Season 1, Episode 7
The Potter Is in!
In this first part of a two-part episode, Historic Bethabara Park’s current potter, Stuart Marshall, provides a brief history of the pottery trade and potters of Bethabara from the 1700s to the 1800s, their differing pottery styles, and the importance of their work.
Announcer: James Landolf
Transcript for The Potter Is in!
Announcer: This is Moravian Mornings. A podcast discussing the history surrounding the Moravians who settled in Wachovia.
Casey: Welcome to this week’s episode of Moravian Mornings. This week, we are speaking to Bethabara’s current potter, Stuart Marshall. This is going to be a two-part episode on the potters and pottery of Bethabara. Before we begin, Stuart would you mind introducing yourself?
Stuart: Hey everyone. I’m Stuart Marshall. I am a PhD student at UNCG, and I’m the potter here at Bethabara, and I started working at Bethabara about two years ago, trying to retrace the steps of some of the earlier potters at the site.
Maizie: Ok, so pottery is one of the more important trades of Bethabara. Could you talk about the different potters that were at Bethabara?
Stuart: The first potter at Bethabara was Gottfried Aust, and he arrived in 1755. Based on the documentary evidence that we have, we actually think that the pottery shop he built there was the first one in the colony of North Carolina. Now, of course, I’m going to qualify that by saying that there was a long tradition of Native pottery in North Carolina, in what is now North Carolina, especially the Cherokee and Catawba traditions. In terms of a wheel-thrown and kiln-fire potter set up commercial operation, Gottfried Aust, based on the evidence, he was the first one in North Carolina in 1755. Now, there are a few other scholars that refer to a man named Johannes Adam who was in Salisbury. This is interesting because he’s listed as a potter, and he buys a lot of land in Salisbury, but we actually don’t have any real evidence to suggest that he had a successful pottery shop, and we don’t have any surviving pieces of his work.
But, Gottfried Aust, for sure we have a lot of surviving pieces, as well as some excavated pieces of pieces of his work. He was born in Europe, and he trained as potter in Hernhutt and joined the Moravian Church there. He was a little bit of a rebel because his father was a weaver, and he was prepared for that trade but decided to, again, join the Moravian Church and learn the potter’s trade. By the 1750s, he was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He did some pottery there before being sent down to Bethabara in 1755. Now, originally as y’all know, Bethabara was just supposed to be sort of a temporary farming settlement, and the early residents there petitioned the Bishop, begging for a potter to be sent down so they could set up a shop and have plates, dishes, and everything. He told them to make do with mostly wooden dishes that they had brought with them, and they were not about that at all. Eventually they did convince him that a pottery shop at Bethabara would be a good idea, so Gottfried Aust arrived in November of 1755, and he very quickly started to make some pieces and set up a very successful shop.
Some of the first pieces he made actually were tobacco pipes that we have some surviving examples of. I like to think of these sort of as his business cards. Again, if we think about the backcountry of North Carolina, most of North Carolina’s population was towards the coast, and they could import pottery pretty easily. It might have been a little expensive, but in the backcountry, people did not have access to a lot of pottery. Gottfried Aust, he makes this sort of smaller, experimental kiln and starts firing some of these pipes and passing them out, sort of, I think, as business cards to sort of advertise the start of their shop there. By May of 1756, he gives these pipes, the Moravians hand them out to a troop of Cherokees that were passing through Bethabara at the time. So, already the pipes Gottfried Aust worked were getting spread all over the Southern backcountry.
Aust was a true master potter in the Moravian tradition. It was mostly wheel-thrown work, of course. He stays in Bethabara until about 1771 when the Moravian Church sort of mandates that all the tradesmen in Bethabara need to set up shop in Salem to establish Salem as the main trades center and city. Now, Aust definitely had a lot of help in building a shop so quickly, and he had quite a few apprentices that worked under him. The most famous of these apprentices was Rudolph Christ. They had a very interesting relationship. Christ was also born in Europe, I believe, but by 1766, there’s evidence that he was working as an apprentice for Aust in the pottery shop at Bethabara. He was pretty skilled early on but even early on, we have evidence that he wasn’t necessarily getting along very well with Aust, because he also worked at Bethabara’s brewery and later on worked at the gunsmith shop and several other places. Eventually it got to be that Aust and Christ really did not get along, and at times, Christ would request to be sent away either to other settlements or to other shops to work with someone. He was tired of working under Aust. I should mention, he was a teenager at the time, may have had something to do with it. Aust described Christ, his apprentice, described him as a “silly ass” or “stupid ass,” depending on the translation, if you’ll pardon my German there.
In a sense, he may have been right. because they, he truly, I think, deliberately sort of, I guess, undermined Aust’s authority. We also know it was typical at the time for these apprentices to pull a lot of pranks and that sort of thing and always sort of neglect their job a bit. We have record that Christ, he’d like to hunt and trap, so he’d always go off in the woods. There some later records at Salem, some of the apprentices I think actually, they took cats and put them inside the pottery shop on the shelves so Aust, or maybe one of the other potters, would come and open up the shop, and everything would be broken. I can tell you from personal experience, cats and pottery do not mix. I’ve had plenty of stuff broken. We know that apprentices, they were certainly, reasonably skilled, but they were also, again, younger and maybe pushing back against some of the strict rules they were under, doing a lot of pranks and that sort of thing and not always getting along very well. In other sense though, Aust was wrong about Christ because Christ in his day eventually becomes a very talented, a very innovative potter that produces some really nice work.
Another potter at Bethabara who is very important to the site, and that of Salem too, I did want to mention Peter Oliver. Now, Peter Oliver we have less information about. He was born into slavery in Virginia, and eventually, he became bound to the Salem Single Brothers for labor and eventually he learns the potter’s trade. He works under Rudolph Christ as Bethabara. This is really difficult because, in a sense, it’s a master-slave relationship, and it’s also a master-apprentice relationship. We don’t really know exactly what that relationship was like; however, we do know that Peter Oliver did become very skilled during his time at Bethabara as a potter. We know that he worked with another Bethabara potter named Gottlob Krause, and they did not get along for whatever reason. Christ actually presented the issue to church leadership and asked to be sent back to Salem to work with Christ who was then the master potter at Salem after Aust. This is really fascinating because we know that Peter Oliver was very skilled. He was a very valuable craftsman, and he eventually purchases his own freedom at least partly through his labor as a potter.
The other interesting aspect of that is potters at the time typically did not sign their work. So we actually, unless we can trace it to a particular shop, that sort of thing, we don’t know whose hands actually made the piece. As far as I know and as far as that’s up to date right now, we don’t have any surviving pieces of Oliver’s work that we know of, but we know, of course, that he did have a hand in making a lot of pieces at Bethabara and Salem. I think the last main potter at Bethabara I want to talk about is John Butner. Now Butner operated in, what I use now, what we call the potter’s shop or potter’s house which is that 1782 brick building that’s sort of at the end of the street in Bethabara. Now you can tell from the outline of that building he added on. Butner added on to the side of it to add a shop. He also built a general store across the street where he, at least we think, he sold a lot of his pieces. I’ve uncovered evidence too that he actually was the post office manager of Bethabara, which at that point was called Old Towne.
Butner lived there in the 19th Century, and Bethabara was really was an old town at that point, so a lot of the really early profitability in the days of Aust and Christ. By the 19th Century, of course, Salem was the main site for pottery in the area, and in general Butner was making more utilitarian stuff, more definitely large pieces but basic storage jars and that sort of thing. Butner teaches his son Joseph, and they carry that tradition well into the 19th Century. We also know that, again, due to the decline in profitability there, they operated a farm. John Butner was also a state legislator. He sort of dabbled in a number of different things. We know he did have at least one enslaved man there that was working with him on the farm. We don’t know if he was trained in the pottery business or not, but it certainly would have been typical at the time for enslaved workers to at least do tasks like loading up kilns and firing the kilns and that sort of thing. Again, that is speculative, but it is something to think about.
What I would call the main potters that are significant to Bethabara’s history, but like I said, there were a bunch of other apprentices and people that helped out with the business there. Originally Bishop Spangenberg and the other church leadership did not want there to be a pottery shop at all to be in Bethabara, but, again, they didn’t realize that the French and Indian War would delay their plans for building Salem so much. Really, very quickly, it turned out to be a good decision down Gottfried Aust in 1755, because by 1756, they were already producing constant kiln loads. It’s really impressive how quickly he got to work. Of course, the main reason that they were thinking of was for the Moravian community themselves, at first at least. The first kiln order basically that they asked of Aust was a set of 100 Lovefeast mugs. They wanted 100 Lovefeast mugs all in uniform size, so that they could, of course, have the Lovefeasts. The uniform size, of course, reflects the, at least theoretically equality within the Moravian system of everybody getting the same share. That sort of thing.
They also asked for him to build stove tiles to assemble those ceramic stoves that are also pretty iconic. That, of course, was a style that you find throughout central Europe at the time. Really, not in the South, that I’m aware of at the time, anybody else was using ceramic tile stoves. Moravians were pretty unique in that regard. He also made shingles and some other things, and really, some pottery that was not used for kitchen use. He made oil lamps, chamber pots, of course, and plenty of other things, tobacco pipes also. Very quickly, the Moravians had all the pottery they needed, and people in the area, that is non-Moravians, began to learn that there was a pottery shop at Bethabara. We have record that some of them came from up to 100 miles away to buy pottery there. Some came from the Broad River in South Carolina. Some came from throughout North Carolina, different parts of South Carolina, maybe even Virginia to buy pottery at Bethabara.
We also know too that not only when people come to buy pottery and other things they needed, Moravians were shipping pottery as far east as Charleston in Cross Creek, which is now Fayetteville, and then as far west as Fort Dobbs which is really the western extent of North Carolina as a colony at the time. We know too that some days when they would open the pottery shop, or really the shop that they were selling the pottery through, the potter would all sell out by noon. They would have a full kiln load or multiple kiln loads that they had prepared, and people either would in advance notice know that there would be a new round of pottery coming out or they would just be passing through. Some people came 50, 60 miles, of course in some cases up to 100 miles away, and they would be turned away emptyhanded because they had already sold out. It got pretty feverish sometimes. Part of that is just due, I guess, the stresses of war time, the French and Indian War and later in the Revolution. People needed their basic necessities, and there were very few places to get them. Of course, people were not wanting to travel so much under the threat of war.
In the Records, I think we have a passage dating to the Revolution in Salem where there was a Patriot Colonel that actually drew his sword one time to push back a crowd of people at the Salem pottery because they had sold out, and people were getting ready to riot, I think. That’s how highly desired the pottery was at the time. Of course, really by the later 1750s into the 1760s, Bethabara was no longer the only pottery operation in North Carolina or in the backcountry at the time. Traditions emerge in Randolph County, Guilford County area, but the Moravians had already established that reputation for really good quality pottery, sort of continued to drive the market, desire for Moravian pottery.
Casey: Could you talk about their different styles?
Stuart: I think this was a point of contention, especially between Aust and Christ as I hinted at. Aust was a true master potter. Very much an emphasis on wheel-thrown work, and in his day too, though he was very highly skilled and produced a good variety of pieces, he made a lot of basic utilitarian stuff. That was sort of the bread and butter of the pottery business there. The basic storage jars and jugs that people needed for everyday kitchen and cooking use. Now, he was capable, of course, of making more stylized pieces, more fancy piece I guess you would say, like some of the slipware plates that he became famous for, especially later at Salem. Looking at the backcountry in the 1750s, 1760s, people were really looking, again, for cheaper storage jars for the most part. That sort of became the issue with Christ and his developing style as he aged. Now, Christ, he was not only influenced by the Moravian tradition that Aust and others brought over, he began to be inspired by the British traditions like Queens Ware, Staffordshire style pottery that we know that there were some British potters passing through the area at the time that did at least teach some of their methods to the Moravians potters.
Christ really began to be interested by some of these more stylized pieces. He made things such as tortoise shell patterns, which is typically made with a couple different colors, and you usually take a sponge or a brush and dip it in slip, which is sort of a liquid clay of different colors. You sort of apply it to the piece, and in the end, it gives you a sort of tortoise shell pattern to it. He also made a bunch of different other slipware designs that were not necessarily more sophisticated than what Aust made but probably a greater variety by Christ. He also very smartly began to experiment with the use of molds. Now, Aust did use some molds which were mostly plaster or wood molds that they could put clay into and, of course, make a bunch of identical pieces.
Christ realized the utility of that, I guess, and started to make some very fancy plates with sort of stylized rim to them, the style that you couldn’t really make very easily on a wheel. Really in the late 18th Century, early 19th Century, he begins to make some of the more iconic pieces that a lot of people identify him with which are the animal shapes. He makes a variety of bottles, like a squirrel-shaped bottle, turtle-shaped bottle, fish, crawdad. I mean, really anything you can think of. He made a flask with an eagle on it which kind of points you to an emerging American identity that the Moravians were sort of testing out, I guess. It shows you the full transition from that old Moravian style, to some of the British influences, and then stuff that really is uniquely American in style.
Maizie: We would like to thank Stuart for joining us today to discuss pottery at Bethabara. Be sure to listen to our episode next week as we finish up our discussion with Stuart on pottery.
Announcer: This has been an episode of Moravian Mornings, a Historic Bethabara Park podcast. If you have any questions or would like our hosts to discuss certain topics, please email us at Moravianmornings@gmail.com or message us on our Instagram page, also titled Moravian Mornings. Thanks for listening. Auf Wiedersehen.
 Stuart most likely meant Oliver.
Chipstone—Ceramics in America:
Luke Beckerdite and Johanna Brown: Eighteenth-Century Earthenware from North Carolina: The Moravian Tradition Reconsidered
Mary Farrell: Making North Carolina Earthenware
Alain C. Outlaw: The Mount Shepherd Pottery Site, Randolph County, North Carolina
Stephen C. Compton, “Research Note: The Eighteenth-Century Potters of Salisburyand Rowan County, North Carolina,” MESDA Journal Vol 39 (2018)
Stephen C. Compton, North Carolina’s Moravian Potters: The Art and Mystery of Pottery-Making in Wachovia (Fonthill Media LLC: America Through Time, 2019)
John Bivins, The Moravian Potters in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press for Old Salem, Inc., 1972)
Adelaide Fries, ed.,: Records of the Moravians in North Carolina Vol. 1
Adelaide Fries, ed.,: Records of the Moravians in NC, Vol. 3, p. 1231
Daniel B. Thorpe, The Moravian Community in Colonial North Carolina: Pluralism on the Southern Frontier (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)
Charles G. Zug III, Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1986).
MESDA piece: https://mesda.org/exhibit/storage-jar/
On my Way to Work by Lobo Loco (Attribution-NonCommericial-NoDerivatives: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)