Messengers from the Past

Carole C. Wahler

Pottery making is thousands of years old. The earliest clay objects were figurals for ritual purposes. Pottery, however, is fragile. Partially due to this fragility, utilitarian pottery traditions did not develop until there were relatively settled societies. Almost paradoxically, this very tendency to break has proven invaluable to archaeologists. Discarded pottery sherds become one of the most informative and indestructible of human artifacts.

Settled societies required containers for storing, preparing and serving food and beverages. While wood, metal and glass objects were available, they all had drawbacks in addition to being relatively expensive.

Earthenware provided the solution. The clay was universally available and inexpensive. Lead glazes were developed to provide an effective seal on earthenware’s porous surface hundreds of years before Christ. Around 1700 scientists became aware of lead poisoning of potters. By the early 1800s poisoning due to consuming food or beverages stored in lead glazed vessels was well known. Thus, stoneware began to replace earthenware. Vessels made of stoneware avoided the dangers of lead poisoning, were more durable and non-porous. Salt glazes were generally added for ease in cleaning as well as for aesthetics. European production of salt glazed stoneware began along the Rhein in the 15th century.

Stoneware clay while similar to earthenware, is higher in silica and not available in all areas. A potter not only had to be skilled specifically in the manufacture of stoneware; he also had to be able to identify and secure the necessary clay.

Surprisingly, throughout most of the 19th century, earthenware and stoneware were made simultaneously in East Tennessee. This was undoubtedly due to economic factors such as a well established early earthenware tradition and the relative scarcity of stoneware clays.

Since historians have concluded that in 1772 there were approximately seventy plantations in what is now Carter County, it is reasonable to assume that the earliest settler-made pottery was produced there. Pottery was wagoned into the area, however, it is doubtful that the quantity needed could have come exclusively from North Carolina and Virginia.

East Tennessee’s earliest known potters were generally of German or English ancestry. However, after 1800 these two pottery traditions, combined with other cultural influences, resulted in distinctive regional pottery that can be identified today. This pottery, of which we are justifiably proud, provides a unique link in the continuum of the American potting tradition as it spread across the United States.

Unfortunately, knowledge of Tennessee’s early potters is limited by missing or destroyed records. Census information is largely unavailable, forcing students of pottery to look to other sources. Piecing together information from these sources is time consuming and sketchy at best, making it extremely difficult to formulate an accurate account of the region’s pottery industry.

Common sense tells us that there must have been a great many “family-type” potteries. The names of a few of these families are known. Some are represented in this exhibit: the Cains of Sullivan County, the Henshaws (Hinshaws, Hanchers) of Greene and Sullivan Counties, the Deckers of Washington County, Haun of Greene County and Wooten of Hawkins County.

Although most of our potters remain unnamed, their pots and sherds speak to us of their lives and times . . . they are messengers from the past.

The background images are stoneware sherds of pots made by Knox County potter, Samuel Smith, Jr. They are courtesy of Dr. Charles H. Faulkner, Professor, University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology.

This essay was written to accompany the exhibition Great Road Style: Decorative Arts of Northeast Tennessee, 1780-1940. The exhibition was held at the William King Regional Arts Center, Abington Virginia September 17, 1999 through March 5, 2000. It was then published in September 2000 on

October 11, 2012

Copyright 2009-2021, Carole Wahler
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