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May 12, 2009

New stoneware exhibition rocks "Pottery With a Past"

A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum explores the rich history of stoneware in Britain’s American colonies and the new nation from the first English settlements through 1800.

“Pottery With a Past: Stoneware in Early America” presents a wide array of drinking, dining and storage vessels—in ceramic forms ranging from utilitarian jugs to exquisite decorative teapots—made in England, Germany and early America. The exhibition, made possible with generous funding from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, opens May 30.

“This exhibition examines the fascinating assortment of stoneware available to early Americans,” said lead curator Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of ceramics and glass. “We are excited to give our guests an opportunity to see the unique characteristics and cultural crosscurrents evident in this slice of ceramic history.”

The exhibition includes more than 300 intact objects and archaeological fragments—recovered from sites in New England, the Middle Atlantic and Southern colonies—along with rare extant objects with histories of ownership. Many of these objects, from Colonial Williamsburg’s holdings and more than forty-five private and public collections, are exhibited for the first time. “Pottery With a Past: Stoneware in Early America” will be on view through January 2, 2011.

Stoneware became an integral part of daily life in America beginning with the first European settlements. Initially produced in Germany during the Middle Ages, salt-glazed stoneware has distinctive properties. It is impervious to the harmful effects of highly saline or acidic solutions, making it particularly well suited for use in preparing and storing a wide range of liquids and foodstuffs. During the first half of the 17th century—before the development of Britain’s green glass bottle industry—stoneware was the only appropriate material for such tasks. When glass bottles became available on a widespread basis, stoneware’s durability continued to make it the first choice for a wide range of domestic and tavern uses.

German stoneware was imported into England and the American colonies in large quantities with archaeological evidence found in the earliest American settlements. By the late 17th century, German stoneware from the Westerwald region was being decorated specifically to appeal to the British, and by extension, American, market. Pieces bearing the monograms of English monarchs from William and Mary to George III were staples of colonial American households. Popular forms included jugs, mugs, tankards, and chamber pots. Even less common vessels such storage jars and flower pots also are documented.

England’s success at mimicking Germanic wares and developing new versions of stoneware soon followed. John Dwight of Fulham is credited with establishing the industry in England in the late 17th century, producing stoneware in imitation of imported German goods. By 1700, Dwight was making mugs and tankards coated with white slip to simulate the appearance of Chinese blanc de chine porcelain. Fragments of a teapot made at the Dwight pottery circa 1700 have been excavated from the James Geddy property in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and offer the first definitive evidence of ownership of this early type of English stoneware in the American colonies. Staffordshire potters perfected white salt-glazed stoneware, and by the middle 18th century, such ceramics supplanted pewter and delft as staple tablewares in middling and gentry homes, and included colorful variations embellished with various decorative techniques.

Drawing upon robust traditions in England and Germany for their inspiration, American potters also produced stoneware during the colonial period, but scarcity of essential clays and competition from imported goods continually challenged domestic manufacturers and limited production. Because most potteries were short-lived and American-made stoneware can be difficult to distinguish from its European counterparts, comparatively little has been published about its production in the 18th century.

“Surviving objects, archaeological fragments from pottery sites and contemporary documentary references—brought together for the first time—reveal a wide range of American production,” said co-curator Suzanne Findlen Hood, associate curator of ceramics and glass. Skerry and Hood will include more than 300 color photographs, maps, and line drawings along with useful articles and appendices as co-authors of a new book, Salt-glazed Stoneware In Early America, to be published this fall by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Entrance to Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is through the Public Hospital of 1773 at 325 Francis Street between Nassau and South Henry Streets. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Annual Museums Pass or Good Neighbor Pass.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution guests interact with history through “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281