted with a soft cobalt glaze. Sometimes the names of routes and elaborate, folk-art-like inscriptions would be written on the pig’s back, other times rivers would be depicted coursing through the porcine countryside.
The Kirkpatrick’s other signature item was the snake jar or jug, which betrayed Wallace Kirkpatrick’s love of the reptiles. Snake jugs ranged from simple pieces labeled with the words “Little Brown Jug” on the side and a snake coiled around the jug’s neck, to elaborate objects that riffed on the political cartoons of Thomas Nast and portrayed New York City’s William Tweed and his cronies as a tangle of slithering serpents.
By 1877, Red Wing Stoneware had been founded in Minnesota. Red Wing produced hand-turned jugs, water coolers, and butter churns, some with capacities of up to 40 gallons. Many of these earliest farmhouse pieces had the classic, glassy, mottled, salt-glazed surfaces that we associate with stoneware of this era.
At first, the decorations of these pieces were limited to a single hand-painted blue flower, a tornado shape, or perhaps a small bird. But in the early 20th century, Red Wing replaced its salt glaze with a zinc glaze known as Bristol. The resulting bone-white surface gave Red Wing food-storage products a clean, sanitary appearance.
Just as importantly, Bristol gave Red Wing’s designers a neutral background for decoration, from the “red wing” that would become the company’s logo to custom designs for advertisers. Red Wing had a great run, but by 1947 demand for stoneware had dropped to the point that Red Wing discontinued the line.
Interviews & Articles
When the Red Wing Stoneware Company was founded in 1877 in Red Wing, Minnesota, the company only made stoneware like crocks and ju… [more]
"Five good old-fashioned stone crocks! Not a nick or a chip on any of them. Look at this little brown one with the cover. Grandma … [more]
Many times I had read the name "Pottersville" over the door of the little Post Office, but it was not until the hurricane and "tid… [more]
I think it all started with a small pottery vase my mother obtained from the art pottery shop where she worked in the early 1920s … [more]
I’m the curator of the ceramics bit of the Bowes Museum. It’s a big museum with 30 galleries of which three or four are devoted to… [more]
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Artists to get creative at open studios eventThis is Somerset, May 23rd
jeweller Helen Jones and potter Clio Graham. As always they will be on hand to show and talk about their latest creations. Clio Graham has embarked on an exciting new venture, producing stoneware models of birds. Main image for Freenet Electrical...Read more
Art extravaganza at Cornwall Open Studios 2013This is Cornwall, May 23rd
Recently Paul has diversified in his working methods, using local stoneware and porcelain in a salt glaze kiln. This has given rise to the new porcelain series which celebrates the glaze effects, with reference to the rock formation and coastline of...Read more
Two days of storms leave region cleaning upJohnson City Press (subscription), May 22nd
Stegall's Stoneware along Nolichucy Avenue was closed Wednesday after several inches of water and mud inundated the store. Owner Alan Stegall cardboard boxes containing pottery were turned to “mush” due to the water, and his business lost around...Read more
Why Fire Makes Us HumanSmithsonian, May 22nd
When they settled the barren Arctic, they took with them the memory of fire, and recreated it in stoneware vessels filled with animal fat. Darwin himself considered these the two most significant achievements of humanity. It is, of course, impossible...Read more
The Fear That Follows MeHuffington Post, May 22nd
When I boiled two ears of corn on the stove tonight, I wondered whether the heavy stoneware pot could handle that much boiling water. Would it crack and explode, sending burning water all over the kitchen? Did I remember to lock my car doors and set...Read more
His Life (All of It) as a Man: Karl Ove Knausgaard's Rambling New Volume of ...New York Observer, May 22nd
My Struggle, then, abandons the search for an outside, presenting instead a comforting stream of familiar experience, “in which the perfect contrast between the coffee cup's cold, hard, white stoneware and the coffee's hot, black liquid was only a...Read more
Stoneware + Porcelain Bowls from Herriott GraceBabble, May 18th
Jan Halvarson, who blogs for Babble Home, founded a Vancouver-based design blog called Poppytalk with her husband Earl. Today they both run their very busy blog and online marketplace, Poppytalk Handmade while they raise their family and two cats in...Read more
Pottery that brings Vermont charm to home and gardenBoston.com (blog), May 17th
There is nothing quite as magical and charming as rural New England, and Zoe Zilian, founder of Farmhouse Pottery, can help to bring a little bit of that authentic rustic feel to your home with her stoneware pottery and garden-inspired apothecary...Read more