What is glaze? Glaze is what keeps the dirt waterproof. It melts at a slightly lower temperature than the clay and seals the vessel so it doesn’t leak. There are all kinds of glazes, but Southern pottery is primarily and almost exclusively the only alkaline-glazed pottery from the 19th and 20th centuries. This made Southern pottery very distinctive from the rest of the country and much of the world. Not only did the South give us jazz, blues, slow accents, and great literature. It gave us green pots. You may or may not have thought about Southern pottery as being an art form, but it is. Quite so.
So why alkaline glaze?
In the early 19th century there was a chronic need for pottery for utilitarian use in the plantations. The plantations in the South were centers of local commerce. They were usually based around agriculture, but they also delved into non-agrarian activities like light manufacturing. Many people lived and worked in the plantations, and of course they all needed to be fed and housed. Before the days of refrigeration, stoneware jugs and jars were used for food storage. Salted meats. Grains. Molasses. (No, white-lightening was not the reason for Southern jugs.)
Buying pottery and shipping it in from the North or from Europe was prohibitively expensive. Since salt was also rare and expensive in the South, making their own salt-glazed pottery was out of the question, too. (I’ll do a later post on the topic of the different types of glazes.)
Enter a well-educated man and plantation owner in the Edgefield district of South Carolina. His name was Dr. Abner Landrum. He knew about the Chinese making alkaline-glazed pottery a few centuries before and had thought why not here?
The South had all the ingredients. Lots or porcelain-quality clay and kaolin from the nearby fall-line that ran through the middle of the state, and there was plenty of wood to burn for ash, which was the basic ingredient for the ash or alkaline glaze.
Landum began experimenting in the production of alkaline-glazed pottery in the early 1800’s. Because of his success, by the mid 19th century it had spread throughout much of the rest of the South. The settlers who migrated from South Carolina took the distinctively glazed pottery making art with them to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and as far West as Texas.
Each new region developed their own distinctive styles for alkaline-glazed pottery. This is why people collect Southern pottery. Because, it is holding local history in your hands.