North Carolina pottery: a centuries-old tradition
NEW YORK — North Carolina has a long and rich history in pottery-making with over 1,000 potters plying their craft in the state today. Given the state’s abundance of clay deposits, it was only natural for pottery to take a foothold here. Native Americans began shaping coil pottery and when British citizens settled here, they embraced the art of pottery and began turning out functional and elegant earthenware items. From the Moravian potters who settled here from Pennsylvania to the Catawba Valley and the Piedmont and Seagrove communities, North Carolina pottery is renowned for its exuberant slip-decoration and lead glazes.
Corey Jones, Southern pottery specialist and operations supervisor at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., said North Carolina earthenware began with the Moravian settlement in the Bethabara (house of passage) area in 1755 by Gottfried Aust. “At first, it was thought there was no need for pottery trade in the frontier community. However, that changed when it was decided that income from the trade would help the community become more self sufficient,” Jones said.
In 1771, Aust moved from Pennsylvania to Salem and continued to manufacture his wares with the help of apprentices, including Rudolph Christ, Jones explained. “This Moravian tradition of pottery is in my mind the only real slip-glazed tradition in North Carolina, and most of the motifs were floral,” he said. “Sometimes birds or other animals used in decorations.” Various kinds of line and dot work were often used, and colors included greens, reds, yellows, browns and blacks. “This pottery is highly collectible because it is from the earliest and most unique tradition of North Carolina pottery. Examples are extremely rare and they are beautifully decorated and prized as works of art,” Jones said.
For many years, most North Carolina pottery was attributed to the Moravian communities in Bethabara and Salem, but since 2010, further scholarship has cleared up many of the misconceptions and has identified other pottery groups, including the Quakers. The Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem, N.C., has in its collection a beautiful earthenware dish made by Quaker William Dennis (1769–1847) in northern Randolph County. It features dark manganese slip under elegant slip decoration around the edges and in the middle of the dish, in red, green, and white slip. The dish is dated 1812 inside a red slip circle from which slip squiggles extend.
Potters in the Catawba Valley in the western part of the state made the transition from lead-glazed earthenware to alkaline-glazed stoneware around the 1830s, Jones said. The heyday of this pottery tradition began around this time and continued into the early to mid-1900s — this applies to the early utilitarian wares. The decorative tradition continues to this day. with potters making alkaline glazed face jugs and other decorative works throughout the region, Jones said. “What makes the Catawba Valley utilitarian pottery special is that it was a necessity in rural communities during that period for storage and use in everyday life. Collectors are attracted to the unique forms and glazes of this region and to the historical background of some of the makers. These pieces are also prized for their durability as they were routinely used and have stood the test of time.”
An auction highlight for Catawba Valley pottery was a Daniel Seagle 5-gallon jug with one handle in an overall dark glaze with three incised rings around the neck that brought $7,500 at Leland Little Auctions in December 2011.
The pottery tradition also proliferated in Alamance County whose pottery is quite distinctive, especially its redware; and Seagrove, which today has over 100 working potters within a 20-mile area.
There are many different pottery makers in North Carolina whose works are highly sought after, Jones said. “Daniel Seagle’s works are prized because he was one of the earlier makers and he was a master potter who could turn very large pieces,” he said.
Isaac Lefevers signed pieces are very collectable due to their rarity and quality, Jones added. “His pieces are known to have a delicate feel to them even though they were utilitarian, meaning he optimized his use of clay for his pieces, the sign of a great potter.” Other collected potting families from the Valley include the Hartsoes, Ritchies, Reinhardts, Propst, Hiltons, Basses, and one of the earliest potters, Jacob Weaver.
Other collected potters from the Randolph, Alamance, and Chatham County areas utilizing salt glazes are Chester Webster, the Craven family of potters, Solomon Loy and Timothy Boggs, and Nicholas and Himer Fox. “These makers produced beautiful works with runny salt glazes, and Chester Webster was known for decorating his pieces with incised bird, fish and floral decoration,” Jones said. “Then there is the Salem tradition of decorated earthenware, which is the earliest and most decorative tradition. Gottfried Aust and Rudolph Christ were probably the most prolific makers of the period, and their pieces bring a premium in the marketplace due to their rarity and craftsmanship and beautiful use of color in the decoration of the pieces.”
Before starting a collection, Jones advises a visit to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem. Its collection of North Carolina pottery is renowned. Other worthwhile venues include the Catawba Valley Pottery Market, which takes place annually on the third weekend of March at the Hickory Convention Center. “There are many working potteries in the Seagrove area of North Carolina that make a good weekend trip. Many of those makers are from long lines of pottery making families,” he noted. Also, the Folk Pottery Collectors Society has annual sales with various examples of North Carolina pottery, and there are various other pottery markets throughout North Carolina.
North Carolina is so famous for its pottery that potter Mark Hewitt once quipped, “As theater is to Broadway, pottery is a treasured manifestation of North Carolina.”
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