Craft History: Pottery


The regional style of pottery in North Carolina began as a simple difference between cultures. In the mountains, the Cherokee and the Catawba Indians tribes, both native to North Carolina, have been making pottery distinctive to their own tribes for centuries. The Catawba, known as the river people, use a type of pit-firing and burnishing that makes their products shine, and they also imprinted animal designs on their work. The Cherokee used a paddle to imprint designs on their pottery.

In the Piedmont, a Moravian settler named Gottfried Aust (1722-88), from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, brought pottery to the Winston-Salem region in the latter half of the 18th century. In order to protect themselves from Indian attack, the Moravians began selling their wares in 1761, primarily to introduce trade with the Indians and also to attract the attention of other settlers. The Moravians were more creative than the British North Carolina folk potters. Whereas the North Carolina potters produced predominantly earthenware and later stoneware, the Moravians provided English creamware, a form of earthenware, and introduced stoneware to the Salem region in 1774. British potters, who moved into North Carolina through the Shanandoah Valley, introduced stoneware to Randolph County.

Johannes Adam, who emigrated from Pennsylvania, is the earliest recorded British potter in the state, purchasing one of the first lots in Salisbury in May 1755, 6 months before Aust came to Winston-Salem. Until the second quarter of the 19th century, most potters made earthenware, primarily because it could be fired at a low temperature (1800 degrees F), and the final products could withstand major changes in temperature better than the later stoneware. Stoneware is fired at higher temperatures, causing the clay to become waterproof. In addition, because of their sizes, earthenware was used for food preparation and consumption (most containers were no more than a gallon), and stoneware, with its larger capacity, was used for storage.

British and European potters brought salt glazing to North Carolina in the 1700s. Salt was one of the region's earliest and most popular glazes. Other potters used a lead glaze to make earthenware watertight. As potters began shifting to stoneware production, the differences between British and German pottery became more pronounced, as did the regions they inhabited. By 1850, Randolph County was the center of salt-glazed stoneware, and Lincoln County primarily sold alkaline-glazed stoneware.

Whether Cherokee in western Carolina, Moravians in the Winston-Salem area or British settlers in the eastern Piedmont, original potters gathered their clay from the North Carolina soil. In addition, British folk potters ground their clay and turned it on a treadlewheel, while the Cherokee and Moravians used the clay directly from the ground or washed it before turning it on a kickwheel.

HandMade in America, Asheville, NC
The North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC
Sawtooth Center for Visual Art, Winston-Salem, NC
Zug, Charles III. Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1986.