I came to go digging. Didn’t we say…?
‘It’s raining out bonehead!’ Tim declared.
Well its not really raining – its just foggy.
‘Get in the truck.’ Tim doesn’t need much convincing to go out looking for antiques, but on wet days in the winter months, he digs indoors.
On a foggy Friday afternoon I followed Timbits around the historic town of Barrie Ontario to look at rare and valuable early Canadian pottery.
Like a trapper out tending his trap line, Tim walks in a preordained pattern on each premises and keeps a pocket full of ready cash to buy any undervalued pieces he spots. Experience has taught him that most Southern Ontario antiques dealers don’t know their local history or recognize the names of less prominent potters. If you want to track Tim down on eBay I believe his handle is ‘Tim bottle digger’ or some combination of those three words. He keeps a close eye on the newest dealer’s booths in many local antiques malls, and seems to know the prices of most things without looking at the tags . Its fun to pick up something interesting and ask him what he would pay – its always less than the sticker price.
Tim is especially fond of the Barrie Antiques Centre; the high turnover inside this busy complex demands his frequent scrutiny – and the gregarious management here is also surprisingly helpful in discussing industry news, auction updates, and I suppose this friendly but informative banter is also part of Tim’s search ritual.
I wish I had asked the proprietor his name. He was a nice guy, but Tim didn’t want to say too much about the prices of the good pottery in front of him though… business and all.
In fact it’s tough to get Tim to endorse anything expensive – for the most part he seems to reserve praise for items priced under ten dollars. But he does like salt glazed ‘merchant crocks’ and that place is packed full of them.
Salt glazed stoneware is created by adding common rock salt (sodium chloride) into the chamber of a hot kiln. Sodium as a flux and reacts with the silica in the clay. A typical salt glaze piece has a glassine finish, usually with a glossy and slightly orange-peel texture, enhancing the natural colour of the clay sealed beneath the glaze. I believe the process dates back to the 14th Century.
Tim likes stoneware jugs that are stamped with merchant’s names and addresses from small towns in Ontario. This jug is from a wine merchant in Brantford, Ontario and that makes this piece a ‘merchant’s jug’. Yes this kind of detailed information on the stamp makes it possible to really accurately pinpoint the relic in time and place, and such pieces are therefore a welcome addition to any Canadian pottery collection.
If you click on and expand the image above you will more easily notice that this particular stoneware jug is ‘spalding’. That means that this salt glazed pottery was carelessly stored in a damp basement, or perhaps outside in a garage or barn and, over the years, moisture has crept in under the finish. Those water molecules will over time, bubble up the glaze and ruin the skin of the ceramic. Restoration is difficult. A pottery collector could use a dehumidifier and maybe even a hairdryer to banish the moisture, but fixing the blemishes is a heart breaking exercise in futility.
I made sure I got my hands on a two gallon Flak and Van Arsdale from Cornwall, Ontario. This handsome kiln fired salt glazed beehive was made around 1874 and sold for a nickel; today’s price is about $350 bucks!
At this point Timbits told me an interesting story about the blue floral designs that are always present on the early Canadian ‘flower jugs’ .
The potter, or in some famous cases here in Central Ontario the potter’s most trusted assistant, would finger paint the same design on every piece! This primitive early branding was very important to consumers who grew to trust the vessels on which they could identify and recognize the flower. And when that proud potter retired, his son or his business partner took over the operation, and the company’s signature image would change slightly… sometimes noticeably, but in many cases its still the same basic design, whether that was a flower or a bird or a horse. The new pattern would not be a significant departure from the earlier ‘brand’. As I looked around the Barrie Antiques Centre, I saw many fine examples of this ‘brand evoilution’. Tim pointed me toward a collection of crocks from Justin Morton & F.P. Goold. Behind them, I found a jug from a Hamilton potter named Robert Campbell. He had succeeded his father William in about 1875 – both men finger painted a flower pattern on their pieces, but Robert’s decal was larger and friendlier.
A wonderful piece, this five gallon crock was made by W.E. Welding in Brantford Ontario in approx 1880. It has enjoyed a very long life as a handy storage container for a wide range of consumables such as water, soda, beer, meat, grain, jelly and pickled vegetables.
This crock could have been made from potters clay obtained in the Don river valley – there was a prolific clay pit there and its well known that Toronto teamsters would deliver that valuable white clay to potteries all over Ontario.
Tim is a true friend. He could see I was interested in learning about the history of Early Canadian Pottery and so he gave me his premier book on the subject by Donald Webster.
On page 78, I found the following census information that nicely details the rise and fall of Ontario potteries. In 1851 there were only thirty potteries in Upper Canada. But by 1861 there were forty potteries and eighty six potteries, and by 1871 there were 166 potters working eighty six potteries. The census of 1881 found seventy two potteries employed 182 potters. The decline, which was to start small and accelerate rapidly appeared first in the 1891 census where figures showed that 115 potters worked sixty potteries.
Early Canadian Pottery by Donald Webster was published in the USA in 1971 by the New York Graphic Society Limited, Greenwich Connecticut. Its broken into ten chapters:
EARLY CANADIAN POTTERY
1. The Production of Earthenware
2 Quebec – The French Period
3 Quebec – The Later 18th and 19th Centuries
4 Ontario Earthenware
5 Earthenware of the Maritimes
6 Miniatures, Toys and Whimseys
7 Salt-glazed Stoneware
8 Manufacturing – Rockingham and Yellow-ware
9 Whitewares and Porcelain
10 The Archeology of Potteries
The last chapter looks especially interesting, but I won’t skip ahead to see where or how these guys are digging…