Historical Treasure: American Stoneware — The not-so-ordinary pottery

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Necessity: No kitchen before the 1900s could function without stoneware jars, pitchers, bowls and butter churns. 

American stoneware was once a vital necessity in our ancestors’ lifestyle. Everyday living would have been difficult without the stoneware crocks, bottles and jugs to preserve and transport food and liquids. No kitchen before the 1900s could function without stoneware jars, pitchers, bowls and butter churns. And there were many other items made such as mugs, foot warmers and milk pans. It was truly a remarkable invention.

Great, you say. But what exactly is stoneware? Well, stoneware is not made of stone at all. It is made from a special kind of clay that comes from different deposits around the world, including the United States. At first, all stoneware clay was molded by hand on a potter’s wheel. The finished piece was then removed from the wheel and allowed to dry. The dried pottery was then carefully stacked in a kiln. If the pieces were to be decorated, they were either hand-painted or a stencil was used to create the design. Popular pottery colors were Albany Slip (a dark brown glaze) or cobalt oxide (a deep blue glaze.) 

Before the pottery was fired, a large quantity of salt was thrown into the kiln. The pottery was then fired at a temperature above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The high heat would cause the salt to vaporize and coat the pottery with a roughish, glassy coating that was colorless. This made the pottery waterproof and resistant to acids in foods. The finished product was as hard as, well, stone. And it was made in such large quantities that it was easily replaced if it did chip, crack or break.

American pottery didn’t begin until after the Revolutionary War, as the English government would not let the colonists make their own stoneware. As the Americans moved further and further west, new potteries sprang up. In the Midwest, there were many potteries in Ohio (near the Ohio River), Illinois (around Chicago), Indiana (Evansville), Minnesota and Tennessee. Sadly, nearly all of these old time potteries have closed their doors forever. Some tried to hang on by introducing mechanized assembly lines to make pottery faster and more uniform. But what finally closed down even these die-hard potteries were the inventions of home canning, glass jars, oak ice boxes, and glass bottles.

Today we admire old stoneware as a testament to our ancestors’ creativity and ingenuity. Want to see the pottery that has stood the test of time? Then visit the Museum’s tool room to see the stoneware pottery.  

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