Published: January 29, 2002
By Amanda E. Lange, Associate Curator
DEERFIELD, MASS. – Delftware with its rich, long history continues to reveal much about the daily life and special occasions of its early American users. Delftware took the form of elegant plates often mistaken for fine porcelain, apothecary jars filled with mysterious remedies, and deep punch bowls inscribed with toasts to inspire merrymakers.
Historic Deerfield is currently featuring 175 pieces of delftware from the collection along with 25 loans from a private collection. The exhibition entitled, “Delicate Deception: ,” is a feature of the Flynt Center of Early New England Life until November 30.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color, hardcover catalogue, , supported by the Ray J. and Anne K. Groves Publishing Fund. This new publication is the first in a series of catalogues featuring the museum’s nationally renowned decorative arts collections.
The three essays that open the book examine a wide range of topics. The initial essay studies collecting delftware at Historic Deerfield, tracing the acquisitions of Henry and Helen Flynt, the founders of museum, and subsequent important gifts from donors. A brief history of the manufacture and production of delftware follows. The third essay explores the sale and consumption of delftware in the Connecticut River valley.
The catalogue section presents 97 pieces of the museum’s English, Dutch, and French delftware. The book reviews the variety of delftware forms, ranging from posset pots to punch bowls, based on function rather than decoration. Each chapter is preceded by a brief introduction complemented by period quotations from early travelers in North America.
Delftware has a buff-colored earthenware body, coated with a lead glaze opacified by the addition of tin ashes. (It is also called tin-glazed earthenware for this reason.) As the title of the exhibition reveals, delftware was a very fragile material that frequently imitated Chinese porcelains. Knowledge of tin-glazed earthenware manufacture spread from the Near East throughout the Mediterranean, reaching southern Spain in the Eleventh Century, Italy in the Fourteenth Century, and then northward to France and the Low Countries in the early Sixteenth Century. This pottery was known by various names, depending on the country producing it: maiolica, faience, limeware, holland ware, white ware, galleyware, and even “bastard china.”
The most commonly used term was delftware, which takes its name from the town of Delft in the Netherlands where many successful potteries were situated. Dutch products dominated the market in Northern Europe for a Century, and the English potteries grew in imitation of the Dutch. Delftware was first made in England in 1567, when two Flemish potters arrived in Norwich, England. The center for delft production soon shifted to the London area.
The process of creating delftware is captured in an 18-minute video, Reproducing a Delftware Posset Pot, included in the exhibition. Artisan Michelle Erickson, a specialist in the reproduction of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English pottery, is featured in the video. The film follows the formation of a posset pot (a two-handled, spouted drinking vessel) from throwing on the wheel and assembling, to decorating and final firing. Delftware was unique in its use of an absorbent glaze that was often decorated with colored pigments. Once a line was painted, it was difficult to erase. Decorators or “pot painters” worked quickly and confidently; often their designs exhibit spontaneity and freedom not found in other ceramics.
Throughout the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, delftware was the most common type of ceramic export to the American colonies. Produced in a wide variety of forms, ranging from the purely decorative to the decidedly utilitarian, plates, dishes, punch bowls, mugs, tea wares, tiles, apothecary jars, and chamberpots formed the bulk of delftware imported to America. Some of the most entertaining aspects of the delftware exhibition are found in the sections on its place in early American life as tables wares and drinking vessels, containers for health and beauty treatments, commemorative rdf_Descriptions, and other uses.
With water not always being safe to drink, alcoholic beverages such as cider, ale, beer, and punch were a fixture in the diets of early Americans. Punch lovers mixed rum or brandy with sugar, orange, lime, or lemon juice, and spices, diluting this mixture with hot or cold water according to the season, and the capacity of the drinkers. It was the obligation of the revelers “to drink the bowl dry” and the custom of calling for toasts made this an easy task. Historic Deerfield has a sizeable collection of delftware punch bowls, many with toasts in the bottom, including “Success to genl Wolfe,” “Success To the British Arms,” and “One Bowl More And then.”
By the mid Seventeenth Century tea, coffee, and chocolate had been introduced into Europe, with imports of these exotic beverages rising enormously during the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Chinese porcelains, the preferred vessels for these drinks, were too expensive for most middle-class consumers. Pewter, the most popular choice for tablewares, was unsuitable as it transmitted heat. To fill the market need, potters created less expensive delft tea, coffee, and chocolate wares. Unfortunately, delftwares were not very durable, often chipping, cracking, or breaking in contact with boiling water. Today these tea and coffee wares are extremely rare survivals.
Dining customs changed dramatically from the Seventeenth Century to the Eighteenth Century. Initially, one-pot meals such as stews, hashes, and potages were popular, which were eaten from small, handled bowls known as porringers. Most diners ate with their hands from communal bowls or carried knives and spoons with them. In the Eighteenth Century the main meal had at least two courses, with all of the dishes arranged symmetrically in the center of the table. The first course featured meat, fish, and soup, while the second course offered grilled meats and vegetables with a tart or pudding. Delft tablewares became increasingly imitative of Chinese-style or chinoiserie designs for their decoration. These Asian-inspired scenes range from excellent copies of the Chinese originals to loose interpretations of oriental motifs and designs.
Only the flames of the fireplace, oil and rush lamps, and candles provided light after sunset in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century New England. Candles, especially those of beeswax rather than tallow, were extremely costly and used sparingly. Only the homes of the wealthy had a generous supply of lighting devices, and artificial light became a measure of social standing. With its distinctive mid-drip pan and trumpet base, this large, rare candlestick copies an English metal prototype of the mid-Seventeenth Century.
Delftware was created to commemorate the reigns of kings and queens, hail political and military heroes, and herald significant events. English delft decorated with royal portraits was made from the reign of Charles I through that of George III. Some of these royal portraits derive from contemporary prints, while others are loosely based on caricatures or effigies of the individual. Charles II (1630-1685), son of the executed Charles I, was restored to the English throne in 1660. His wax effigy in Westminster Abbey provides the most accurate representation of his face: dark coloration, a prominent lower lip, a large nose, coarse features, and thick eyebrows.
Historic Deerfield is fortunate to own a complete set of “Merry Man” plates with an elaborate Mannerist-style cartouche, dating from the late Seventeenth Century. This set of rhymed plates were displayed in a cupboard, and rarely used for dining. “Merry man” plates were popular over a long period of time; the earliest dated set appearing in 1682, the last in 1752. The rhyme associated with the plates would have been well known by the users. “What is a merry man/Let him doe what he cane/ To entertain his guests/ with wine and Merry jests/ But if his wife doth frowne/ all merriment goes downe.”
Containers for holding and displaying flowers became common feature in upper-class households in the Eighteenth Century. Thomas Fairchild’s book The City Gardener (London, 1722) commented that “One may guess the general love my fellow citizens have of gardening, in furnishing their rooms and chambers with basons of flowers and Bough pots, rather than not have something of a garden in front of them.” Bouquets of flowers became popular in Eighteenth Century English and colonial American homes and often appeared in pots placed in unused fireplaces, in mantel garniture sets, and in vases placed on carved wooden brackets. Delftware flower containers, such as wall pockets, flower bricks, and vases, held fresh, dried, and artificial flowers.
In addition, delftware played a part in the medical practices of early America. Some doctors, especially those in more rural areas, supplemented their income by operating an apothecary shop. Dr Thomas Williams (1718-1775) practiced medicine in Deerfield for numerous years. As a doctor and apothecary, his surviving daybooks list many medicinal preparations to induce purging, sedating, vomiting, and sweating. Williams kept these remedies in a set of covered delftware jars. Two basic types of delftware drug jars were produced: one which is usually oviform for containing dry preparations such as powders, pills, and salves, and the other with a spout, bulbous body, and short pedestal, for wet drugs such as oils, syrups, and liquids.
Standards of personal hygiene in the Eighteenth Century did not match our own, and unpleasant odors must have been taken as a matter of fact. Following a fashionable party in 1729, a man noted, “At court last night, there was dice, dancing, crowding, sweating and stinking in abundance as usual.” The fashionably rich could indulge in a wide variety of expensive cosmetic and hair treatments to alter their looks and perfumes to freshen their appearance. Specialist perfumers supplied rouges, powders, hair pomades, and perfumes to the fashion conscious in small delftware ointment pots.
The exhibition also contains a section devoted to the use of delftware in the Connecticut River Valley. Probate inventory records, newspapers, account books, archaeological excavations, and objects with local histories reveal information on the presence and use of delftware in this area. The Reginald and Rachel French collection of delftware, acquired by the museum in 1991, provides examples of locally owned pieces of delft. One plate is marked on the reverse with an ink inscription, stating “Delft Wares/belonging to/Mrs. Hannah/F. Locke, who was/married 1753/Dec. 17.” Genealogical records reveal that Hannah Farnsworth Locke married James Locke, Jr. on that date in Ashby, Mass. The Lockes were one of the first three families to settle Ashby, where they raised 13 children including two sets of twins. This same plate was saved and passed down through the Moore and Eddy families of Gill, Massachusetts, before being purchased by the Frenchs.
Delftware faced a great deal of competition in the late Eighteenth Century. While it successfully imitated Chinese porcelain, it was not as durable as the products from the potteries in Staffordshire, England. Technical improvements in Staffordshire lead-glazed earthenwares resulted in the development of creamware in the early 1740s.
Josiah Wedgwood, founder of today’s modern factory, perfected his version of creamware in the 1760s. Wedgwood’s effective marketing skills and knowledge of current fashions eventually ruined the market for delftware. Production went into sharp decline between 1760 and 1770, and by the early Nineteenth Century, the delftware industry in England had come to an end. In places like the Connecticut Valley, however, merchants continued to carry delftware long after the American Revolution.
Historic Deerfield is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Historic Deerfield will be holding a symposium on the topic of English delftware, April 19 and 20, and will feature a roster of internationally renowned scholars, including Michael Archer, John Austin, Michelle Erickson, Peter Francis, Leslie Grigsby, Jonathan Horne, and Rob Hunter. For information, call Joan Morel at 413-775-7201. Copies of the catalogue , and copies of the video, Reproducing a Delftware Posset Pot, are available through the Museum Store.
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