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American Redware


Fairfax County Park Authority
Museum Collections
703-631-1429

American Redware

Bean crock and lid, pitcher, cake mold
Bean crock and lid, pitcher, cake mold

The term “American Redware” applies to simple, lead glazed earthenware pottery produced in the United States from roughly after 1625 to present. Before the arrival of the European colonists, Native Americans were already hand-forming this surface clay into useful vessels for food storage, cooking pots and water bowls. They used stones to burnish or rub the insides of the dried pieces until compressed and smooth to create a temporary impenetrable surface which retained enough water for transport. Because such pieces were not fired they were eventually absorbed back into the ground after their usefulness.

Redware was the first pottery made by European colonists after settling North America. They brought the tools and knowledge necessary to produce serviceable pottery using this native clay abundant along stream and riverbeds along the East Coast. This type of clay was rich in iron mineral deposits, pliable and fired in wood burning kilns to temperatures between 1600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the early earthenware pottery was generally formed into utilitarian pieces such as jugs, storage crocks, platters, plates and bowls.

Despite its widespread availability, the redware fashioned by European colonists had one major drawback - it was extremely porous. To hold liquids, redware had to be coated with a lead-based glaze. As the Pennsylvania Mercury warned its readers in 1785, the lead “becomes a slow but sure poison” when the pottery was used for food or drink.

Despite this problem, redware continued to be widely used until more durable stoneware and ironstone ceramics became popular around 1850. In parts of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, redware is still made today. Modern non-toxic glazes make these pieces safe for cooking and eating.

Basic Technique

Potter at wheel
Illustration by Maria Campbell Brent from McConnell, Kevin. Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1988.

The clay that made early redware pieces was dug by hand and then allowed to weather for anywhere from a few hours to an entire winter. It was then cleaned of impurities in a small mill, after which it was kneaded by hand to remove air pockets.

Next, came the shaping - either by hand or thrown on a wheel. In the latter case, a metal disk was attached to a rod with a heavy wheel at its base. Kicking the wheel caused the entire assemblage to turn. The potter’s wheel had to spin at nearly 100 revolutions per minute for the potter to be able to form the clay.

Once shaped, objects dried in the sun before being fired at 1600-1800 degrees Fahrenheit in a kiln for about 30 to 40 hours. This part of the process was full of uncertainty, as the potter could not open the wood-burning kiln to examine a piece of pottery until the entire 30-plus hour period had elapsed.

Decoration and Design

Slipware

Slipware

One of the most common ways to decorate redware pottery was the application of a liquid clay or “slip” design. Slip could be applied with a brush or with a special device known as a “slip cup.” Common slip patterns included simple curving lines and shapes as well as more elaborate representations of birds, names, flowers, and phrases. The designs on this plate are typical of American redware.

Coggled Edges

Coggled Edges

Another common form of redware decoration is the addition of “coggled” or serrated edges. Running a coggling wheel along the rims of plates and platters before they were fired created the distinctive notched features— a bit similar to a the shape of a pie crust. The edges of the plate pictured at right are clearly coggled.

Slab Construction

Slab Construction

In drape-molded construction, a piece of clay was rolled out to the desired thickness, then laid over a “bat” (or form) to dry. When the clay could hold its form, glazing, slip decoration, and a coggled rim were added before firing the piece in the kiln. This serving platter was made using the slab construction process.

Tools of the Trade

Slip Cup

Slip Cup

A slip cup in use. Cups were made out of redware and fitted with quills from bird feathers. After filling the cup with liquid clay, the potter would apply the slip as it flowed through the quills. Illustration by Maria Campbell Brent.

Source: McConnell, Kevin. Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1988.

Coggling Wheel

Coggling Wheel

Before firing a redware plate or platter, a potter might use the tool above, called a coggling wheel, to serrate the edges. Illustration by Maria Campbell Brent.

Source: McConnell, Kevin. Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1988.

Glazes

Various glazes Though all redware begins with clay dug from the ground, the glazing and firing process creates drastically different results.

After firing, unglazed redware is pale red in color, easily observed on unglazed surfaces. Most pieces, however, were colored by applying glazes and clay slips made before firing.

Common Glazes

Metal Oxides
Iron Salts = Brown
Copper Oxide = Green
Manganese = Purple and Black

Clays
Pipe Clay = Pale Yellow
Albany Slip = Mottled Black and Brown

Mineral
Lead = Clear
Cobalt = Blue

A cake mold decorated with copper oxide and pipe clay
A cake mold decorated with copper oxide and pipe clay
A bean crock decorated with Albany slip
A bean crock decorated with Albany slip
A cake mold decorated with pipe clay and Albany slip
A cake mold decorated with pipe clay and Albany slip

A colorful pitcher decorated using pipe clay, copper oxide, and cobalt
A colorful pitcher decorated using pipe clay, copper oxide, and cobalt
A jar decorated with lead and manganese
A jar decorated with lead and manganese

Marks

A maker’s mark can help identify the potter, origin, and date of a piece of redware

The mark “S. Bell & Son, Strasburg” on the outside of an early 20th century pitcher, indicates that it was made by Samuel Bell of Strasburg, Virginia.

Bell began his earthenware shop between 1833 and 1835 with his brother, Solomon. When Solomon died in 1882, Samuel’s sons came into the proprietorship and they began using the mark, “S. Bell & Son, Strasburg,” continuing its use until 1908.

Thus, by examining the pitcher’s mark, its maker, origin and date range is quickly established.

Close up view of marking Water pitcher
Various marks

Above: Marks used by Samuel Bell between 1843 and 1908.

12, 13 Bell, Samuel, Strasburg, Va. 1843-52. Impressed.
14-16 Bell, Samuel and Solomon, Strasburg, Va. 1852-82. Impressed.
17 Bell, S. & Sons, Strasburg, Va..1882-1908. Impressed.

Source: Thorn, C. Jordan. Handbook of Old Pottery and Porcelain Marks. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1947.

Catalog and Sources

Visit the American Redware Exhibit Catalog for a complete listing of all pieces used in this online exhibit.

Belden, Louise C. The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.

McConnell, Kevin. Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1988.

The Encyclopedia of Collectables: Radios to Signs, Vol. 13. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Thorn, C. Jordan. Handbook of Old Pottery and Porcelain Marks. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1947.

Rice, A.H. and John Stoudt. The Shenandoah Pottery. Berryville, VA: Virginia Book Company, 1974.

Ian Bennett, Book of American Antiques

Warren E. Cox, The Book of Pottery and Porcelain

George Savage & Harold Newman, An Illustrated Dictionary of Ceramics

About the Exhibit

This exhibit was created through the joint efforts of Mary E. Brookshire and Eleanor Mahoney, two summer interns employed by the Fairfax County Park Authority, Museum Collections Section. Mary, an intern during the summer of 2004, began the project as a power point presentation. Eleanor, a summer 2006 intern, continued Mary’s work by transforming American Redware into an online exhibit.


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