On Pottery in Colonial America
Julia Smith
Custom Work
About Julia

Understanding the types of pottery that have been made in or imported to America can be difficult to sort through. Below is a thumbnail sketch of the most common types of pottery found in America during the 17th and 18th centuries along with a very brief technical description of each which, hopefully, will prove useful to the reader. 

 The average New England household in the 17th century could contain an assortment of ceramics from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Orient. Trade up and down the Atlantic coast was taking place among the Dutch, English and Spanish. The inventories of early 17th century New England households in the Boston area have shown to contain Dutch and English delft, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese maiolica (or majolica), porcelain,  imported redware and locally manufactured redware.

EARTHENWARE: All clays which have a porosity above 5% when fired are considered earthenwares. What this means is that the ability of a fired clay to hold liquids without seepage occurring must be within 5% of being completely water tight (vitrified). Earthenwares can range from pure white to dark brown in color. The texture of the clays can be fine grained to coarse. Generally, earthenwares fire to lower temperatures than either stoneware or porcelain. Earthenwares cannot be made absolutely water tight because of their porosity although the application of glaze to the pot does help. Some glazes work better than others in preventing seepage.

Redware is a type of earthenware. What causes the red color is the amount of iron in the clay body. Other minerals can affect the color as well but iron is the major mineral to affect color. Redwares can range from light orange to dark brown in color and the clay body can be fine grained to coarse. Redware clay deposits occur close to the surface and can be used as they are after processing. The color of the clay as it comes out of the ground can very greatly from the finished pot. Often, redware clays in New England are grey in color until after firing at which time many of them range from bright orange to deep red-brown.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, locally produced redware was usually utilitarian and sometimes of poor quality. From the 1680s through the Revolutionary War potters were restricted by the British from making fancier  wares and could only make the more basic forms such as chamber pots, pans, butter pots and other common pieces found in the kitchen and pantry. These types of wares were not economical to ship from Europe and so local production was tolerated. Refined redwares, most stoneware and all porcelain and tin-glazed wares were imported into the American colonies until the end of the Revolutionary War.
 Another reason for the lack of local production of more refined ceramics is due to the fact that outside of urban areas, potters were frequently farmers or involved in another livelihood besides pottery. The farmer/potter would make pottery during the times of year when the demands of farming were low. They provided a necessary service to their communities by supplying much needed wares. Skilled potters who emigrated to America usually worked in the urban areas where more jobs were available. The rural American potter was often self taught or taught by other potters who never had the benefit of learning the trade in one of the large well organized European centers.

Delft is also a type of earthenware. The clay is covered with an opaque tin bearing glaze and then often but not always painted and finally fired. The term delft is confusing and many references in the past have been inconsistent. A more accurate term is Tin glazed wares. Tin glazed wares include: delft from Holland and England, maiolica (or majolica) from Italy, Spain and Portugal and faience from France and Germany. They are all the same process, that is, an earthenware clay with the opaque tin glaze applied over. 

Tin glazed wares were never produced in America but the plainer types were imported in large quantities from the mid 17th through mid 18th century. Because these wares are soft, porous and easily chipped, they lost popularity as soon as pottery which was more durable and aesthetically satisfying could be made. This happened around 1750 when Staffordshire white salt glaze, an especially refined and porcelain-like type of pottery started being produced in England. At the same time, refined earthenwares were developed and these wares satisfied the changing tastes of both Europeans and Americans. Creamware and pearlware are types of refined earthenwares.

STONEWARE: Clay which can be fired within 2% of total vitrification  or less are considered to be stoneware. Stoneware clays are usually made up of blended clay bodies to produce a malleable, strong clay which can be worked on the pottersÕ wheel and fired to a vitreous state. Color and texture of stoneware clays can vary quite a lot. Color can range from white to dark brown and texture can be smooth to coarse. Salt glazing is a process whereby sodium, most often in the form of coarse salt, is introduced into the kiln during the firing. A chemical reaction between the clay body and the salt forms the pebbly, clear glaze. Although technically salt-glazing can be performed on certain earthenwares and porcelains, this process is most commonly used on stoneware. From an historic viewpoint, it can be assumed that a salt-glazed pot is made of stoneware.

Stonewares were imported from Europe to the American Colonies until the end of the Revolutionary War. Germany and England were the largest producers and exporters of stoneware. Both countries were producing grey salt glaze with blue decoration. The English added manganese purple as a decoration by the 18th century. Both countries also produced brown salt glaze. The German bellarmine jug and the English stein are the most common forms of brown salt glazed stoneware produced for foreign markets. American production began in the mid 18th century and both imitated and competed with the European imports despite trade restrictions. Large scale manufacture did not occur until immediately after the Revolutionary War. The large centers in the North spread from New Jersey and New York into New England. The southern centers were concentrated in Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania. Over time, more potteries started and began spreading further south. The tradition of salt glaze and alkaline glaze stoneware continued there well into the mid 19th century.

PORCELAIN: A hard, white, non-porous clay which originated in China. The primary ingredient in porcelain is a fine grained clay called kao ling or kaolin. There are two types of porcelain ; hard paste and soft paste. Hard paste porcelain is fired to high temperatures where the clay becomes glasslike in its composition. Hard paste porcelains were imported from the Orient, mostly from China where sophisticated manufacturing techniques began as early as the 14th century. The popularity of porcelain created what is referred to as the China Trade.

Like stoneware, porcelain is most often composed of a mixture of different clays. Suitable European clays for the production of porcelain were difficult to fine and the Europeans could not figure out the formula for porcelain until the end of the first quarter of the 18th century. They first began making soft paste porcelain which fires to lower temperatures than hard paste and does not achieve the much sought after translucence of hard paste. Bone china is a type of soft paste porcelain developed in Europe. Production in the United States began in Philadelphia during the 3rd quarter of the 18th century but still proved difficult to produce and the attempt was short lived. It was in the 19th century that the ceramic industry reached its greatest level of growth and diversification in America before declining in the 20th century due to a variety of factors. Mass produced non-ceramic containers were less fragile, lighter in weight and cheaper to produce. This made handmade pottery too labor intensive and time consuming to continue being a viable trade.

Julia Smith has been making  17th and 18th century pottery reproductions for 16 years and provides work for museums, historic reenactors and movies.


Ketchum, William, American Redware, Henry Holt & Co., 1991.

Turnbaugh, Sarah Peabody (editor), Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States 1625-1850, Academic Press, 1985.

Rice, Prudence, Pottery Analysis, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Hamer, Frank, The Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques, Watson-Guptill, 1975.

Quimby, Ian (editor), Ceramics in America, University Press of Virginia, 1972.