Stoneware Goes from Storage to Collectible Art
Your first lesson in understanding American Stoneware, is that today it's valued as art. Here a few examples of mammoth prices attained in recent years: $1,400 for jar with the blue-decorated phrase, "Kentucky 1857" on one side, and a painting of a flower on reverse, $15,400 for Bennington crock with fuzzy cobalt blue decoration of man wearing boots standing up smoking pipe, $17,000 for crock with blue lion decoration, $28,600 for a jug with blue-decorated man and woman acrobats on face, $31,900 for butterchurn with rooster decoration(chickens are common on stoneware, roosters are not), $148,500 for a unique, heart shaped, stoneware inkwell with fancy incised decoration, signed on bottom "William Crolius, New York, July 12, 1773."
Secondly, understand that, with exception of rare forms like Crolius's heart-shaped inkwell, stoneware was never was intended to serve as art. Philadelphia Huguenot, Anthony Duche, who probably introduced the "hard" pottery into this country around 1720, mostly made chamber pots. Stoneware jugs and crocks, numerous in every household for most of the 19th century, were for storing pickled vegetables, beer, vinegar, and other such foods. Stoneware is non-porous, does not react to acids-as lead glazed redware does, occasionally causing lead poisoning, and it's thick walls make for good insulation. Mold-formed stoneware with flat sides was introduced in 1828. Until then, most stoneware was shaped on a potter's wheel. Generally, older stoneware is more ovoid in form than later pieces. After shaping, the pot was dried, stamped by maker, decorated(early-on by incising, later by painting on cobalt oxide), then fired in a kiln, at temperatures exceeding 2,000° F, for almost a week. Rock Salt was commonly tossed into the kiln on the second day of firing, to glaze the batch. Please note that the salt glazing step always takes place after decoration, if any, is made. Therefore, any stoneware piece with washable blue or incise scratching through the glaze is highly suspect.
The third lesson in understanding American Stoneware is that even though decoration is by far the most important determinant of value, the potting artists of the day did not include the likes of John Singleton Copley or Thomas Cole. In fact, thirty some years ago, stoneware was just finding its way into the realm of respected art. The following article written in the 1960's by Albert Christian Revi, editor of Spinning Wheels Complete Book of Antiques, will give you an interesting perspective. "INVESTING IN STONEWARE-Stoneware's with simple floral or leaf decorations are not difficult to find these days, and still relatively inexpensive. These less important pieces sell anywhere from $5 to $25, depending on size and shape of object and what use the buyers can make of it. Jugs, jars, and small crocks can be made into lamps. Large, wide-mouthed crocks serve nicely as jardinieres, magazine receptacles, or waste baskets.
More elaborately decorated stonewares, especially those depicting animals, birds, fish, human figures, busy floral designs, and patriotic symbols, are not easily found; such pieces are currently commanding prices ranging from $20 to $100 or more. Why? Because collectors have suddenly decided that these decorations represent expressions of primitive American folk art."
Next time you read or hear about people suddenly deciding that some craft is now representative of art, pay attention. It might just be tomorrow's stoneware!