Friday, July 29, 2011

Give me an R for Redware!

We’re making our way down the alphabet trail and this week the letter R takes its turn. Radiocarbon dating, Raccon notched points, repatriation, Rockingham and Rhenish ceramics all fit the bill, and of course rhyolite came to mind, but our recent blogs on quarries seem to cover this subject, so the spotlight turns to the most humble of historic ceramics this week, redware.

Redware is often referred to as red earthenware because of the color of the material from which it is produced, literally red or reddish-orange clay, and is often dug locally by the potter. The vessels made from this clay were fired at a lower temperature, as compared to stoneware, and often painted with a clear lead or brown manganese glaze. Because they were fired at low temperatures and the clay was locally available, they were relatively inexpensive to produce and replace, as they are also easily broken.

Stahl pottery kiln, Powder Valley, Pennsylvania

Throughout the early colonies including Pennsylvania, evidence of redware production in America dates to the seventeenth century.  Redware was predominately produced by German immigrants settling in the southeastern areas of the state who had a long tradition as potters in Europe. Produced as a utilitarian ware the forms vary widely from table wares like as bowls, cups and plates up to large multi-gallon storage crocks. Still more unusual forms such as this roach trap recovered from excavations in Philadelphia were made from this common, locally sourced red clay.

 A redware roach trap excavated from Market St., Philadelphia.

This two handled colander is another example of a red earthenware utility piece.

Redware production continues today, and has no end production date. Normally there is a beginning date of production and conversely an end date for the various forms of pottery.  Ceramics recovered from archaeological sites are utilized by archaeologists as a tool for dating sites. Because redware does not have this end production date, its use as a dating tool for archaeologists is limited.  Ongoing research on the variation in form and decoration has compiled a comparative data set that allows archaeologists to denote subtle patterns in redware production which can aid in relative dating. While not as precise a dating tool as some other ceramic types, some general observations can be made concerning the cultural groups that were producing these utilitarian wares.

Researchers believe that the details in this decoration can be attributed to the Moravian Potters from the Bethlehem area who relocated to North Carolina in the 1750s.

Reconstructed pottery from Ephrata Cloister exhibit the variety of table wares produced locally by Pennsylvania Germans.
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .


  1. Thanks for this excellent article. I am very fond of the pottery of the Stahl family and of Pa. German potter Lester Breininger. Whenever I see the old stuff, my heart skips a beat!

  2. Nice post! I will have to get down to the Ephrata Cloister and see those excavated pieces. I would love to know what pottery that piece of stoneware came from; I've never seen another like it.

    1. Did you ever get to Ephrata, Brandt? If so, what did you find out about the maker? If not, meet me in Harrisburg sometime, and I will take you down to Ephrata.