Saturday, June 19, 2021

Pennsylvania Archaeology - American Grey Stoneware

 This week we continue with our ongoing series of posts on early historic ceramics found on archaeological sites in Pennsylvania.

As with other ceramic types we have previously discussed, American potters’ early experiments with stoneware were informed by their European predecessors, most notably English and German styles such as Fulham and Rhenish, respectively. Manufactured in North America as early as the mid-18th century, American Gray stoneware’s main advantage over earthenwares, such as redware, is its water-tight properties.

This desirable characteristic is the result of higher kiln temperature when firing a ceramic that produces a durable, vitreous body that will not absorb liquids. The body and paste of American Grey stoneware can range in color from grey to tan-ish/brown depending on both the temperature of the kiln as well as the specific chemical composition of the source clay. For example, clay with a higher iron content will impart a browner appearance.

Photo #1 American Grey stoneware pitcher with cobalt blue floral decoration from 36Ph1, Market Street, Philadelphia (State Museum of PA)

Most American Grey stonewares also exhibit salt-glazed exteriors similar to that found on English-made scratch-blue stoneware reviewed in an earlier post. While scratch blue stoneware’s short period of manufacture can be an asset to an archaeologist looking to determine the age of a site or feature, American Grey stoneware’s long, and continuing production offers no such advantage. A marked difference between these two ceramic types is their thickness in cross-section, which informs us about their different functions. Crocks, jugs, bottles and jars of American Grey stoneware, with their thick walls correspond with their utilitarian nature primarily as storage vessels and containers. English scratch-blue as we’ve discussed previously, on the other hand, was a delicately thin tableware commonly in form of shallow bowls and tea cups.

Frequently the robust, utilitarian appearance of American Grey stoneware was softened or counterbalanced by the application of simple yet effective motifs of flowers, sprigs and even animals in cobalt blue. Unusual vessel forms, large examples, or pieces with iconic decorations, such as an American Eagle continue to be highly prized by collectors as any viewer of PBS’s popular Antique’s Roadshow can attest .

#3 Kiln furniture from the New Geneva Waster site (36FA404)

#4 Glaze testers, material bars and stacking collars from New Geneva (36Fa404)

Pottery manufacturers often stamped or marked vessels with their company stamp facilitating research by archaeologists as to the place and period of manufacture.  The New Geneva Pottery excavations (36FA0091) and (36FA404) provided evidence of manufacturing techniques from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. New Geneva’s location in Southwestern Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River, provided a source for clay and ready access for transporting the finished pottery to markets.  New Geneva was just one of many stoneware pottery manufacturing areas in Pennsylvania enabled by skilled potters and our natural clay resources. One of Pennsylvania’s more familiar stoneware potteries was the Pfaltzgraff pottery in York founded in the early 1800’s. Research of manufacturing processes, clay sources, glazes developed, and function and utility are important in understanding the daily activities often not documented in the historic record.

Later 19th century examples of American Grey stoneware are commonly found with Albany slip decorated interiors and/or exteriors. With the closing of the mine where Albany slip clay was extracted in 1986, true Albany slip decorated stoneware is no longer being produced, although potters have been able to replicate the dark brown, chocolate colored slip with other similar clays.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to American Grey stoneware and will stop back again as we continue our review of historic ceramics found on archaeological sites in Pennsylvania. This often-recovered category of artifact is an important tool for archaeologists in studying the past and Pennsylvania’s rich cultural heritage.  Additional examples of colonial ceramics can  be accessed on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s on-line collections and we hope you will visit our other posts to learn more about ceramic manufacture in Pennsylvania. 


Hunter, Robert (ed.)

2005 Ceramics in America. Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee

Noel Hume, Ivor

 2001   A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia

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For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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