Among the skilled and local redware potters, there were always a number of potters who made artistic redware creations that became presentation pieces in which loving husbands surprised their wives with on special occasions as a household gift.
In the redware trade of the 19th Century, almost all potters became famous for these craft pieces which were handed down generation after generation as unusual works of art. But for the most part, redware potters were known for their utilitarian wares such as gallon crocks in which PA Dutch wives stored their apple butter.
In an age when they did not make glass canning jars to store in our pantries, a crude method was employed in which the tops of the crocks were sealed with paper and kept tight by tying a string around the crock until it was opened at a later time. Almost every farm family had a large number of these storage redware crocks to keep a number of foods to feed the family.
Often the stored applebutter had to be revived by the housewife heating it up again but with some sugar to renew the quality of the apple butter mixture in taste. Additionally, adding sassafras root enhanced the flavor as well.
But not just the average number of vessels in which sauerkraut was made and fermented in, but all kinds of foodstuff housewives saw the necessity of storing in gallon crocks. The type of crock ware in which the average potter made his living was by fashioning a number of sizes to suit the needs of an early American cook who was challenged to make a number of pot-luck dishes with her mealtime leftovers. They were stored in the springhouse or in the cool cellar way of our PA Dutch stone mason farm houses, let alone the various other foodstuffs stored in crocks in attics with various smoked meats dangling from the attic rafters.
At many farm sales in the PA Dutch Country, there are dozens of crocks that still survive cooking practices of yesterday, besides the off beat uses that farm hands had discovered for the average common crock of the one gallon variety. I remember early on in my folklife studies, a number of years ago, my grandmother had warned me not to assume that all crocks were used in cooking practices even though they were household items. She also used to remind me as a child, as the folk adage of a tall tale being a crock “full of s@&%!” The shortened version of it’s a crock is still heard today.
For instance and elaboration, if someone would put an evil curse on your child, the folk practice was to take their next bowel movement (of the child) and put it in the attic under a crock! The hex who had bewitched the child will then have this infant’s bowel movement taste in their mouth until the evil culprit came knocking at your kitchen door to borrow some bread to take this terrible taste out of their mouth. So anyone who unknowingly buys a crock at a farm sale should not assume it was not ever a crock full of (feces) or used in some kind of bewitchment folkway.
Most of the storage crocks were only glazed inside, but only bisque fired by the common redware potter, thereby they do not bring a high price at farm sales unless by chance the famous potter stamped his name on the crock, such as Link, Dry, or L. K. Tomlinson to name a few of the more collectable premiums. Earthenware from the 18th Century was so revered by antique dealers that even farmers in the 19th Century who had redware crocks similar to Colonial cookware saw these common crocks bring a high auction price, but were only common vessels used in rural farming storing the likes of and use of apple butter, sauerkraut making, and a number of sundry uses by farmers who had scores of lid less crocks that they used everyday.
But in time, only potters whose skills were associated with artistic craftsmanship, like Stahl and D. Dry, now warrant the highest price for their common crocks when antique dealers find crocks stamped with their prestigious pottery shop name.
Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.