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North Carolina Seagrove Pottery: The Transition Period

North Carolina Seagrove Pottery: The Transition Period – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2004

by A. Everette James

The utilitarian tradition of fashioning both stoneware and earthenware pottery in the Seagrove area of North Carolina had extended over several hundred years by the end of the 19th century. In fact, certain of these families could trace their origins in this endeavor for seven or eight generations to their potter ancestors in Staffordshire, England.

In the last half of the nineteenth century there had been adequate demand for food storage vessels and jugs to contain certain liquid such as whiskey, medicines and elixirs, and molasses for these men to earn a livelihood. Potters were able to make enough cash from this labor-intensive enterprise to feed and clothe their families. However, early in the 20th century, progress in the form of glass containers, refrigeration, and the decline in legal manufacture of spirits changed the consideration of demand.

Potters began to wonder if there was to be a continued need for utilitarian wares in the future. These men became concerned that there might not be sufficient demand for their wares to allow them to profit from their labors. They considered alternative vocations. In the south central Piedmont, the most immediate opportunities were farming and employment in the textile mills, the tobacco plants or the furniture factories. While in some ways these were attractive choices, most potters enjoyed what they were doing and sought some alternative that would allow them to continue their family heritage and to utilize their experience and the skills they had developed over the years. They were artisans, not hourly workers, and they evidenced that mentality.

In attempting to assess the market and to understand what the public expectations and wishes for “pots” were, these somewhat isolated turners and burners from a simple, rural environment, were acting outside of their natural element. A few more informed members of the Seagrove area pottery community and several important outsiders believed that the public wanted decorative pottery, the so-called fancy wares.

This revelation changed the premise of the Seagrove endeavor; the mandate was to fashion art pottery with aesthetic considerations paramount. Having come to this realization would only be useful if technically the transition from the fashioning of traditional utilitarian to decorative art pottery could be made by people with no prior experience in this endeavor.

Obviously the potter producing decorative wares must turn smaller, more delicate pieces than the churns, jugs, and other storage vessels they had previously fashioned. Would someone accustomed to making the large thick walled, multi-gallon crocks now be able to fashion a teacup or a delicate thin walled vase?

Even more arduous than this transition in form may have been the change from primarily salt glazes (that were previously employed to have the walls of the pottery impede the flow of liquids) to decorative, unfamiliar oxides, fluxes, fritted materials, and preparations imparting color to the surface.

Would the traditional groundhog kiln and burning by wood firing be appropriate to produce these wares? There existed no historical precedence upon which a Seagrove potter could feel certain about the outcome of this change or even how to evoke the transition.

Faced with these decisions without the encouragement of a predictable result and the almost certainty of a future struggle and at least a short term financial sacrifice, most of these determined and brave potters chose to modify their long-standing skills and creative instincts and attempted to make the transition. They began to explore the production of fancy ware beginning in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century. Their story is a heroic one and the transition was arduous and protracted.

J. H. Owens (1866-1923) opened his pottery in 1910. By the middle of the decade he began exploring attempts at art pottery production using incised sine waves and cobalt application over salt glaze. Later he glazed the utilitarian forms with an overall decorative glaze and continued to inscribe the wares with sine wave decoration. These wares have a rustic charm although they retain certain utilitarian characteristics. The pottery made by Jonah Owens at his father’s shop during this time demonstrated a definite artistic flare and are being recognized for their aesthetic appeal and improvasorial nature.

By 1918 Jim Owens was making wares for Jacques Busbee who was to later found Jugtown Pottery in 1923. Busbee, a former resident of nearby Wake County (Raleigh) was an academically trained painter and married to Juliana Royster from a prominent Raleigh family and a patron of the arts. Juliana had a tearoom in Greenwich Village. Allegedly she had seen a “dirt” dish from the Seagrove area at an arts and crafts fair and had become so inspired about the potential of art pottery in the Seagrove region, she persuaded her husband that they should relocate there.

They left Raleigh and moved to the Westmore community and exerted a tremendous influence in the Seagrove art pottery movement. Undoubtedly Jacques Busbee influenced even the independent J. H. Owens and his contemporaries regarding the shapes and decoration of this new and future art pottery. Jugtown was to become the best known shop in the Seagrove area.

J. H. Owens had six sons who were potters. Jonah (Jonie) Owens as previously noted was a very creative potter and many of the early attempts at art pottery at the J. H. Owens shop were turned and glazed by him. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if the wares stamped “J. H. Owens” were turned by Jonah or J. H. himself. Certainly the examples with only modifications of utilitarian forms were products of J. H.’s labors as were some of the simple decorative vases. Those with extended arms widely separated from the body of the vase have also been attributed to J. H. Owens. Jonah Owens produced some of the most nontraditional of the wares of this period in both his forms and glazing techniques.

The pieces produced at J. H. Owens Pottery for Jacques Busbee may have, in part, represented the skill of Jonah Owens. Busbee at this period worked at Jugtown Pottery glazing wares that J. H. Owens and other potters turned. These were sent to Juliana in New York to test the acceptance of the public by displaying them in the Greenwich Village tearoom.

J. D. Craven’s operation was one of the most productive in the south central Piedmont making salt glazed utilitarian stoneware. Will Henry Hancock and W. H. Crisco were also potters there making large numbers of utilitarian wares. The J. D. Craven shop did not make decorative wares but the son, Daniel Z. Craven was a leader in the Seagrove art pottery movement. Craven was a contemporary of C. R. Auman. Both potteries were instrumental in leading the Seagrove production of art pottery to a level of sophistication that provided the foundation to venture forward for the next two decades. They both employed the local Mitchfield clay (from the Auman clay pit) which when removed from the ground was a light grayish-blue color but when fired turned almost white.

A clear lead glaze over this clay produced a buff color  from the Auman Pottery and a light orange hue from the Craven Pottery. This difference in color might be accounted for by a variation in the clay mixture; substituting some darker mixture like Smithfield clay, differences in the kiln temperature or variation of the glaze formula.

Both potteries decorated their wares with cobalt and manganese. Craven often added a coggle wheel decoration and a rim at the base of the handles, which was usually placed at the mid-body of the vessel. Certain of the Craven candlesticks were shaped with a downward taper being widest at the base; not absolutely specific but providing a strong attribution characteristic.

Auman Pottery was, as were most of the Seagrove operations at this time, a family business with the primary owner being C. R. Auman. They also began with the production of utilitarian ware but in the early 1920s converted to the turning of art pottery. Their combination of the buff color of the body of the vessel with cobalt (dark blue to black) and manganese runs or drips of decoration are clearly identifiable. Lorenzo “Wrenn” Cole was the principal potter. Their vases with a flat thin rim, two- and three-handled low wide bowls with shoulders and the candlesticks with multi-tiered bodies are signature examples of this important 1920-1930s pottery.

The clear lead glaze over the clay produced a mellow overall tone that maximized the drama of the decoration. Often the decoration was applied in ill-defined circles and sometimes the color imparted by the cobalt and manganese was in sharp contrast to the yellow/buff body and in others gradually became lighter as the decoration became thinner at the edges. Auman Pottery produced small cups and saucers that can adequately be identified by the glaze appearance and forms. Probably no pottery demonstrated the advantage of the overall appearance of a pot turned with local Mitchfield clay and covered by a clear lead glaze, as did the Aumans. These wares were simply decorated by cobalt or manganese used sparingly to embellish the subtle appearance of the color and form of the piece.

Later C. B. Masten, who may have been an Alfred University trained potter, came from Indiana to work for the Aumans and produced glazes and glaze patterns with exquisite, almost abstract appearances.

During this period Jugtown showed a great variety of wares, as Jacques Busbee acquired his inventory from several potters turning at home or using the Jugtown facilities. Benjamin Wade Owen (Sr.), son of Rufus Owen, was a young man when he came to work for Busbee at Jugtown. Some scholars believe that his youth allowed him to embrace the “new” ideas of the trained painter Busbee. Owen proved adept at translating the Oriental and sometimes European forms and glazes to the realities of the technology existent at that time and the type of clay available in North Carolina’s south central Piedmont in the 1920s. Ben Owen (1904-1983) remained at Jugtown for 36 years. As early as the mid-1920s they were producing Persian jars and Han vases in Chinese blue glaze which has come to be the most highly sought after decoration of North Carolina pottery.

Starting with the patriarch John Wesley Teague (1867-1916) this family of potters made a number of contributions during the transition period. Bryan “Duck” Teague (1898-1983) was to carry the Teague name forward in the North Carolina Art Pottery movement. He opened a shop on Highway 27 south of the railroad shipping area of Robbins (Hemp). Teague was an accomplished potter and hired his brother-in-law Farrell Craven, a journeyman with a great deal of talent and experience gained from several venues. Daughter Zedith worked there and later ran the pottery after her father’s death.

Early Teague pieces are rare. They are sometimes difficult to distinguish from Auman and D. Z. Craven wares. Their stamp is also rare, but when seen is often multiple. The alternating linear drips of black (cobalt) and green (manganese) over a tan body is felt to be a distinguishing characteristic of Teague wares. Charlie Teague (1901-1938) was the first potter for the Busbee’s at Jugtown (1918-1923). He and others made wares for Jacques Busbee before Jugtown was a true entity. The early wares were very rarely signed in script.

North State Pottery was the creation of Rebecca Palmer Cooper and her husband Henry who came to the Seagrove area in the early 1920s. Henry Cooper had been employed by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in nearby Winston-Salem. The first turner they hired was Jonah Owens, who worked for them for several years (1924-1926). Jonah was an accomplished turner by that time and Henry Cooper contributed to the art pottery movement by the development and creative use of new glazes and multiple glaze applications. Some of the most sophisticated wares of the transition period were produced at North State Pottery. The early pieces might be unsigned or later the maker indicated by the North State stamp of which there were three.

Walter H. Owens, Jonah’s brother, came to work for North State Pottery in 1925 and was the potter there until 1948 when Henry Cooper died. For sheer variety of early glazes, North State was more successful than any Seagrove pottery. One can see an infinite variety of color combinations and many of the double glazed pieces are truly remarkable.

The largest pottery in the Seagrove area was that of Jacon (J. B.) Cole. He employed his son, Waymon Cole, daughter Nell (Cole) Graves, Bascomb King, and Philmore Graves; but a number of other potters worked there, usually for a short term. In the mid to late 1920s the J. B. Cole Pottery produced certain wares that well expressed the movement from utilitarian to decorative wares. Some of these were turned by J. B. Cole himself or Waymon who became well known for his large wares in the form of pots and porch vases. Almost all of J. B. Cole early wares were unsigned and many were glazed with chrome red; a very desirable glaze. This particular pottery later became a volume operation, but in the early 1920s they made pieces that demonstrated the struggle for survival in their new endeavor to make decorative pottery.

For the collector and pottery scholar, the transition period (1915-1930) in Seagrove is an era of tremendous interest. It is a very human story of adaptation and sometimes accommodation. At times the examples are more important as an expression of the survival instincts than they are for their decorative merits. These pieces represent points along an uncharted path taken by a group of brave families attempting to continue with skills and traditions existent in their heritage for centuries.

About the Author

Everette James, a medical doctor, author, and collector, is a native of rural Martin County, North Carolina, and was educated at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Duke Medical School, Harvard, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Dr. James taught at Harvard. Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Vanderbilt. He has published more than 20 books and 500 articles and established St. James Place, a restored historic Primitive Baptist church exhibiting over 400 examples of North Carolina pottery.

“For almost any acquisition endeavor,” writes James, “knowledge is power.” Indeed, armed with Dr. Everette’s writings, seasoned and novice collectors alike may develop the practiced eye to reap the rewards of “discovering” a prized piece of North Carolina’s history.

He and his wife, Dr. Nancy Farmer, have donated their collection of Nell Cole Graves pottery to the North Carolina Pottery Museum at Seagrove and a survey collection of 250 examples to the Chapel Hill Museum. They live in Chapel Hill and are active in community affairs.

[amazon_link id=”1574323083″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]North Carolina Art Pottery 1900-1960[/amazon_link] Identification and Value Guide
By: Everette James
Publisher: Collector Books
Price: $24.95    ISBN: 1574323083

For more than two centuries, potters in North Carolina had been crafting from native clay utilitarian wares – storage containers such as jugs and jars, cookware such as crocks and churns, and standard tableware. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, however, as glass and, later, plastic containers came into wide use, potters intent on financial survival were forced to make a transition from function to form. Whereas previous pottery had relied on its sturdiness – indeed, the reputation of a potter hinged on the usefulness of a piece – emphasis on visual appeal won over a new crop of consumers.

In his meticulously researched book, A. Everette James outlines the aesthetic traits that comprise collectible art pottery produced in the mountains, Catawba Valley, and Sandhills from 1900 to 1960. The book includes a thorough examination of the individual properties – type of clay, glaze, shape of the piece, and turning method – used to determine origin, date, and potter, as well as estimated value. Beginning with identification tips of characteristic glazes, for example, James notes that the recognizable “Chinese Blue” indicates a Jugtown Pottery piece. Interestingly, James points out, it’s a glaze that has not been replicated successfully since Jugtown founder Jacques Busbee’s death in the late 1940s.

More than 500 full-color photos show details such as signatures and stamps, undersurface markings, or “frogskin,” and swirled appearance. Throughout the book, James presents biographical sketches of “the masters” – M. L. Owens, the Craven family, the Teagues, Auman Pottery, and others.

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