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The Potter’s Craft

by Lynne Belluscio

 

Mark Presher, who lives in LeRoy, has been the potter at Genesee Country Museum for many years. He presented a wonderful program at their Domestic Skills Symposium this past Saturday. He talked about the importance of the potter in a community.  In nearby Morganville, there was a blacksmith, a harness shop, a coopers shop, a grist mill and saw mill.  There was a boot and shoe shop, a wagon shop and a general store. There was also a trip hammer shop and Fortunatus Gleason’s pottery which was begun in 1827.  Probably the most important product of the potter in the early days was storage crocks. Albert McVean, in the Annual report for the LeRoy Historical Society cited a story that John and Mercy Shumway were married in March 19, 1835 in Pavilion and that they drove to Morganville to buy crockery with which to set up housekeeping. They bought two small covered crocks, one to hold salt and one to hold saleratus. (a type of leavening like baking soda).  Those two jars are in the collection of the LeRoy Historical Society. The remarkable thing about those two pots, is that someone actually wrote down what the two crocks were used for.

 Gleason’s pottery used local clay and produced redware which is often called earthenware. The clay was dug up and worked in a pug mill. After the clay was turned into pots, crocks or jugs, it was dried and then dipped in”slip” which was the glaze.   When fired in the kiln, the glaze turned shiny and sealed the clay.  Red ware was fired at a lower temperature than the grey stoneware which became popular later. The problem with red ware was that the glaze was lead based, and when acid foods were stored in the crocks, the lead leached into the food.  This was not unique to Morganville pottery.  The Romans knew that people got sick from redware glazed dishes.  Never the less, it was necessary to glaze the clay because it had to be water tight.

 Crocks were used for dry goods, such as salt and saleratus.  Fruit was preserved in sugar and put in crocks.  Sausage and meat (such as minced meat) were “potted” and sealed with a layer of molasses or lard.  Sometimes the tops of the crocks were covered with stretched cow bladders. (Believe it or not, when I worked at Genesee Country Museum, we acquired several cow bladders and tried this. When they were pulled tight and dried, they were like a drum head.)  Sometimes, when preserves were put into crocks, the tops were covered with muslin or paper. But the unusual and unique characteristic of Morganville pottery is the clay lids.  Mark has said he has never seen another 19th or 18th century pottery with this kind of lid.  Instead of the lid, sitting inside the top of the crock, the lid extends over the top and prevents dirt from collecting around the lid and dropping into the crock.  As they say, form follows function, and certainly this is an example of that axiom.

 

 

 

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