Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

There seems to be no written record of how...

There seems to be no written record of how potters discovered that salt would make their jars and jugs more attractive and somewhat more durable. Salt glazing was important to the United States’ early potters but was discovered in Europe before adventurers sought a short route to India and stumbled on the world of the Indians.

We assume that salt glazing was discovered by accident, perhaps in Germany. One question remains unanswered: “How did potters know that, if they put salt on the very hot fires in their primitive kilns, the pots would emerge with a unique surface known as salt glaze?”

Since prehistoric times, it has been known that dry objects made of clay could be made hard and usable by subjecting them to extreme heat. This fact gives scientists a keen picture of the life of early human beings. That fact, like the technique called salt glazing, was likely discovered by accident. Salt glazing may have resulted from the use of firewood that had been discarded by factories producing something salty -- pickles, kraut, etc. It may have happened when old ocean piers and other salt-soaked wood were used as fuel.

Early U.S. pottery, salted, was more durable and also more attractive to buyers. Potters used to make pots of clay from their own farms and glaze them with cheap stock salt. A gallon whiskey jug or sorghum jug could be sold for about 15 cents. Therefore, after the crop was laid by, early farmers would make pottery to sell. They salted the fires to glaze the pots. That 15-cent jug, if signed and decorated with folk art, would sell for more than a $100 in today’s market. About 12 years ago, I began to make antique “look-alikes.”

Our kiln is an improvement on the “groundhog” kiln used in the 18th and 19th centuries. We use wood for the fuel and salt for the glaze as early potters did. Our firings begin on Friday when we place the pots in, stacking without shelves and laying up a brick door. We then start a fire to warm the kiln and its contents overnight. The next day, about noon, we build another fire and begin to stoke wood in earnest.

Helpers split wood and take turns stoking, wearing masks and aprons to protect themselves from the heat. By dark we’re “reading” the firing by the emerging black smoke, the flames from a small blow hole, and by the color of the interior. When the temperature reaches about 2,300 degrees, we begin adding the salt to the fire boxes.

Salt on intensely hot fire explodes into sodium vapor and is immediately carried into the firing chamber. The silica of the clay attracts the sodium and, together, they make the glaze that is a part of the pot itself, not something that is applied to the surface. Through a peephole we retrieve test rings to determine the amount of salt that accumulates on the pots.

When the 10 to 13 hours of hard labor is done, we’re dirty from the soot, sweaty from the heat and weary from the work. But we’re proud of the teamwork and its possible accomplishment. The next afternoon, we have a kiln opening.

Our next firing is scheduled for Saturday. People who are interested in the process are welcome. We’re at 11201 Vemers Ford Road, about 10 miles east of Columbia. Rain or strong wind will postpone the firing. Call Friends Together Antiques for more information: 442-6759 or 442-2809.

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