TEXT BY JOHN BOTTERO
An 1868 business directory lauding the Portland Stone Ware Company as a manufacturer of “everything capable of being molded from clay, from a beer bottle or soap dish to a ten-gallon butter crock, or a twenty-gallon water keg” sums up the centrality of stoneware in the pre-refrigeration era. Provisions such as salted meats and pickled vegetables were stored in crocks made of the strong, non-porous, glazed pottery, while jugs held liquids, like vinegar and molasses. Unlike earlier earthenware, produced along Maine riverbanks where clay was plentiful, stoneware required imported clays, mostly from New Jersey, that could withstand firing at high temperatures for long periods, and its manufacturers were concentrated in Portland, Bangor, and Gardiner.
ABOVE Augusta’s Maine State Museum houses dozens of pieces of 19th-century stoneware, including: a 2-gallon salt-glazed butter pot by Bangor Stone Ware Company; a 4-gallon salt-glazed crock by Gardiner’s R. Thompson & Co.; and a 4-gallon salt-glazed water cooler by Gardiner Stone Ware Manufactory.
Introduced in Portland in the early 1830s by Martin Crafts, who co-founded the Orcutt and Crafts pottery company, local stoneware was often “salt glazed,” meaning salt was added to the kiln during firing. At temperatures of 1,200–1,300 degrees, the sodium reacted with silica in the clay to form a glassy, dimpled coating. Some makers stamped their names or decorations into the clay. Others applied a mineral solution with a brush prior to firing — cobalt for medium to deep navy, manganese for purple, and iron oxide for brown. Common cylindrical jugs and lipped crocks with simple leaf or floral decorations go for $100–$300 today. Rarer forms bearing more elaborate bird or botanical imagery may fetch $3,000 or more.
John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.