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Title:Nineteenth century stoneware manufacturing at Pottersville, South Carolina: the discovery of a dragon kiln and the reinterpretation of a southern pottery tradition
Author(s):Calfas, George
Director of Research:Fennell, Christopher C.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Fennell, Christopher C.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Ambrose, Stanley H.; Bauer, Andrew; Vlach, John
Department / Program:Anthropology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Alkaline Glazed Stoneware
Dragon Kiln
Groundhog Kiln
South Carolina
Abstract:The focus of this research project was the Pottersville kiln site (38ED011) located in Edgefield, South Carolina (circa 1810-1850 C.E.). That production center was founded by Abner Landrum and is renowned as a first place of the manufacture of alkaline-glazed stoneware vessels in the Americas. The founding ceramic entrepreneurs of the Pottersville kiln attempted to produce porcelain and other products during a period of limited trade interaction with China. The Pottersville proprietors drew upon ceramic knowledge rooted in generations of pottery production, the proceeds of earlier European industrial espionage in China, and failed European attempts to create products to mimic Chinese porcelain. Elemental analysis of the molecular composition of clays and ceramic product samples was conducted as a portion of this project. That elemental study indicates that Edgefield kilns were constructed in locations to take advantage of high-quality kaolin resources. The clay deposits discovered in South Carolina were similar in quality to those located adjacent to Chinese manufacturing centers and the Cornwall mines of England that were exploited by Staffordshire potters. The availability of such high quality clay was a factor influencing the difference between success and failure in the production of porcelain and related ceramic products. Clay quality was not the only factor that held a key to the successful production of porcelain. To transform clay into porcelain, molded objects were fired in a kiln to temperatures that exceeded 1,400 degrees Celsius. The Pottersville ceramic entrepreneurs constructed a kiln capable of being fired to high temperatures and based their design upon centuries of technological expertise. Based on earlier archaeological and documentary research, the typical kiln for production of alkaline-glazed stoneware in the American South during the late 1800s was known as a “groundhog” kiln. Such groundhog kilns were of modest size and were derived from earlier European kiln designs. In 2010-2012, I conducted archaeological investigations to study a number of Edgefield pottery centers and in particular to investigate the Pottersville kiln’s architectural features in attempt to understand 19th century kiln technology. Upon conclusion of a 2011 archaeological field school focused on the Pottersville kiln site, I found that the kiln displayed similar widths to a groundhog kiln. Astoundingly, though, the excavations revealed that the Pottersville kiln was 105 feet in length -- five times longer than a typical groundhog kiln. Field work at two related kilns in the area of the nineteenth-century, Edgefield pottery district, revealed that two members of Abner Landrum’s extended family also built and operated such larger-scale kilns in the antebellum period. To understand the unexpected scale of these production structures, the project focus was expanded to include potential architectural influences based upon non-European kiln designs, including the Chinese “dragon” kiln. The increased dimension of the Pottersville kiln, coupled with the results of regional, elemental analysis, led to a careful consideration of the ways in which enslaved laborers were deployed as a part of this rural, industrial enterprise. In China, porcelain production activities were of such an industrial scale as to support entire cities. Due to the immense scale of Chinese production centers employing multiple dragon kilns, entire communities participated in a full array of production process from mining clay through producing porcelain objects. At the Pottersville kiln, to ensure a dedicated, long-term work force, enslaved laborers were forced to participate in all facets of production. Those manufacturing steps included the chopping of fire wood, quarrying and preparation of clay, turning the vessels, and loading and unloading of the kiln. The deployment of enslaved labor for industrial means runs counter to the perceived notions slavery and industry in South Carolina. Entrepreneurs of the Pottersville kiln were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to create porcelain; however, the site was the first full-scale ceramic operation in North America where a porcelain-like, alkaline glaze was developed and applied to stoneware vessels. Those stoneware vessels were made of high-quality kaolin clay and fired in these South Carolina kilns at temperatures of 1,200 degrees Celsius. Within the Edgefield district, ceramic history, technology, invention, and industrial slavery coalesced to produce a utilitarian vessel identifiable to this day throughout the American South. Due to these factors, the Pottersville kiln has been recognized as nationally significant based on historical and documentary evidence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Issue Date:2014-01-16
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 George Calfas
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-01-16
Date Deposited:2013-12

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