Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Early pottery reveals lifestyles of ancestors

A snuff jar in a great-grandmother’s personal belongings need not upset you. Mom showed me how some older women stretched one thumb and held it a certain way to create a tiny "snuff box" where the thumb joins the wrist bone.

A tiny pinch of powdered, flavored tobacco was released into this tiny "box" at the base of the lady’s thumb. She then inhaled snuff through the nostrils for some special kick. I mention this to suggest that, by studying old pottery, we get an idea of what life was like for our ancestors several hundred years ago.

In 25 years as a potter, I made a number of small brown snuff jars about 5 inches tall, with corks.

In Portsmouth, England, we visited "The Mary Rose" Museum, where wonderful artifacts had been reclaimed from deep silt when the ship was raised from its grave in the harbor, in the 1970s. Medicine in pottery jugs had been removed for analysis to learn what the men on that sailing vessel had been given for their various complaints.

The ship’s assortment of pottery included a 10-inch diameter bowl in the quarters of the "barber/surgeon." That bowl had a large part of one side cut away before being dried, decorated and fired in the 16th century! When the bowl was used for shaving, the cutaway space fit around the sailor’s neck below the whisker line. When it was used for blood-letting, the cutaway space fit around a muscular sailor’s neck for collecting the blood on the left.

For keeping warm on a long wintry horseback ride, a ring bottle filled with whiskey or other "warming" fluid was carried on one arm. The ring bottle was hollow and had a short spout with cork; elaborate decoration was added on these containers, so I also decorated the ring bottles I made. Riders could sip from a ring bottle all day without interrupting the ride.

Early potters began with a jug shape in order to make several different items including bird houses, batter jars, puzzle jugs, children’s banks, candle lamps and similar items.

The jug was an easy item for potters because they made so many jugs to use around farms and homes for vinegar, water, kerosene, lye water, sorghum, wine, whiskey, milk and more.

And they made fun jugs called "ugly jugs," "devil’s jugs" and "grotesque jugs." Potters gave each other these jugs full of cider or liquor, and they are quite collectible.

I began to make smaller jug shapes for my grandsons to add ugly features, but we really enjoyed making what one boy called "un-ugly" things!

Early American potters were known by the number of gallons of jugs they could turn in a day; many could turn more than a hundred gallons a day if there were helpers to prepare the clay and take care of the freshly made pieces. I never tried that, but I enjoyed making large pots.

My greatest challenge in gallons was a large barrel-shaped pot. Two men guessed its capacity to be 10 to 12 gallons; when they left, I put 10 plastic jugs in the pot and guessed its capacity to be 16 gallons. My husband calculated it as engineers do and found it will hold 18 gallons.

The most difficult items I made were "puzzle jugs." In the old drinking houses they were the objects of bets. One verse I used was: "In this jug there is good liquor; fit for either priest or vicar. If you drink and do not spill, ’twill try the utmost of your skill."

Don’t call. I’m retired!

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