Season 1, Episode 8
The Potter Is in! Pt. 2
In the last part of this two-part episode, Stuart Marshall continues his discussion on the importance of Moravian pottery as well as providing information on the materials used to make the pottery, the difference in pottery techniques used today compared to 18th and 19th century, and his experience trying to retrace the steps of these Moravian potters.
Announcer: James Landolf
Transcript for The Potter Is in! Pt. 2
Announcer: This is Moravian Mornings. A podcast discussing the history surrounding the Moravians who settled in Wachovia.
Maizie: Hello everyone, and welcome to Moravian Mornings. This is part two on our discussion with Stuart Marshall on pottery, so let’s get started.
Maizie: Do you care to talk a little bit more about what types of materials they used?
Stuart: The most important material a good potter needs is a good source of clay, and that’s the first thing that Gottfried Aust wanted to find when he came down here to Bethabara in 1755. That was the first thing he did after getting settled in just a little bit. I think the very next day, he went to dig for clay. As y’all know, Bethabara, we have the Monarcas Creek that runs pretty much through those bottom-land fields there, which weren’t necessary fields at the time. He knew to look along the creek beds for a good source of clay and very quickly found a good source of clay that would work well for him. Again, in the Piedmont, we have a lot of red – red clays is what we call it – red, sort of orange in color. This is used for what is sometimes called redware pottery but is more accurately described as earthenware, which is fired at a pretty low temperature actually. If you think of terracotta, that is a form of earthenware. It actually does not change color that much when you fire it, because you’re not firing it at a really high temperature.
For the Moravians’ purposes that really made sense for making a lot of sort of cheaper, mass produced pieces cause they had an abundant sources of earthenware clay. Now, I’ve been through Bethabara, and I’ve walked along the creek. I have had no luck in finding any good clay really. We think either they used it all or the creek has changed quite a bit just due to natural erosion, probably some dredging or rerouting of some of the creeks probably in the early 20th-Century. It’s interesting though, because again, everybody thinks the Moravian wrote everything down, right? Which they did describe a lot of things in detail, but we actually don’t know exactly how they were processing the clay. We know they weren’t exactly digging it straight out of the ground and putting it right on the wheel and turning with it. They refer to what’s called washing the clay which we think is just a basis sifting process of getting out some of the rocks and sticks and larger grit, but we also know from archaeology, which we’ll take a little bit more about later, we know from that record that they left rocks as big as a quarter-inch in the clay body that they were using.
Obviously, they didn’t process it too much, at least for the general earthenware stuff. Later, they might have made a more refined clay to use for some of the thinner pieces. I’ve dug a lot of local clay and had a lot of trouble using it. Most potters today, of course, get their clay from a distributor, but if you just want to go out in your backyard and dig some clay, it’s not quite that easy. Something I found that I wanted to keep a very basic sort of sifting process and regretted that almost immediately because when I went to throw with it, it was super gritty. It felt like throwing sandpaper. For those of you that have seen me throw before or seen any potter on the wheel, one of the first steps after actually throwing the clay down on the wheel, you’re centering that clay. Sometimes, especially if you’re making a larger jug or a pot, it’s a heavy piece of clay. You’re really pushing against it. You’re really trying to get it centered on the wheel perfectly. You’re pushing pretty hard and with a very gritty clay, I scraped up some of my hands working with some of that, so I don’t recommend that at all.
In general too, you might find what you think will be a good clay but you really don’t know until you try throwing with it and, of course, firing it to see if it will survive without blowing up or crumbling. I’ve tested out a bunch of different colors of clay and different source with pretty limited success. I think I finally have something I can work with now. In general, the other issue of it is the plasticity or how much you can bend the clay, how much you can bend it to your will, how much you can manipulate. Any clay, you don’t want to manipulate it too much or it will inherently become fragile or unstable, but if you’re making say a handle for a mug, that sort of thing. If you have a really gritty clay or a clay that’s not very plastic, you’re going to have a hard time using it. All of that to say, I have tremendous respect for these early Moravian potters because they could do things like finding really good clay, of course producing really remarkable pieces with it, and sometimes they didn’t think it necessary to write down. It was almost a non-topic because they were just so skilled to begin with. It’s pretty impressive.
Now, some of the other materials. I’ve mentioned slip, which slip is basically a liquid clay. I guess sort of a milk consistency, like it’s still pretty thick. To that slip, they would add different minerals to give it different colors, and the materials included cooper and manganese and other things. Now, for some of the slipware plates that the Moravians became famous for. They have a lot of floral designs. They used a lot of slip for those. They used a white slip called kaolin, which is a different type of clay that they dug at Bethabara. We don’t know exactly where they were digging it, and we don’t know if any of it survives. It’s a white clay that they could use for some of the more refined pieces of pottery as well as a slip for sort of a white base layer or a white line that they could draw on. Now for the glaze, this is something everybody loves, but the glazes were lead based.
Really at the time, the Moravians, and a lot of other potters for sure, they had three primary ingredients of the glaze. That’s flint, sometimes quarts, silica, and lead. Now the Moravians got to Bethabara, they needed to find a good source for all of those things. We know that they actually got, at least I think by the 1760s, they were trading lead with Fort Dobbs. They would load up wagons of finished pottery, take it out to the western part of the colony to Fort Dobbs, and trade it for lead. We know too from the archaeological at Fort Dobbs that they did use Moravian pottery there, and some of it survived there. Of course, lead is toxic as we know it, and we actually have indication that the Moravian potters and other potters knew that at the time, but they weren’t too concerned about it.
Casey: Do you have a favorite Moravian potter?
Stuart: That is a difficult question right there. There are a bunch of other Moravian potters too that I haven’t even mentioned like John Holland who worked at Salem. I’ve really hit on the main ones that worked at Bethabara. I really do love Aust because he was the first in the tradition in the sense. Of course, he was carrying on an older tradition from Moravia and from Germany, but just the variety of forms he was able to produce. He was humble in some ways. I think Christ thought that Aust was full of himself because he was the old master and everything had to be by his way, and Christ wanted to dabble in some of the different styles. I really do have a lot of respect of Aust. He was so skilled, but he could also just make a lot of consistent and high volume of stuff that was sort of a beautiful simplicity to it sometimes.
Maizie: Can you talk a little bit about how similar techniques today are to techniques that they used in the 1700s in pottery making?
Stuart: Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind, of course, the tools have changed. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that we have to remember the Moravians at the time were, especially Aust in Aust’s time, he was just cranking out really as many pots as he could. Of course, he’s making really good pots, but, essentially, he wanted to spend the least amount of time on each piece that he could. That way he could have higher volume, fill up the kiln, get it ready to go. I know a lot of potters today, and a lot of potters that are way more skilled than I am, so I’m not at all saying this is a matter of skill, but a lot of potters today do a lot of trimming. Moravians at the time, they would have used ribs or chips and some other tools in throwing to make for instance a mug really thin, so that it’s not too heavy when you pick it up. They would not trim that piece later. Of course, they’d cut it off the wheel. They let it get bone dry. They do a bisque firing, then glaze it, fire it again, and then it’s done.
A lot of potters today- of course, again, the tools have changed. We have electric kilns and that sort of thing. A lot of potters today will throw a mug for instance and then let it dry out to what’s called “leather hard,” a leather hard state. They’ll then flip it upside down and trim off some of the excess from the bottom. Now, that’s a great way for a lot of potters today to sort of get a lot of consistency in their pieces, make their pieces more lightweight. That sort of thing, but that is not the sort of task that Moravians would have seen a lot of value in doing at the time. That is, I think, one of the major changes. But yeah, the tools are obviously different. A lot of potters today, they do slip work and, of course, brushwork is probably more common of painting pieces, painting them with glaze that is. The slip cups that they used back in the day were ceramic to hold the slip and then generally a feather nozzle, sometimes a bone, a carved bone nozzle, but generally a turkey or goose quill nozzle to it. Today, even potters that are replicating some of these 18th-Century Moravian pieces, they use, of course, rubber bottles and that sort of thing.
Maizie: Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of pottery at Bethabara?
Stuart: I might be a little biased here. Again, because I have a lot of respect for the Moravian potters, and I’ve spent the better part of two years now trying and failing to replicate some of the stuff they made. I think really when we look at how rich of a pottery tradition we have in North Carolina today. Of course, Seagrove is one of the most famous spots. We really have one of the most thriving pottery traditions in the U.S. I think, at least in terms of tradition and in terms of inspiration, a lot of that can be traced to the Moravians and, of course, the first Moravians at Bethabara down here. If we look at some of those apprentices that I’ve mentioned in passing. They are also important because a lot of them, they train under Aust and Christ at Bethabara and Salem. They go on to make their own shops in time. There’s one interesting case. We talked about Christ and some of the other apprentices maybe doing pranks and misbehaving during their time in the pottery shop.
There was a guy named Jacob Mayer who was born in Bethabara, I think in 1771, and he trained under Aust at Salem. in the pottery shop. Eventually his brother-in-law was actually Gottlob Krause who was a potter at Bethabara here in the 1780s. Mayer, I believe, was kicked out of the Moravian Church for his bad behavior, which they’re kind of vague about it in the Records, but we can sort of speculate what that might have been. Eventually, and this is a pretty exciting recent, somewhat recent, archaeological discovery. He went on to build his own pottery shop in Randolph County, which is called the Mount Shepherd site. From the excavations there, we know that he copied a lot of the same styles and forms that he had learned from Aust and the other potters in the Moravian towns here. He was not the only one to spread out. There were a bunch of other apprentices that, again, trained under Aust and Christ and went to all parts of what was Rowan County at the time, down to Salisbury. In a new book that just came out by Steven Compton about North Carolina’s Moravian potters. He points out that there’s evidence of, I believe, two potters that were from Bethabara here, they went to Nashville, Tennessee and started their own shops there.
We don’t have a lot of evidence about what that business was like or the kind of stuff they were making. We know a general site of where it was, but there’s been no archaeological study there, so we don’t know exactly what they’re making or if any surviving pieces of their work are around. At the very least, it shows you that the Moravians here were training a lot of people and influencing a lot of people in terms of the market for pottery. That definitely carried through the generations of North Carolina potters. I think a lot of potters today, they continue to be inspired by the Moravians. A lot of potters that are more skilled than I at replicating some of the Moravian pieces are obviously very deliberately inspired and then plenty of other potters too, I think, are at the very least subconsciously inspired by a lot of these famous Moravian pieces.
Maizie: You’ve mentioned the archaeology at Bethabara a few times. Can you go a little bit more in-depth about the archaeology at Bethabara and its connections and what we’ve learned about the Moravian pottery through the archaeology?
Stuart: Of course, the Moravian records are very extensive and very detailed about many things, but they don’t tell us everything. That’s one of the reasons that Bivins and some other scholars maybe misattributed some things to the Moravians, and there are a bunch of other problems with that. It wasn’t until really the mid-20th-Century that, generally speaking, that we have more archaeologically evidence about Moravian pottery. Now, some of the slip ware plates and other more stylized pieces, those actually became heirloom pieces in a lot of families, so they were handed down, remained intact, and eventually found their way into different museum collections. We knew we could trace those back to the Moravian potters. There are lots of other things we didn’t know about different styles of pieces and, of course, different locations of pottery shops. Those came to light really when archaeologists began to excavate Bethabara and other sites.
Casey: When was the excavation at Bethabara? It was like 1950s?
Stuart: Started in 1963. One of my favorite works of archaeology, again a little biased here maybe, Stan South’s Historical Archaeology in Wachovia. This was the first major study about archaeology at Bethabara. Bethabara’s Gemeinhaus that dates to 1788, it was used as an active Moravian church at least until 1953 which, of course, was the bicentennial of their history at the site. After that, Bethabara sort of very slowly transitions into being what we now know it as a city park and historic site. In between those years, Stan South and other archaeologists, they begin the process of excavating Bethabara. As y’all know, when Bethabara sort of not really shut down, it shifted from being the main spot for Moravians when Salem became more established as the main city in the 1770s. They tore down a lot of the buildings, filled in the foundations cause they wanted to sort of maximize the field space out there. A lot of the buildings that we see, at least the outlines of today, people in the early 20th Century, mid-20th-Century didn’t know those were there.
Stan South and others did a lot to uncover not only those foundations but actually dig deeper into the cellars. Now, lucky for us, the potters left behind what are called “waster dumps.” It’s what it sounds like. It’s basically where they throw all their waste which could include food waste and other things. Of course, it more refers to the pottery waste. These are the reject pieces. It’s kind of funny that we spend so much time admiring and looking at these broken pieces that were mostly rejected pieces. Again, I can tell you from experience. Sometimes these were perfect pieces that you’re really proud of and then you do something stupid like trip and drop them or you pick up a piece of greenware by the handle and the handle snaps off before you’ve had a chance to fire it. That sort of stupid thing that I do all the time. It certainly happened plenty with the Moravian potters. I think most of the time they were firing defects, so either the fire got too high of a temperature, sometimes too low of a temperature, and the pottery was rejected.
Again, we know they’re not putting their signature on these pieces so really the quality of the pieces is their signature. They don’t want any inferior quality pottery out there attached to them. They threw away all kinds of stuff, and sometimes they were more or less full pieces, sometimes very tiny pieces. We can look at these waster dumps, and that’s what Stan South and the others did, excavated them, put together some of these pieces that told us a lot about the clay, the glazes, the materials, some of the pieces that we maybe suspected they were making but didn’t have any evidence of, and we really got a fully appreciation of the full variety of things they were making and also the extent of things they were making. That was, I think over a decade of work really, and it’s still ongoing at some sites. For instance, I actually volunteered for a kiln site in Salem that was related to John Holland I believe, so they’re doing all kinds of ongoing excavations. We are sometimes really just scratching the surface about the true skill and imaginative genius I guess with the Moravian potters.
Stuart: If y’all want to learn a little bit more about some Moravian pottery, at least see the actual site of Bethabara and some of the things we’ve discussed, you can check out two of the virtual field trips that I did for the site. One is basically about Aust in the early years, and the second one is about Christ and Oliver and some of the other developments into the 1780s at Bethabara.
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.
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/)