Saturday, February 25, 2012

Antique Crockery and Railroad Pottery


One of my interests besides making art is looking at and collecting old crockery. Over the years with help of family, friends, and fortune, I have assembled an interesting collection of pots. Some are crudely formed which suggests that their function was more important than aesthetics. There is a certain beauty to many of these pots despite blemishes, and unrefined surfaces. None of the pots have signatures or dates, so their origin is somewhat mysterious. However, through research I have discovered some interesting facts about these items.
One type of crockery that I collect are also known as "railroad pottery" Railroad pottery it turns out are actually old stoneware pots made in China and sent to the west for Chinese railroad labor. The Chinese built much of the US railroad systems especially in the Western states. The laborers were exploited as cheap labor but the railroads supplied them with goods familiar to them back at home. Many of these pots were used to store dried vegetables, various medicinals, and liquified soy. The pot above left is a Soya pot. I recently acquired it from a thrift store nearby. It is estimated to be from 1855- 1890. It is thrown in two parts and assembled. The glaze appears to be an iron based (tenmouku style) glaze. There are finger marks around the base, where it was dipped. I'm guessing it was wood fired.
The two pots pictured below are also of similar origin. These are known as food storage containers or "turnip jars". These are from about 1875- 1890. The one on the right was dug up from an old railroad site near Pasco, Washington by my father back in the early 1970's. The one on the left was found at a flea in Monroe, WA three years ago. Note the similarity in glaze, clay body, and style. These were wheel thrown and then coil built on a pottery wheel. The inside is mostly unglazed, perhaps because they contained a dried commodity.

Another food storage jar that I have also comes from Pasco, WA (shown below,right). I purchased it at a yard sale. I am unsure of it's age, though it appears rather old. I am guessing it was a bean pot of sorts. The inside has a low-fire tan glaze and the outside is unglazed except for some light coloring on the clay body from a flame. It appears to be made of some sort of Terra Cotta. It somewhat resembles pots of Mexican origin and considering the population of migrant workers of Latino background in the region, that could be the case.
Some of the crockery I collect comes from the U.S. I have a fascination for the old stoneware potteries of the Ohio and Illinois river valleys from the 1850's to 1910's. The pottery from there is of high production and quality craftsmanship. Usually these works were assembled in factories using teams of workers for various purposes. For example: a pot may be thrown by one person, assembled by another, fired by another, and glazed by someone else. These factories supplied much of the pioneers of the west with their dishes, storage jars and so forth. It is rare to come across pieces from this era. Below left is an example of a bean pot from that era. It comes from Peoria Pottery, that operated until 1904.

Another part of my collection are 2 large salt fired stoneware containers. These were used to store various goods both dried and wet and may have been re-used by the owner for many purposes. The one pictured below left is a storage container by Western Stoneware Company. It has a wooden lid and handle. It was given to me by artist Eric Nelsen of Vashon Island. Eric says that he found it in Seattle's Chinatown back in the 1970's in an abandoned warehouse space. The paper seal on the lid was unbroken when he found it and it had Chinese script written on it. Not knowing Chinese, but being curious led to opening the jar and to his surprise were a dozen shriveled hands inside completely dried. The hands even had fingernails and were devoid of smell. It was later surmised that these were monkey hands that had been used for medicinal purposes. Eric gave me the jar, because I mentioned that I liked antique crockery. The crock arrived sans monkey hands.


2 comments:

toy said...

I think this is high production and quality craftsmanship. This type of pot increase a beauty of home. I want this crockery for me.

catering crockery

Aaron Murray art blog said...

I agree, that the objects are quite beautiful. It does take some skill to make pots like this, even if the craftsmanship is a little crude. There are lots of dents and scratches in the surface of the clay beneath the glaze. These pots also show flashing from the wood (coal?) firings.
The great thing about these pots is that they are easily overlooked in a thrift/antique/flea store setting because of the earthen colors. If you have an eye for such things, you can still find them at a reasonable price.