Sunday, March 12, 2017

Potters Here, There, and Everywhere

Muskingum County is famous for its pottery, and the products of companies such as Weller, Hull, and McCoy are much sought after by collectors.

George Rambo, "Farmer & Potter",
operated a bluebird pottery.
Before the big manufacturers, though, Muskingum County, rich in clay soil, was rich in small, usually family-run, potteries. These potteries often employed only two or three people, and consequently, their production was low. James L. Murphy, who compiled a checklist of 19th-century Muskingum County potteries, believed the term "bluebird" referred to the time of year these potteries produced most of their wares---the warmer months when bluebirds returned to the county. Some, however, believe the term refers to the blue designs often used to decorate the pottery. Whatever the origin of the term, there were lots of bluebird potteries. Murphy found that 190 of these small potteries existed in Muskingum County between 1850-1880. If you've looked at U.S. censuses taken in the county during those years, and especially if you've researched Newton, Clay, and Hopewell townships, you would have seen person after person whose occupation was "potter", "journeyman potter", or "farmer & potter" like George Rambo, my 3-greats grandfather. George's daughter Mary Jane, married Andrew Jackson Wilson, another bluebird potter; Mary and Andrew were my great-great grandparents.

Shards of pottery from site of the A. J. Wilson Pottery. Note
the blue painted decoration on two of the pieces.
Bluebird potteries produced practical, utilitarian pottery items for every-day use. If the pottery were decorated, it was almost always a very simple design done in blue paint, or a design etched in the clay before it was fired. There might be a maker's mark somewhere on the object. Crocks and jars of all sizes seemed to be the type of object most produced, although any household object that could be fashioned from clay was possible. I once saw a sieve made from clay; it wasn't terribly attractive, but you could see it would be serviceable.

Andrew Jackson Wilson
My great-great grandfather's business, the A. J. Wilson Pottery, is shown on an 1866 map of Newton Township. Finding the site present-day, however, was a bit tricky, but superimposing the 1866 map onto a Google Earth view of the area made it possible to locate Andrew's pottery. Nothing is visible now; the area is overgrown with tall grass. But when you walk around the site, you find yourself walking on hundreds of pottery shards and lumps of fired clay. Even though there were only broken pieces, it was exciting to hold in my hands the bits of pottery crafted by Great-great Grandfather Andrew and his son-in-law, Great Grandfather, Warren McLean (see 3/3/17 post). Being a collector of family artifacts, I, of course, brought a few pieces home.
Lump of fired potter's clay. Could the
finger impressions be A. J. Wilson's?

For more information, see  James L. Murphy's Checklist of 19th Century Bluebird Potters and Potteries in Muskingum County, Ohio, edited by Jeff Carskadden and Richard Gartley. Published 2014 by Muskingum Valley Archaeological Survey, Zanesville, Ohio.

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