While rehousing the archeological collections from Salem Maritime National Historic Site, we in the NMSC archeology lab were privileged to work with a variety of reconstructed 18th- and 19th-century ceramic vessels. One of these items was a redware flowerpot with evidence of green glaze or slip and a combed decorative motif that was excavated at the Narbonne House. An issue of the park’s newsletter Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions attributes flowerpot fragments found on-site to Sarah Narbonne and her daughter, who occupied the house from 1820 (possibly earlier) through the 19th century. The report speculates that “the large number of flowerpots and cobblestone borders recovered during the archeological excavations of the backyard attest to their shared love of gardening” (The Narbonne House p. 9).
Flowerpot sherds in the archeological record are fairly easy to come by. Information on the history of flowerpots and how to date them is not. In 1959, ceramics author Lura Woodside Watkins wrote of flowerpots, “their variety is astonishing and would make a study in itself” (Watkins p. 10). Almost half a decade later, University of Massachusetts graduate student Hazel Lathrop wrote that flowerpots remained “commonly found but seldom studied” (Lathrop, 2000). William Pittman and Robert Hunter wrote in 2002 that flowerpots “are among the least documented ceramic forms” (Pittman and Hunter p. 210). Researchers of practical flowerpots are challenged by the fact that these utilitarian vessels were often undecorated (or minimally so), were rarely marked, and changed little in form and shape throughout time. With these obstacles in mind, what can be said of this flowerpot from the Narbonne House in Salem?
The rings visible on the inside of the pot indicate that it was hand-thrown, dating it to before 1861, when pots began being produced by William Linton’s pottery molding machine. The pot has a tapered shape, a rolled rim, a single drainage hole in its base, and does not have a saucer. The lack of a saucer indicates that the pot was not intended for ornamental indoor use, but rather for use outside in the garden. (Consider the difference between the two 18th-century flowerpots shown below.)
The combed design was created by tooling. As Watkins describes, “a comb held against a finished but still damp vessel while it was revolved slowly on the wheel left a band of parallel lines, straight or wavy, according to the potter’s intention” (Watkins, 1959). In addition to combing, this pot also has evidence of green glaze or slip.
The History of the Flowerpot
The Victorian era is often credited as the era of the houseplant. Lathrop writes that “the sight of a potted plant as part of room decor at the start of the 19th century was rare, yet by the end of the century parlors were overrun with greenery” (Lathrop p. iv). Mrs. William Cooper of Cooperstown, New York (shown in the watercolor below) was seemingly at the front of this trend, displaying numerous plants in the hall of her home in 1816. As industrialization and urbanization created a dichotomy of work versus private space, 19th-century Americans sought to make the home a peaceful refuge. Bringing nature indoors was one part of this effort. Also, as homes were built with large plate glass windows and more efficient heating systems, plants were better able to survive indoors.
Before pots were used to display plants inside the home, they were used to contain and transport plants outside of the home. The Egyptians were the first to use flowerpots to move plants from one environment to another. In the 1700s, pots allowed for the transportation of seedlings from Tahiti to the West Indies, and geraniums were brought to North America from Africa.
17th- and 18th-century Americans who had the means created formal gardens on their properties. In 1995, eighteen utilitarian flowerpots were excavated from one colonial cellar in Williamsburg, Virginia, where archeology has revealed flowerpots on nearly every house lot. Wealthy 18th-century Americans also built orangeries for growing citrus fruits, and as the 19th century dawned, greenhouses became popular for cultivating exotic plants and flowers. Integral to all of these genteel enterprises was the basic ceramic flowerpot.
According to Salem Maritime NHS’s park historian Emily Murphy, “because of Salem’s maritime trade, the breeding and cultivation of exotic plants was extremely popular among many segments of Salem society, not just the elite.” Many residents took an avid interest in gardening, going so far as to publish articles on their endeavors. In 1854, John Fisk Allen published an article entitled Victoria Regina, or the Great Water Lily of America, in which he details the discovery of this flower around the world and its cultivation in England and the United States. Allen’s writing clearly illustrates his fondness for gardening and his fascination with this particular flower. Of the plant’s cultivation in Salem, he wrote, “The first flower-bud was seen on the third day of July …On the 15th, a second bud was seen approaching the surface. The 21st, a third bud was visible…at 4 P.M. of this day, the petals, a pure white, began to unfold, and from 5 to 6 they rapidly opened, showing the flower in its first form…” (John Fisk Allen 1854).
Whether the occupants of the Narbonne House were plant enthusiasts like Mr. Allen, or casual gardeners seeking to enjoy some flowers at their home, the flowerpot sherds found on the grounds of the house indicate that they were participating in this popular pastime.
What Were They Planting?
19th-century gardening books and journals provided specific guidelines as to what size pot to use for specific plants. As outlined in Rita A. DeForest’s master’s thesis on planting pots at Gore Place in Waltham, Massachusetts, some pots can be identified as to specific function based upon their size. DeForest discusses thumb pots, which were about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and used to start seedlings and for cuttings. Strawberries were grown in two-to three-inch pots. Four-inch pots were used for slipper flowers and six-inch pots for hyacinths, lilies, Jonquils, and snow drops. Six- to seven-inch pots were used to plant daffodils and tulips, and large 12-inch pots were used for repotting growing plants or for starting small trees. The diameter of this flowerpot from the Narbonne House is about 9 1/2 inches. Possibly used for the in-between stages of a growing plant, exactly what this pot contained – ornamental flowers? fruits or vegetables? herbs? – is a mystery.
When and Where Was It Made?
Many American potteries were producing redware flowerpots in the 18th century. This production increased greatly in the 19th century as many Americans embraced gardening and horticulture as pastimes. Given this trend and the wheel-thrown quality of the Salem pot, a date in the first half of the 19th century is likely. In her master’s thesis entitled “The Culture of Flowerpots,” Hazel Lathrop wrote of the popularity in the early 19th century of green-glazed flowerpots. She cites the 1827 “Encyclopedia of Gardening,” which characterized the “glazed pot” as “generally glazed green” (Lathrop p. 84). According to Lathrop’s research, green-glazed flowerpot sherds were excavated from sites in Kingston, MA, Plymouth, MA, Quincy, MA and Lowell, MA, all from early 19th-century contexts. These examples support a similar date range for the green-glazed pot from Salem.
Excavation of the ca. 1806 greenhouse at Gore Place in Waltham, Massachusetts yielded flowerpot fragments of different sizes and decorative motifs, including some with a combed design similar to that on the Salem pot. These were likely produced at the A.H. Hews Company of Weston and North Cambridge. This pottery, established in 1765, was producing flowerpots by 1810, and made them a specialty by the 1840s. Another flowerpot with similar decoration can be seen on a pot displayed in the College of the Atlantic’s exhibit “A Place to Take Root.” This pot is a reproduction based upon early 19th-century flowerpot sherds excavated at Mount Vernon.
A similar, combed design is also visible on this covered earthenware dish in the collection at the Peabody Essex Museum. According to a museum publication, this dish was most likely manufactured in Essex County, Massachusetts in the mid-18th century. There were many New England potters producing redware in the 18th century, and according to Watkins, flowerpots were a standard product. It is certainly possible that the pottery that produced this covered dish was also producing flowerpots.
Discerning between 18th-century redware and 19th-century redware is not easy. This flowerpot is of the utilitarian type used for outdoor use in a garden, although the glaze and combed design add some elements of fanciness. It lacks the ruffled rim and bulbous shape that came later in the 19th century. The wavy combed motif can be seen on other 18th- and 19th-cenury vessels. The green glaze suggests a date of early 19th century, which is supported by the cultural trend toward gardening that was characteristic of the era. The question of maker in this case is a bit more difficult. A.H. Hews is a possibility, but many other Massachusetts potters also produced redware flowerpots.
What do you know about flowerpots? Can you help us date this piece more precisely? Do you have any tips for identifying potters of 18th and 19th century redware in Massachusetts? We would like to hear from you!
“A Place to Take Root,” exhibit curated by Susan Tamulevich and the College of the Atlantic, 2005. Related websites: http://aplacetotakeroot.com/, http://www.criscoladesign.com/pdfs/hopanels.pdf, http://www.smith.edu/garden/exhibits/flowerpots/potpage1.html
Allen, John Fisk. Victoria Regina, or the Great Water Lily of America. Boston, MA: Dutton and Wentworth, 1854. Accessed online: http://www.victoria-adventure.org/victoria_images/allen_sharp/victoria_regia.html
DeForest, Rita A. A Good Sized Pot: Early 19th Century Planting Pots from Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts. Master’s thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, 2010. Obtained at http://scholarworks.umb.edu
Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
Ketchum, William C., Jr. American Redware. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.
Lathrop, Hazel H. The Culture of Flowerpots. Master’s thesis, University of Massachusetsts Boston, 2000.
McConnell, Kevin. Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1988.
Mudge, Jean M., Jane C. Nylander, Susan J. Montgomery, and Tanya B. Barter. Ceramics and Glass at the Essex Institute. Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1985.
Pittman, William and Robert Hunter. A Cache of Eighteenth-Century Flowerpots in Williamsburg. Ceramics in America, Robert Hunter, ed. Hanover and London: Chipstone Foundation, 2002.
The Narbonne House. Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions Volume II, Number 10. October 2000.
Turnbaugh, Sarah Peabody. 17th and 18th Century Lead-Glazed Redwares in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Historical Archaeology 17(1): 3-17.
Watkins, Lura Woodside. Early New England Pottery. Sturbridge, MA: Old Sturbridge Village Booklet Series, 1959. Obtained at www.osv.org
Wyss, Bob. In Praise of the Flowerpot. The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 2004.