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Below the Pottery Line, North Carolina

As told by Fiona Finch
Catawba County, North Carolina

Story Narrative:

Fiona Finch discovers the surprisingly complex history of the pottery industry in the South during the Civil War. A simple ceramic pipe mold at the Historical Association of Catawba County tells a tale of the workers who created objects like this and the significance that clay has held across the world over thousands of years.

Fiona Finch (00:04): Before cigarettes and even cigars, there was an era of smoking that still has a lasting impact today. Many of us have seen a pipe or at least know what one is. The pipe was an art form, a way of expressing one's place in society. But for some, that place was at the very bottom, where they had to mold and make a way to survive. The Civil War was a hard time for this country, and while many men were off fighting in the war, the government required any potters to stay behind to produce goods that were in extremely high demand. Particularly, the vessels that would be used in camps, hospitals, or on the battlefield. Born in 1850 to David Hartsoe, Sylvanus Hartsoe has his work in many collections still to this day. But a particular piece of his dating back to the 1860s reminds us not only of the struggles faced when trying to create during the war, but also the cultural and valuability of social behaviors.

Steven Rhoads (01:11): Even the Egyptians had pipes, intricate pipes, that they carved out and even made bronze castings to make those pipes.

Fiona Finch (01:22): Pipes have for centuries been seen as a way to bridge culture and nature. Indigenous peoples were commonly documented as using pipes in their religious practices, and during 17th century England, tobacco was smoked in clay pipes. The combination of these two cultures in the New World led to a whole new Southern pottery tradition.

Johanna Brown (01:41): As far as pipe molds are concerned, some were made out of lead, some were made out of wood, and then here at Salem, they also have made some out of plaster. Some, I believe, were probably also brass.

Fiona Finch (01:55): Traditional Catawba Valley pottery uses clay directly from local sources. The process to prepare clay was simple but tedious. After being dug from pit and softened with water, clay would be turned in a simple beam mill rotated by a mule. Then the clay would be picked to remove any sticks, rocks, or weeds, and then kneaded to remove air pockets.

Fiona Finch (02:16): A lot of factors went into choosing the right clay for a project such as plasticity and elasticity, but when it came time to make a pipe, Hartsoe would simply fill the bowl mold with clay, plug the holes where the tobacco and stem would be placed and squeeze it tight in a pressed.

Johanna Brown (02:32): They used metal pipe molds that were used with a pipe press, and then they also use plaster molds that they pressed the clay into to form the pipes.

Fiona Finch (02:43): During the hard times of the Civil war, being anything less than high on the socioeconomic ladder was devastating. Pottery began as a way for farmers to make extra money. And when everyone saw the usefulness of a watertight slip glaze or rock solid stoneware piece pottery became the main source of utilitarian objects in the South. Even pipes were made to be simplistic tools of function.

Steven Rhoads (03:04): The farther you got away from money, the less intricate they become and the more useful they were. They just become useful. They were what they were, where in the city or around money there would be a status symbol, like a cane. They would keep their pop in their mouth all the time as a status symbol and carry their cane all the time, whether they needed it or not. Where if they didn't have intricacy or it wasn't very, it didn't cost a lot of money, it was just a pipe to smoke.

Fiona Finch (03:36): The importance and prevalence of pottery in our Southern culture has molded a history full of clay and hard work. Just like Hartsoe, many have depended on the craft to get them through trying times. Such is the life of those living below the pottery line.

Asset ID: 2018.12
Themes: Crossroads, history, Southern culture, pottery, farming, Civil War
Date recorded: 2018
Length of recording: 4:00 m
Related traveling exhibition: The Way We Worked
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Historical Association of Catawba County; Newton-Conover Middle School
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