Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ode to the Cheese Slicer

Last spring, while taking a class at the Baltimore Clayworks with Jim Dugan I learned how to use a cheese slicer in order to add texture to the exterior of a vessel. I know this sounds simple enough, but I'm absolutely fascinated with my cheese slicer, and am hooked on the results. How does this work, you might ask? I have included a video showing how I make spiral facets on a mug form. It is basically using the cheese slicer to remove sections of clay in a variety of patterns. This leaves texture on the surface of the piece, which works really well in wood-fired and salt-fired kilns.  Aside from a spiraled texture, the cheese slicer may also be used to take smooth sections away, "boxing" in the sides of the piece. This can be seen in the photos of pieces made during the Baltimore Clayworks class.

Mug made at Baltimore Clayworks Spring 2010
Historically, potters used numerous tools in order to make texture. The Thompson family potters of Morgantown, West Virginia in the 19th-century used ribs, both wooden and some ribs of animals (look for an upcoming article in Ceramics in America highlighting the tools and techniques of these potters). Their tools are in the collection of the Smithsonian. I once helped butcher a goat, kept the bones in the freezer, but never got around to using them! When I was in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany in 2007 I had the opportunity to meet Elisabeth Dietz-Bläsner who operates Töpferhof Mühlendyck, which was begun by Frau Dietz-Bläsner's grandfather. Dietz-Bläsner uses a technique which has been used on Höhr-Grenzhausen pottery for centuries.
By using a flat-sided tool Dietz-Bläsner made a rocking motion while slowly moving the tool from left to right. This created a zig-zag texture. She had numerous sizes for the same tool giving her a range of options for the designs she made. Below are images of wares from 16th-18th century Germany which also used this technique. All of the pieces below are in the collections of the Keramikmuseum Westerwald.  
Two different patterns created on the shoulder and neck of the jug using the same tool
This piece was textured in rows with a broader flat-sided tool

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It Takes All Kinds

        This summer I have been working as an intern at Stratford Hall Plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia. I am wrapping up a project to create a furnishing and interpretation plan for their 18th-century kitchen outbuilding. I have enjoyed all of the research and it made me think more about the breadth of materials used in one space. You'll come to find that I adore utilitarian objects, and kitchens are one of my favorite spaces.
          Monticello's 2005 book entitled Dining at Monticello: in Good Taste and Abundance implies that copper was used primarily for French-style cooking in the 18th-century, and that copper was a rare material because of cost. But I disagree. After comparing 100 probate inventories from Maryland and Virginia, it seems that copper was commonplace in most kitchens, even those who had a few vessels to cook with. The materials of choice for the kitchen were determined by the recipe, as Marc Meltonville from Hampton Court Palace pointed out in a presentation at Winterthur this past spring (the video I've linked with Hampton Court is wonderful, and I wish I could do such a thing here!). Similar to my blog post on particular crocks for preserving and pickling, here's an example for the differences in metals. Hannah Glasse notes in her publication The Art of Cookery (1747) that “If you boil turnips for sauce, don’t boil it all in the pot, it makes the broth too strong of them, but boil them in a sauce-pan.” A pot (likely iron) would have cooked the turnips very quickly, and made a strong, heavy boil. However, a sauce pan would have simmered or cooked the turnips slower. This implies that the pot was used over direct flame, hanging from the crane in the hearth, while the sauce pan was used over coals on a trivet.
William Rogers Mug 2nd Quarter 18th-century
          You're probably saying, "Brenda, you're off on a tangent," and I am, but it is going somewhere. The ceramics in the kitchen were just as variable as the metal objects. We often go to historic house museums and do not see the variety of ceramics which would have been present. This is not because there were not a variety of ceramics in the kitchen, it is more likely due to the limited amount of potters making good reproductions for use and interpretation. It also has more to do with the limited survival rate of ceramic objects which were used in kitchens. Thus, we need to look below ground. I love sherds. Part of my research for Stratford Hall has involved looking at the archaeological material from Stratford, as well as comparing it to other kitchen sites. Below ground there are innumerable amounts of coarse red earthenware, "Buckley" ware, brown and gray salt-glazed stoneware, as well as refined wares such as creamware, pearlware, white salt-glazed stoneware, and even porcelain. The coarse wares go hand in hand with the everyday functions of the kitchen from storing materials, foodstuffs, preserving, and cooking. Earthenware has the advantage of being able to withstand localized heat, therefore, earthenware dishes may be found charred on one side, or on the bottom. Stoneware unfortunately (yes, I've experienced this), does not enjoy localized heat as it cannot evenly distribute the heat because it is vitrified. So, the coarse wares had their own particular uses like the metals. "Buckley" ware which I have developed a fondness for, is a wonderfully thick, coarsely-thrown ware which shows up archaeologically primarily in bowl and dish form. Even the imported wares could be brought in cheaply enough that local producers were not creating identical forms. For example, Kelly Ladd at the Colonial Williamsburg archaeology lab told me that the "Poor Potter" of Yorktown (William Rogers) was not creating the forms similar to "Buckley" ware, which implies that the "Buckley" ware could be made and imported cheaply. Rogers chose to challenge the English brown stoneware market as well as producing local red earthenware. The presence of refined wares, especially in the yard between the kitchen and the main house (at least where there are kitchen outbuildings such as at Stratford), exemplifies the use of the kitchen not only as a place for the preparation of the food, but also the plating. In short, a good kitchen setting should have a variety of materials which reflect the local foodways and trade, but also the archaeological evidence below ground.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What a Crock!

        I've been pickling lately, and have been thinking about the varieties of crocks which have historically been made for pickling and potting foods. Historically, there is not a clear definition for what a "pickling pot,"a "butter pot," or "preserve pot" was. These items show up frequently in probate inventories, and on rare occasions are specified in recipes. For example, as Janine Skerry and Suzanne Hood noted in their book Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, a recipe from a 1753 manual read as follows:
       "Rules to be observed in Pickling. Always use Stone Jars for all Sorts of Pickles that require hot Pickle to them. The first Charge is the least; for these not only last longer, but keep the Pickle better; for Vinegar and Salt will penetrate through all earthen Vessels; Stone and Glass is the only Thing to keep Pickles in. Be sure never to put your Hands in to take Pickles out; it will soon spoil them. The best Way is, to every Pot tie a Wooden Spoon, full of little Holes, to take the Pickles out with...Cover your Pickling Jars with a wet Bladder, and Leather."(page 73)
       I recently came across the probate inventory of Daniel Hornby from 1750 which specified in his dairy 1 blue and white stone butter pot [likely "scratch blue"], 4 brown stone butter pots [likely English brown], and 2 earthen butter pots. It must have been understood as to what type of vessel to use for what was being processed, and it was not necessary to specify since most everyone understood those differences! There must have also been an understanding of shape and size related to what was being processed as can be seen in the photograph from the exhibit which corresponded with the stoneware book at Colonial Williamsburg. These were all roughly made in the same time period (18th century), but the collar, shoulder, belly, and rims are all very different. While this could have something to do with the potters who made them, it is interesting to think of shapes related to what is getting packed inside. Pickles float, so the high round shoulder may have been more appropriate, and potted meats may have been easier to pack in a straight-sided vessel.
       Then again, admittedly, I also understand how the glass industry overcame the pottery industry as I reach for my convenient Ball canning jar, ring, and lid to nicely pack the vegetables and store them in smaller serving sizes.