Things Begin in the 18th Century
The history of decorative pottery in the United States begins in Pennsylvania in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, pottery wares would have been imported from Europe or may have been made at home. But this early colonial pottery would have been entirely functional, would have been produced in very small batches, and would not have had any decorative motifs added.
The Earliest Decorative Pottery
The very earliest decorative pottery was called “sgraffito” from the Italian word “graffiare” which means “to scratch.” The term refers to scratching through the top layer of the glaze on a piece of pottery, revealing the color underneath. This process can create very basic designs or can be used for more complex decorations. Despite the name origins, the early sgraffito pottery in America was created by German colonists. These German pottery pieces were in just a few main colors. These colors were cream, brown, red, blue, green, and pink.
Despite the simplicity of the technique being employed, the potters were able to produce many different types of decoration on their pieces. Some were given a marbleized coloring, but most wares were decorated in other ways. Some may have simply had inscriptions but popular designs included things like animals, people, and flowers. As time went on, pottery from Massachusetts and Connecticut also began to be decorative and not simply functional.
The Power of Imports
If it weren’t for importation from overseas, the American decorative pottery industry may have grown even more than it did. Unfortunately, imports from England, France, and Asia were relatively inexpensive and sometimes used techniques not yet available to the American potters. In order to better sell their wares, American pottery makers would copy popular designs and then pass them off as being an import. In addition, the development of transferware enabled pottery makers to create enormous amounts of pottery with the same design on it over and over again.
With so many people buying inexpensive imported pottery, there were far fewer customers for the domestic decorative pottery market. After all, why would people choose to purchase a piece of relatively crude domestic piece of decorative pottery when a more beautiful and more refined imported piece was available for a similar or even lesser price? With a lack of cash flow, it would have been difficult for pottery manufacturers to improve and refine their techniques so that they could make the type and quality of decorative pottery that the market was demanding. As a result, decorative pottery making in America stalled for many years.
The Pottery Market Grows
But as the 18th century started to draw to a close, something great happened to the pottery market. The increase of immigrants meant that English-trained pottery makers started to arrive in America, bringing the knowledge and techniques that they had learned in England. Instead of simply trying to copy pieces from England, these English potters were able to use the techniques that they were familiar with to create new pieces of their own As a result of this influence, pottery manufacturing in America started to reach new heights.
Pieces that were more beautiful, and thus more desirable for decoration, began to be produced. Correspondingly, the demand for American pottery grew as the quality of American pottery rose. By the beginning of the 19th century, demand was such that pottery manufacturers were no longer confined to a small area of the country. Most major cities had a pottery manufacturer nearby, though of course some cities or areas still produced pottery that was more desirable than pottery from elsewhere.
Pottery techniques continued to be refined throughout the 19th century, eventually resulting in imitation porcelain being produced in Jersey City. Unfortunately, this prosperity and creativity in American pottery didn’t last. Due to various reasons, by the time the 20th century dawned, there was very little decorative pottery being made in the United States. Because of this, some of the most desirable American pottery comes from the 18th century when production and design were at their peak.