Remember our 2012 post about the mysterious scratch-blue creamware sherds from the City Point Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield? These lovely, little, unexpected sherds really struck a chord with us, and the questions left unanswered after our initial blog post inspired us to keep going with our research. We greatly appreciated all of the interest, questions, and comments our readers offered after our post in 2012. Now, we’d like to share with you what we’ve learned since then. While we do not have the answers to all of our questions, we do have a fascinating story, and with it, some insights into the world of historic ceramics that may surprise you.
In 2012, we determined that the sherds were definitively creamware. And not cream-colored earthenware with colorful green or tortoiseshell glaze that we know was popular in the mid 18th century, but rather “true” Wedgwood-like creamware with thin, hard paste and clear, glassy glaze. Archeological context assigned these sherds a pre-1763 date, making them too early to have been made at the two potteries we knew produced scratch-blue creamware (the Swansea pot house and the Indeo Pottery at Bovey Tracey). Moreover, we could find no evidence that any of the Staffordshire potteries produced scratch-blue creamware. We were stumped! Then the staff at Petersburg National Battlefield suggested a link to a Scottish pottery, and our research took a really exciting turn. As we suggested in our 2012 post, these sherds could represent some of the earliest creamware ever excavated on an American site. And they might be Scottish? Pretty cool.
Let us take you back to Appomattox Manor, the house built at City Point in 1763 by Richard Eppes. To refresh your memory, when this house was built, an earlier house was demolished and its cellar filled. It was this cellar fill that contained the sherds of scratch-blue creamware (hence their pre-1763 date). The 1763 house was built by Richard Eppes, who lived there with his wife and children. Richard Eppes married Christian Robertson, whose father, Archibald Robertson, hailed from a prominent merchant family in Glasgow. Archibald Robertson came to Virginia in 1735 and served as a factor in the Scottish tobacco trade. (Steele, personal communication; Horning 2004)
With the commercial union between Britain and Scotland in 1707, Scotland was no longer a threat to British interests and was able to begin trading with the colonies. The Scottish tobacco trade, centered in Glasgow, flourished throughout the 18th century and peaked between 1750 and 1775. (Devine 2004 and 1975; Habib, Gray, and Forbes 2013)
Scottish historian T. M. Devine writes that “the tobacco trade transformed the social and cultural world of Glasgow. A new breed of merchants came on the scene. Their wealth and commercial power were unprecedented in the city’s history, so much so that they were dubbed ‘tobacco lords’ as an acknowledgement of their pre-eminence. They were said to promenade the streets of Glasgow clad in scarlet cloaks, satin suits and cocked hats, with gold-tipped canes in hand and an aloof air.” (Devine 2004: 73)
One reason for the Glasgow merchants’ success in the tobacco trade was their adoption of a store system in the colonies. They purchased tobacco outright from the planters before shipping it overseas. Scottish factors like Archibald Robertson oversaw stores where the planters could buy goods on credit on the condition that they would supply their tobacco crop to the factor once it was ready. (Devine 2004 and 1975; Habib, Gray, and Forbes 2013)
Scottish merchants required a steady supply of manufactured goods in order to stock their stores in the colonies. The city of Glasgow experienced a surge of industry in the 18th century in response to this demand. The Delftfield Pottery was founded in 1748 on the shores of the River Clyde in Glasgow with, according to John C. Austin, “the express purpose of producing delft for markets in the Caribbean Islands and the American colonies.” (Austin 1994: 15) Historical and archeological evidence indicate that Delftfield produced (and exported to America) a variety of vessel forms, including bowls, teawares, tea pots, milk pots, mugs, sugar boxes, coffee cans, plates, basins, and chamber pots. (Austin 1994; Turnbull 1997)
Shipping records show that large quantities of ceramics were shipped from Glasgow to Virginia in the second half of the 18th century. According to historian T. M. Devine, Scottish merchants procured some ceramics for their stores from English factories, but “the bulk of the articles they sent out to the colonies was indeed purchased north of the Border.” (Devine 1975: 63) Robert Dinwiddie, one of the primary shareholders in the Delftfield Pottery, came to Virginia in 1751 as Lieutenant Governor. The Scottish Lockhart Papers indicate that Dinwiddie’s ship the Blandford made “regular calls at Petersburg, 100 miles inland on the James River,” supporting the idea that Scottish goods were available to consumers in and around Petersburg (Denholm 1975: 83).
Given this history, it seems likely that there was a good bit of Delftfield pottery in use in 18th-century Virginia. It also seems likely that Glasgow-bred factor Archibald Robertson may have offered some of this pottery for sale in his store, and that his daughter Christian Robertson Eppes may have owned some of these items during her time at City Point.
Archeological excavations at Williamsburg have yielded tin enamel sherds with painted decoration similar to that on sherds found at the site of the Delftfield pottery. We examined the tin enamel from City Point in depth, hoping to find similar parallels. We compared the sherds to drawings and photographs of artifacts excavated at Delftfield in 1975 and 1997. We were not disappointed. The remarkable similarities between the sherds leave us with little doubt that the residents of City Point in the mid-18th century were using ceramic vessels made at the Delftfield Pottery in Glasgow. Do you agree? Take a look!
Historical and archeological evidence strongly suggest that some of the tin enamel from the pre-1763 cellar fill at City Point was made at Delftfield. This brings us back to the star of this show – the scratch-blue creamware from the same feature. We know it wasn’t made at Swansea or Bovey Tracey, and probably not Staffordshire either. So, what about Delftfield? Could they have been producing scratch-blue creamware before 1763? We think so, and here’s why.
Although known primarily for its tin enamel, historians agree that Delftfield was producing creamware by about 1770. There has been some speculation as to whether the pottery produced white salt-glazed stoneware, based primarily on references in newspaper ads as early as 1757 to a new, stronger, more durable ware.
Vessels described as stoneware appeared in the company’s registers by 1759, and Historian John Gibson wrote in 1777 that the pottery began production of “stone” by 1766. A 1772 advertisement in the Glasgow Journal touted that Delftfield had “brought the STONE and DELFT Ware to the greatest perfection.” (Skerry & Hood 2009; Kinghorn and Quail 1986; Habib, Gray, & Forbes, eds., 2013)
Despite these references to “stone” and “stoneware,” no white salt-glazed stoneware has ever been recovered during archeological excavations at Delftfield. What archeologists have found is a substantial amount of creamware bisque sherds. (Skerry & Hood 2009; Habib, Gray, & Forbes, eds., 2013; Denholm 1975) Jonathan Kinghorn and Gerard Quail write in their book about Delftfield that cream-colored earthenware with lead glaze was “known variously as creamware, cream-coloured earthenware, Queen’s china, yellow stone, stone-china and (ambiguously) as stone-ware.” (Kinghorn and Quail 1986: 39) A 1773 advertisement in the Glasgow Journal claimed that Delftfield’s potters had “learned the art of manufacturing Yellow Stone or Cream coloured Ware.” (Walford & Massey 2007; Kinghorn and Quail 1986)
If they were calling cream-colored ware “Yellow Stone” in 1773, perhaps the earlier references to “stone” denoted cream-colored earthenware as well. And, most importantly here, perhaps the new, stronger, more durable ware advertised in 1757 (significantly before 1763) was not stoneware, but rather, cream-colored earthenware. As scratch-blue stoneware was hugely popular in the 1750s, it would not be surprising to find that the Delftfield potters had decorated their cream-colored earthenware in a similar style.
If Delftfield was producing creamware in 1757, some of these vessels were probably included in the shipments of goods that Glasgow merchants sent overseas to their Virginia stores. It’s easy to see how they would have then ended up in the hands and households of eager consumers like Christian Robertson Eppes.
The 8 small sherds of scratch-blue creamware from City Point sparked the most comprehensive and exciting research we have yet to conduct in our lab. We read thousands of pages, consulted with several museum curators and archeologists, and became very familiar with the archeological collection from City Point. Our research inspired us to reexamine the way we think about creamware – in this case, 1750s, scratch-blue, and Scottish! We hope it will encourage you to do the same. The more I learn about the history of City Point and its occupants, the more hooked I become. This quiet, beautiful spot has so many amazing stories to tell, including the one we have just shared with you.
This research would not have been possible without the support of current and former staff at Petersburg National Battlefield. We extend many thanks to Julia Steele, Emmanuel Dabney, and Jimmy Blankenship, among others.
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Image source for Tobacco Lord image: