Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations
Clays of the Piedmont · By Dirk Frankenberg
Colonial restrictions on pottery
European colonists recognized clay as an important resource in developing their agricultural economy. Surprisingly, the king’s governors restricted the manufacture of pottery because the British economic model for the empire (called mercantilism) was to have raw materials from the colonies sent to England for manufacture into finished goods to be shipped back for sale in the colonies. This sounds like a crazy idea to us, and must have seemed even more so to the Scotch-Irish and German immigrants who settled the southern Piedmont. Only some utilitarian wares could legally be produced, although it appears that some colonial governors deliberately underreported the quantity and diversity of pottery objects made as early as the first half of the eighteenth century.
Many colonists brought their skills as potters with them when they immigrated, and others learned by watching skillful neighbors. For farmers in the clay-rich Piedmont, pot making was an ideal activity when they weren’t working in the fields. It could be carried out under a shelter and it provided supplemental income in the period between harvests. As a result, it didn’t take long before local potters became more than self-sufficient in producing baking dishes, storage jars, jugs, churns, milk crocks, cups, pitchers, funnels, colanders, still caps and even entertaining objects of less practical use like puzzle jugs and bird houses. So the King’s restrictions did not prevent the development of a pottery industry in the south, an industry that thrives today in the central Piedmont of North Carolina.
Figures 6 through 8 show some of the objects made by central Piedmont potters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were made at the new North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. This is a great place to visit to learn more about North Carolina pots and potters, because after visiting the Center, you can take a self-guided tour of potteries in the area. At last count, the Pottery Center’s tour map included about 100 different businesses established to make useful and attractive objects out of clay.
Figure 6 shows early examples of locally made utilitarian clay objects, including a representative bowl, pitcher, cup, funnel, still cap, and keg.