American stoneware, the Tupperware of the 19th century, has been embraced by today’s collectors for its craftsmanship, form and simple decorations. These salt-glazed vessels of storage were used and used and used again by homemakers and storekeepers of the late 1800s. Thousands of crocks, jugs, and canning jars were made to meet the consumer demand of the era.
Early American settlers imported stoneware items from Europe. As potters refined their art, Colonists began to produce their own wares.
By the late 19th century stoneware was manufactured across the country. The industry flourished until glass fruit jars appeared and the use of refrigeration became widespread. By 1910 most commercial production of salt-glazed stoneware ended.
“To some extent it is possible to date a piece of stoneware by its form or shape and the manner in which it was decorated,” write Don and Carol Raycraft in their book Wallace-Homestead Guide to American Country Antqiues.
Most pieces from the late 18th century to the 1830s are pear-shaped. The decorations tend to contain flowers or patriotic symbols that were incised with a metal tool.
As demand for stoneware increased, incising became too labor intensive and gave way to slip-trailing. That process involved pouring a thin line of cobalt slip (liquid clay) onto a piece, leaving a raised line of cobalt on the surface. Slip-trailing was common from the 1830s to the 1880s.
Brushes were used for decorating pieces between the 1850s and 1880s, though some fine examples were produced into the early 1900s.
Prices for the more ordinary forms such as crocks and jugs are steadily increasing. Flower pots, churns, and water coolers are less common and fetch higher prices.
A circa 1880 flower pot with a wreath design recently sold at auction for $385. The circa 1870, 6-gallon churn produced by C.W. Braun of Buffalo, N.Y., realized $742 at the same sale — nearly triple the presale estimate.
Certain well-known makers, like Bennington and Burger, command higher prices.
A 3-gallon churn by Burger brought twice its estimated value, selling for $3,410 despite a crack running down the back. While it might be common to find a size designation on most pieces, like a large “2” indicating the piece holds two gallons, an image of a horse or rooster increases collector interest and the price.
A crock with a common image may be worth $50, but the same crock with a deer surrounded by trees slip-trailed across its surface might command $2,500.
“When it is objectively evaluated, we find a $50 piece of stoneware decorated with a $2,450 cobalt deer,” write the Raycrafts.
Stoneware collectors are somewhat tolerant of slight damages, professional repairs, and defects because they know the pieces were hand made and then probably used hard for generations, according to Bruce Waasdorp, who conducts a semiannual auction of decorated stoneware with his wife, Vicki.
Waasdorp estimates there are 10 to 20 percent new bidders with each auction. He believes the strong prices realized at his spring auction were due in part to collectors investing in stoneware rather than the traditional financial markets.
Hand-thrown stoneware prices in the Waasdorps’ spring auction ranged from $33 for an unsigned 2-gallon cylinder to $12,925 for the 4-gallon jug (circa 1850) made by W. H. Farrar & Co., shown below left.
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