Redware refers to a utilitarian style of earthenware pottery using clay with a high iron content, which turns reddish-brown when fired. Though mass-produced redware was made in Europe, the form became especially popular in the American colonies, as the clay was abundant and redware products were affordable. However, redware was also brittle and easily damaged, adding to its rarity today.
Before the Revolutionary War, it was illegal for British colonists to make their own goods and offer them for sale, as they were obligated to send raw materials to England, thus generating taxed exports for big businesses like the East India Company. In fact, Americans supplied the Crown with clay, but they also surreptitiously produced their own redware pieces. John Pride, who lived in Salem, Massachusetts, during the mid-17th century, is the first American redware potter known by name.
Because redware is very porous, it needs to be waterproofed to be useful for cooking and food storage, and since glazes were typically lead-based, redware vessels would have made any acidic food or beverages quite toxic. For potters who handled the glaze daily, it was frequently deadly.
Decorative shapes, patterns, figurative designs, and text were sometimes incised into the clay’s surface or applied using contrasting colors of glaze and slip, a liquid clay. Some of the rarest redware was finished with the sgraffito technique, whereby a pattern was scratched into a thin lawyer of slip, revealing the colored clay underneath.
The most popular redware typically features complicated surface decoration along with names, dates, or representational imagery. Today, collectors view unglazed redware—resembling the surface of common terracotta flower pots—as less desirable than glazed pottery.
Redware was finally supplanted by stronger (and less hazardous) stoneware and whiteware during the mid-19th century. However, some regions in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia continued producing decorative redware pottery into the 20th century. Modern redware imported from South and Central America is marked with the place of manufacture, as has been required by law since the early 20th century.