Earthenware Masterworks from the St. Asaph's Tradition

BY LUKE BECKERDITE, JOHANNA BROWN, ROBERT HUNTER
AND LINDA F. CARNES-MCNAUGHTON

Fig. 1: Flask, Alamance County, N.C.,
1770-1790. Lead-glazed earthenware.
H. 5⅜ in. Courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

The cruciform motif on this flask suggests that it was made in an area of French cultural influence. Members of the Loy family of Alamance County were potters whose ancestors fled France after the revocation of the Edict on Nantes in 1685 and settled in southwestern Germany.
During the last half of the eighteenth century, craftsmen of Continental and British descent brought a wide variety of Old World ceramic traditions to the North Carolina backcountry. The achievements of these craftsmen often surpassed those of their Middle Atlantic and New England contemporaries, particularly in the application of polychrome slip decoration. North Carolina potters transformed the most basic material into objects of exceptional beauty and cultural significance. For the Moravians, slipware plates and dishes functioned as reminders of their European roots as well as potent symbols of religion and the cycle of life. For other potters and their patrons, decorated earthenware was a means of expressing and preserving their identity in the New World (Fig. 1).

Since the publication of John Bivins Jr.’s monograph The Moravian Potters in North Carolina, nearly every major example of slip-decorated earthenware from that state has been attributed to Moravian craftsmen.1 Recent research, however, indicates that non-Moravians working in and around the St. Asaph’s district of Orange County (now southern Alamance County) made much of the surviving slipware. The forms and motifs introduced by the first potters who settled in that area coalesced in southwestern Germany, arrived with immigrant craftsmen who initially settled in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and persisted in North Carolina from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. Unlike some areas of the backcountry, where interactions with different ethnic groups or various social and economic forces lead to the assimilation of Old World craft traditions, the interrelated and interdependent Germanic communities of southeastern Guilford County and southern Alamance County were resistant to change.

Fig. 2: Dish, Alamance County, N.C.,
1770-1790. Lead-glazed earthenware. Diam. 12½ in. Courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.
Fig. 3: Sugar pot, Alamance County, N.C., 1790–1810. Lead-glazed earthenware.
H. 10 in. Courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens.
Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Fig. 4: Pitcher, Alamance County, N. C., 1785–1810. Lead-glazed earthenware.
H. 10 in. Courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.
Slipware from the St. Asaph’s tradition differs significantly from that associated with the Moravians. Whereas the Moravians had a naturalistic vocabulary rooted in that sect’s religious beliefs and appear to have limited their slip trailing to dishes and plates, the St. Asaph’s potters used a wide range of motifs—stylized crosses and plant forms, fylfots, imbricated triangles, and other geometric designs—on both flat and hollow ware forms (Fig. 2).2 Surviving examples of decorated hollow ware include pitchers, tankards, bottles, flasks, barrels, bowls, and distinctive covered vessels referred to during the period as “sugar pots” (Fig. 3). References to the latter form occur in local inventories from the 1770s well into the nineteenth century.3 In his seminal article “A Note on Early North Carolina Pottery,” decorative arts scholar and dealer Joe Kindig, Jr. stated that several examples he acquired during the early 1930s still contained sugar.4

The term “pitcher” appears to have entered use in the piedmont region of North Carolina during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, whereas hollow ware vessels with handles and pouring spouts were referred to as “jugs” in most other areas. The pottery responsible for the pitcher shown in figure 4 appears to have been in operation from at least the late eighteenth century into the 1820s. The stylized plant designs on the sides and front are trailed in much the same manner as those in the center of an early Alamance County slipware dish (Fig. 5). As with most decorated hollow ware from the St. Asaph’s tradition, the principal motifs on the pitcher are set in panels. To frame their designs, local potters used straight and wavy lines, rows of dots, stacked dashes, and interconnected cymas.

Alamance County potters were clearly producing slipware during the last quarter of the eighteenth century if not before. Approximate date ranges can be assigned by comparing the decoration on surviving examples with that on artifacts from similar cultures and contexts. The trailing on some early dishes (Fig. 6) has parallels in the painted decoration on chests attributed to Bern Township in Berks County (Fig. 7). Motifs occurring on both groups of objects include stems with jewelled edges, awkwardly perched birds, and both abstract and naturalistic plant forms. The chests, which probably represent the work of at least three decorators, bear dates ranging from 1776 to 1803. An example dated 1784 belonged to Heinrich Foust, who had the same great grandfather as members of the Foust family who settled in Alamance County.5

Fig. 5: Dish, Alamance County, N.C.,
1775–1795. Lead-glazed earthenware. Diam. 15½ in. Courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Fig. 6: Dish, Alamance County, N.C., 1775–1795. Lead-glazed earthenware. Diam.
12⅝ in. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Fig. 7: Chest attributed to Bern Township, Berks County, Pa., 1785–1795. Tulip poplar and pine. H. 28½, W. 52½, D. 23 in. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Fig. 8: Dish, Alamance County, N.C.,
1775–1795. Lead-glazed earthenware. Diam. 14⅞ in. Courtesy of The Henry Ford.

The bird on the dish illustrated in figure 8 is unique in North Carolina slipware, although avian subjects are common in earthenware from Pennsylvania, Britain, and Europe. Birds depicted in a similar manner are found on slipware from Hessen, Germany, by the mid-seventeenth century. Several of the families that emigrated from the Palatinate to Berks County and relocated to southeastern Guilford County and southern Alamance County were from that part of Germany.

In Europe and America, potters working outside large metropolitan areas typically relied on kinship networks to safeguard craft knowledge; provide an affordable, trustworthy workforce; pass trade secrets from generation to generation; absorb competition and build patronage networks through intermarriage; secure raw materials and financing; and establish links to their community. As folklorist John Burrison observed, rural potters “guarded their family lines as carefully as they did their craft traditions.”6 As a result, family potting traditions were often as stylistically and technically monolithic as those associated with urban guilds or other governing associations. This was especially true when potters were part of a culturally homogenous community, since makers and consumers were inextricably bound in the production of objects.

At least seven members of the Loy family were potters. The American patriarch of their line was Martin Loy, who was born in Hessen, Germany, immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1741, and settled in Alamance County between 1755 and 1765.7 The Loys intermarried with other families who moved from Berks County to Alamance County, most notably the Albrights, who were apparently of Swiss extraction.8 Martin’s grandson Henry married Sophia Albright, daughter of pottery owner Jacob Albright Jr. Much of the earthenware from St. Asaph’s tradition appears to have centered on those allied families.9

The designation “potter” appears next to Jacob Albright’s name in the 1800 tax list for the St. Asaph’s District, but it is unclear whether he worked in that trade or provided land and financing for a manufactory managed by his son-in-law Henry Loy.10 The Albrights were prominent landowners in Alamance County, making either scenario possible. “An Inventory and an Account of Sales of the Estate of Jacob Albright Decd,” dated March 24, 1825 listed two potter’s wheels, a glaze mill, a clay mill, a grindstone, a pipe mold, and a stove mold.11 That amount of equipment would have been sufficient for a modest workforce.

Fig. 9: Dish fragment recovered at the site of Jacob Albright Jr.’s pottery, Alamance County, N.C., 1795–1820. Lead-glazed earthenware. Courtesy of Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Fig. 10: Dish fragments recovered at the site of Jacob Albright Jr.’s pottery, Alamance County, N.C., 1795–1820. Bisque fired earthenware. Courtesy of Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.


Fig. 11: Sugar pot, Alamance County, N.C., 1790–1810. Lead-glazed earthenware.
H. 6¼ in. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Photography by Hans Lorenz.
Ceramic fragments recovered at the site of Jacob Albright Jr’s pottery document the production of earthenware with dark brown and black grounds and polychrome slip decoration (Fig. 9).12 The decorative vocabulary of his pottery included marbleizing—a technique rare in southern slipware—as well as trailing in both abstract and naturalistic styles (Fig. 10). Most of the fragments are from dishes, but bases from three mugs with polychrome banding indicate that Albright’s pottery also made decorated hollow ware.

The sugar pot and tankard illustrated in figures 11 and 12 may be early examples from Jacob Albright’s pottery. Both have dark grounds and polychrome floral motifs similar to that on a dish fragment recovered at his site. The stylized leaves on the handle of the tankard relate to those on several Alamance County pitchers as well as a handle fragment excavated at Joseph Loy’s pottery site in Person County, North Carolina. Joseph probably trained with his father Henry at Albright’s pottery or with one of his older brothers who did so.

Few pieces of slipware from the St. Asaph’s tradition have histories that can be traced back to the original owner. One of the most notable exceptions is a sugar pot that descended in the family of Johannes Löffler along with a confirmation certificate done for his son and namesake in 1779 (Figs 13, 14). The Löfflers originally settled in the St. Asaph’s district, where Johannes Sr.’s widow Sarah is listed on the tax list in 1788.13

Fig. 12: Side and rear views of a tankard, Alamance County, N.C., 1785–1810.
Lead-glazed earthenware. H. 9 in.
Courtesy of The Henry Ford Museum.

The most thoroughly documented slipware from the St. Asaph’s tradition is associated with Solomon Loy, whose career spanned the second quarter of the nineteenth century. He probably apprenticed with his father Henry at Jacob Albright Jr’s pottery, which appears to have been the primary training ground for many of the St. Asaph’s potters of Solomon’s generation. Archaeology at Solomon’s kiln site has documented the production of a wide range of forms, glazes, and decorative techniques, including the use of dripped polychrome slips.14 The most dramatic objects with this type of decoration are dishes and bowls with black and cream-colored grounds and hollow ware forms with slip dripped directly onto the clay body. Most of Solomon’s trailed designs—stylized leaves, imbricated triangles, nested triangles, lunettes, and dots with jeweled edges—have antecedents in Alamance County pottery from the 1770s if not earlier. The St. Asaph’s cruciform motif, which found its last expression in his slipware, attests to the strength of artisanal and family traditions in that area of the piedmont (Fig. 15).

Fig. 14: Confirmation certificate for Johannes Löffler, Jr., Guilford County, N.C., 1779. Ink and watercolor on paper.
8½ x 12⅞ inches. Courtesy of the Museum
of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Photography
by Wesley Stewart.

The Löfflers apparently worshiped at the Brick Church, in Guilford County, North Carolina, which is why that location is cited as the place of confirmation on Johannes Jr.’s certificate.

Pottery from the St. Asaph’s tradition is featured in Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina. Currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the show will travel to Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (March 22, 2011–August 14, 2011), the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in Williamsburg, Virginia (September 26, 2011–June 24, 2012), and the Huntsville Museum of Art, in Huntsville, Alabama (October 7, 2012–January 6, 2013). Art in Clay showcases masterful examples of slipware; sculptural, press-molded bottles; and ceramic types not commonly associated with eighteenth-century American production—faience and refined creamware. The 2009 and 2010 volumes of Ceramics in America (Chipstone Foundation) serve as catalogues for the show, which will also have an online virtual exhibit, visual index, and database of more than six hundred objects. The Art in Clay project is sponsored by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, the Chipstone Foundation, and the Caxambas Foundation. For more information, go to www.artinclay.org.

Fig. 13: Sugar pot, Alamance County, N.C., 1800–1820. Lead-glazed earthenware.
H. 10 in. Private collection.
Photography by Gavin Ashworth.
Fig. 15: Dish attributed to Solomon Loy, Alamance County, N.C., 1820–1850. Lead-glazed earthenware. Diam. 12 in. Private
collection. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Luke Beckerdite is an independent scholar and editor of American Furniture. Johanna Brown is Curator of Moravian Arts at Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Robert Hunter is an independent scholar and editor of Ceramics in America. Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton is a ceramics scholar and professional archaeologist for the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources Program.

1. John Bivins, The Moravian Potters in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for Old Salem, Inc., 1972).

2. For more on the theological underpinnings of Moravian pottery, see Luke Beckerdite and Johanna Brown, “Eighteenth-Century Earthenware from North Carolina: The Moravian Tradition Reconsidered,” in Hunter and Beckerdite eds., Ceramics in America (Hanover, N.H. University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2009): 47-67.

3. For early references to sugar pots, see “Inventory of the estate of John Howell decd.,” Orange County Court, August 1774; “A True Inventory of the Effects of William Bolton Deceased,” Orange County Court, April 13, 1783; and “The Personal Estate formerly Belonging to James McCanles,” Orange County Court, May 1784 (Orange County Inventories 1758–1785, pp. 123, 165, 189). Orange County inventories also list forms described as “sugar boxes” and “sugar canisters,” but it is impossible to determine whether any were ceramic.

4. Joe Kindig Jr., “A Note on Early North Carolina Pottery,” The Magazine Antiques 27, no. 1 (January 1935): pp. 14–15. This article was reprinted with annotations in The Art of the Potter, edited by Diana Stradling and J. Garrison Stradling (New York: Main Street/Universe Books, 1977), pp. 26–27.

5. For more on these chests, see Monroe H. Fabian, The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest (1978; reprinted: Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing for the Heritage Center of Lancaster County and the Pennsylvania German Society, 2004), pp. 128-32, nos. 84-91. The Foust chest is illustrated and discussed in Beatrice B. Garvan and Charles F. Hummel, The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts, 1683–1850 (Philadelphia, Pa.: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982), pp. 30, 33; pl. 11.

6. As quoted in Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, “Transitions and Continuity: Earthenware and Stoneware Pottery Production in Nineteenth-Century North Carolina,” Phd dissertation (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1997), 95-103.

7. Marriages, Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche, film 488536. The author thanks researcher Eckhard Hensel for this information and for other research. For more on the Loy and Albright families, see Luke Beckerdite, Johanna Brown, and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, “Slipware from the St. Asaph’s Tradition,” in Robert Hunter, Luke Beckerdike, eds., Ceramics in America (Lebanon, N.H,: University Press of New England, 2010): 14-65. Martin and his first wife Anna Margaretha Fechter arrived in Philadelphia on the ship St. Mark on September 26, 1741
www.progenealogists.com/palproject/pa/1741smark.htm. The December 1755 date is given on a genealogical website without a source, www.voiceinverse.com/family/genealogy/getperson.php?personID=I903&tree=mytree (accessed June 5, 2009). This might not be correct, since Register of Orange County, North Carolina Deeds, 1752–1768 and 1793, transcribed by Eve B. Weeks (Danville, Ga.: Heritage Papers, 1984), n.p. refers to Martin Loy’s purchase of 251 acres of land in Orange (now Alamance) County from Henry McCulloh in 1765. For more on the Loy and Albright families, see Beckerdite, Brown, and Carnes-McNaughton, “Slipware from the St. Asaph’s Tradition,” in Ceramics in America, in Hunter and Beckerdite eds., Ceramics in America (2010): 14-65.

8. Genevieve E. Peters, “Know Your Relatives: The Sharps, Gibbs, Graves, Efland, Albright, Loy, Miller, Snoderly, Tillman, and Other Related Families,” © by the author 1972, p. 8, North Carolina State Library. Several genealogical web sites claim that Jacob Albright Sr.’s father was Johannes Ludwig Albrecht of Wyniger, Switzerland (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~faust/).

9. Carnes-McNaughton, “Transitions and Continuity,” 96, fig. 3.1. The contents of Albright’s pottery were sold on March 24, 1825, and listed in “An Inventory and an Account of Sales of the Estate of Jacob Albright Decd.” Henry Loy died in 1832. Among the items listed in the inventory of his property sold on March 24, 1832, were “1 pair pipe molds” valued at 12¢, “1 turning wheel” valued at 10 1/2¢, and “1 mill” valued at 5¢. Henry’s son John purchased the pipe molds (Sale of the Property of Henry Loy Decd., 1832, estate papers in the Henry Loy file, North Carolina Archives, Raleigh). The absence of pottery in the inventory suggests that Henry had either ceased production or transferred his stock-and-trade to another party, possibly one or more of his sons. Land transactions recorded between 1826 and 1839 involving two of Henry’s sons, William and Solomon, suggest that they were purchasing land and might have been relocating the pottery in the years prior to their father’s death (Carnes McNaughton, “Traditions and Continuity,” 98–103).

10. Tax List for the St. Asaph’s District of Orange County, North Carolina, 1800, County Tax Records, North Carolina Archives.

11. “An Inventory and an Account of Sales of the Estate of Jacob Albright Decd.,” March 24, 1825, NCA.

12. For more on this excavation, see Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, “Solomon Loy: Master Potter of the Carolina Piedmont,” in Hunter and Beckerdite, eds., Ceramics in America (2010): 106–139.

13. Tax List for the St. Asaph’s District of Orange County, North Carolina, 1788, NCA.

14. Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton excavated Solomon Loy’s site and published her findings in “Transitions and Continuity.”

back to top