Published: August 19, 2011
The pottery produced by Nineteenth Century craftsmen of East Tennessee is the subject of a stimulating exhibition, “Tennessee Turned: Earthenware and Stoneware Made in East Tennessee 1800‱900,” on view at the Museum of East Tennessee History. Well over 200 pots have been hand selected from a group of 30 public and private collections, including that of the exhibition’s guest curator, Carole Carpenter Wahler. Many have never been exhibited publicly until now.
“Tennessee Turned” is based on research by Wahler, who found herself a transplant to Tennessee from New Mexico via California in the middle 1960s. Naturally observant and curious, and a doctoral-level psychologist who taught college level courses for many years, Wahler was struck by the distinctive material culture of her new home state and began to investigate.
She says she was first interested in area punched tin objects, then baskets, and finally came to pottery. Wahler admits to an early fascination with Native American pottery from her native New Mexico, where as a child she says she often had an Indian shard in her pocket. In Tennessee, Wahler began dealing in antiques.
As Wahler traveled around the state, she became aware that few seemed to understand the material culture of the area. An exhibit of Southern pottery in the mid-1980s included what Wahler describes as “two pathetic Tennessee examples amid some fine pottery representative of other Southern regions.” Spurred on by her friends she says, Wahler organized the 1986 exhibit of Tennessee furniture, textiles and pottery at the Dulin Gallery in Knoxville. She said that the pottery “stole the show.”
When Wahler began her study of East Tennessee pottery, she explored the genealogy of known potters, tracing the influences of geographic styles and techniques among families.
White settlers appeared in East Tennessee in the late Eighteenth Century and utilitarian pottery was essential even in the meekest of households. Potteries, many of them operated by families, sprung up along veins of abundant clay. Most early potters in East Tennessee were of German or British Isles extraction who had brought their traditions to the area.
East Tennessee was an area markedly different from the rest of the state, and from the rest of the South for that matter. For example, when most of Tennessee voted two to one for secession in 1861, East Tennessee voted two to one against it. The Bridge Burners of Tennessee, Civil War Union sympathizers that burned nine Confederate railroad bridges, hailed from the region and several of their numbers were potters.
Established potteries were in operation in the early Nineteenth Century; the wares were largely handcrafted utilitarian objects, mostly earthenware at first, with stoneware appearing somewhat later. Both share some stylistic similarities. Family potteries continued producing earthenware using traditional styles and techniques long after potteries in other regions had stopped earthenware production.
The iron-rich red clay of the area lends the pots a more reddish hue than that of the darker ceramics seen in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. East Tennessee pottery was predominantly earthenware, based on the supply of clay in the area. Middle and West Tennessee potteries had readily available sources of stoneware clay and the products reflect that.
East Tennessee potters used wood-fired, above-ground kilns with a circular updraft. Later, potters in Middle Tennessee used half-buried circular updraft kilns to produce 11 percent earthenware and 89 percent stoneware, while in West Tennessee circular downdraft kilns fired 100 percent stoneware.
The 1820 commercial census listed eight potteries in East Tennessee alone, most of which were located along the East Tennessee shale belt of the Appalachians. These potteries were the initial ones in Tennessee and were dominant for a good part of the Nineteenth Century. So prodigious were they that one area of Greene County was known as Potterstown, so numerous were the potteries.
The exhibition is organized loosely according to the county of manufacture: Sullivan, Greene, Washington, Jefferson, Knox and Blount. Some examples from other places are on view for purposes of comparison.
Among the earliest potters in East Tennessee was Leonard Cain, who arrived in Blountville, in Sullivan County, from Virginia around 1814 and established a pottery there. His sons Abraham B. Cain and William Cain were also potters engaged in the family business; William’s son, Martin A. Cain, continued the pottery until the early 1900s. Objects attributed to the Cain family range in color from a transparent glaze over a red clay body to oranges, yellows, dark green, brown and black; some examples are thick and heavy and others less so. The most distinctive characteristic of Cain wares is the appearance of manganese splotches.
The largest number of pots in the exhibit were made in Greene County. Potter Christopher Alexander Haun of Greene County is considered by some to have been one of the most skilled potters in Tennessee. He decorated his redware vessels with bold swaths of copper oxide, giving a bright green color against the reddish clay. It was also his custom to apply decorative stamps at the bases of the handles and the upper shoulders of his jars. He also stamped them “C.A. HAUN & CO.” His life was cut short when, at 40, he was hanged for his part as one of the Bridge Burners. All examples known to date by Christopher Haun are said to be on view in the exhibition.
Lewis Manning Haun was the younger brother of Christopher Haun, and a stoneware potter who worked into the late Nineteenth Century. His surviving work is often decorated with cobalt three-prong sprigs and floral elements. One jug with cobalt decoration was also stamped with a leaf pattern around the handles.
Swiss-born Samuel Smith Jr arrived in Knoxville in 1819. He was described in the census as a stoneware maker and 13 kilns of wares were said to have been manufactured, 12 of which were stoneware. Smith’s pots were coated on the interior and exterior with an iron wash. One of the rarest objects on view is on view is a dark brown stoneware flask made by Smith around 1820. His career in Knoxville was short-lived; he left the area for Texas by 1830.
Germany-born Charles Frederick Decker arrived with his four sons in Washington County in 1872 and set up his Keystone Pottery, which he had operated in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. At first he made bricks for his home, then stoneware downspouts and cobalt decorated tiles for other personal domestic purposes. Decker was one of the few East Tennessee potters to produce stoneware. It is speculated that his experience in Philadelphia and Wilmington enabled him to easily recognize that clay.
Decker’s Keystone Pottery was prolific, making regular shipments of products to other parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky. The wares included salt glazed stoneware crocks, jugs and churns, as well as pitchers, flower pots, paving blocks, stoneware drainpipes, chicken fountains, chamber pots, inkwells, tombstones and garden ornaments and face jugs. Most of these were decorated with Decker’s distinctive cobalt flared tulips, dots, swags and pinpricks, with some decorative stamping. In much of its later wares, Keystone used manganese slip before salt glazing, resulting in occasional yellow flashing. Many of his pots show strong similarities to Philadelphia pieces.
While many East Tennessee potters decorated their jugs using stamps, Knoxville potter William Grindstaff used a half-crescent mark enclosing the legend “Knoxville, Tenn.” Grindstaff also worked in Blount County.
The recent appearance of previously unknown examples of Mort pottery in the marketplace has expanded the knowledge of that family’s pottery that was located in Jefferson County. Mort pottery pieces have a light tan body and distinctive glazes †the Mort family came from Virginia and their work relates to that tradition. A miniature redware jug on view incised and dated “George Mort, May the 27th 1859” is said to be early for a piece of signed Tennessee pottery. The jug is decorated with a triple sine wave incising and with triple incised lines around the upper body, with circular and diamond starburst stamps around the lower midsection. The pulled handle has a starburst stamp at the terminus.
Carter County was settled early, but little information is available about potters there. Records suggest that there were some 70 plantations in the county, some of which must have maintained operating potteries.
“Tennessee Turned: Earthenware and Stoneware Made in East Tennessee 1800‱900” remains on view through October 31. The Museum of East Tennessee History is at 601 South Gay Street. For general information, 865-215-8824 or www.easttnhistory.org .
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