?The Last Lap?, an article about the Dorchester Pottery and the Henderson Family originally printed in the New Yorker Magazine. Written by Berton Rouech?, March 13, 1954.
The Dorchester section of Boston, a run-down reach of flats and factories at the mouth of the Neponset River, is celebrated as the site of the third permanent Puritan settlement in Massachusetts, the birthplace of Increase Mather, and the home of Baker's Chocolate. It is also celebrated; if somewhat less widely, as the seat of the Dorchester Pottey Works. The Dorchester Pottery Works was founded by a New England Scotsman named George Henderson, in 1884. After his death, in 1928, the business passed into the hands of his son, and only child, Charles Wilson Henderson. It is now run jointly by the son and his wife, Ethel Hill Henderson, and though both are in or near their sixties, they operate it almost entirely themselves. Their only employees are two Italian potters?one a septuagenarian?and a brother of Mrs. Henderson's, Charles Hill, an amateur artist and a chemical engineer, who turned up shortly after the war and promptly made himself useful and at home. Forty or fifty years ago, there were hundreds of such potteries in the United States. Every large town in the East and the Middle West had at least one. The Dorchester Pottery Works is still one of many, but time and the temperament of its owners have long since made it unique. It is, and has been for almost a generation, the only pottery in the country exclusively engaged in the manufacture of hand-turned, hand-glazed, high-fired stoneware. Some authorities rank its products among the finest of their kind in the world.
I was up in Boston not long ago, and one raw, drizzly afternoon I went out to Dorchester and spent a couple of hours at the Dorchester pottery Works. A Fields Corner subway, a Neponset bus, and a five-minute walk down a cratered street flanked at a little distance by a railroad embankment brought it into view. In spite of the weather, I stopped and stared. Set just next to the street, with the cindery slope of the embankment on one side and a dark desolation of weeds and waste beyond, it consisted of three bedraggled buildings bunched around a cobbled courtyard. One was a big, hulking two-story clapboard factory, some ninety feet long and forty feet wide, with a flat roof and a soaring pink brick chimney. Across its face were the faded remains of a sign. What was left of it read, "DORC EST R POTT RY." The other buildings were a gaunt frame house and a corrugated-iron shed. It was a grim and dispiriting sight. Also, the place looked abandoned. The paint was peeling on all three buildings, the blinds were drawn in the front of the house, and the mighty stack appeared as cold and lifeless s the sky. A 1941 Ford station wagon with dented fenders and a splintered tail gate, parked in a side court near the entrance to the house, was the only indication that there might be somebody around. I headed for the house. There was a push-button bell to the right of the door, and above it was a dog-eared card: "Ring Bell & Walk In." I pushed the bell and opened the door, and stepped into an empty room with a counter near the entrance, a wall of empty shelves, and four closed doors. Sitting on the counter, was a pale-blue pottery casserole. It was as plump as a melon and as sleek as an egg, and the blue was a bay water burning in the sun. I had never seen a handsomer piece of work. I walked over and lifted the lid. The inside of the casserole seemed to be finished in the same soft blue, but I couldn't be sure. It was choked with cigarette butts.
There was a sound of approaching footsteps. I replaced the lid and stood back and waited. Then the door at the far end of the room creaked open and a tall, slender, bespectacled women with a coronet of graying hair looked inquiringly in. She was smoking a cigarette, and she had on a blue denim skirt, a candy-striped blouse, a bright-red cardigan, and practical black oxfords. The front of her sweater was streaked with cigarette ash. ?Oh,? she said. ?I thought I heard the bell, but...? She adjusted her glasses. ?I was down in the basement.?
I said I hadn't been waiting long, and asked ?Is Mr. Henderson in??
?Mr. Henderson?? She looked surprised. ?I'm not quire sure, but I'm Mrs. Henderson, perhaps I can help you.?
I introduced myself. I had heard of Dorchester pottery, I told her, and was interested in finding out how it was made.
?I see,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Well, I don't blame you.? She moved toward the counter. ?It's the most fascinating thing in the world. Everybody says so. I must say you picked a good time, too. Another week or so, and you would have been out of luck till spring. We're almost ready to start our winter kill. We have four a year, and for a few days before the several weeks after I'm usually too busy to every say hello.?
?Kill?? I said.
Mrs. Henderson smiled. ?K-i-l-n,? she said. ?It means the place where pottery is fired and also the process. I'm sure you've seen the word. Only, we prefer to pronounce it in the old-fashioned way. It suits an old last-of-the-Mohican business like this. When I show you our kiln, I think you'll probably agree.? She reached toward the casserole and stubbed out her cigarette. ?But before we go over to the factory, perhaps you'd like to see some of our work? There's some on display in the next room.?
I said I would. ?I was just admiring that casserole,? I added. ?It's a beauty.?
?That old thing?? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Good heavens! I'm afraid you're very easily pleased, it's a reject. The glaze around the lip is a mess. Something went wrong in the firing. Not that the samples you'll see are much better. We're down to the last of everything. It's always that way, of course, this close to a kiln. There's still enough to give you an idea, though. Besides, I left my cigarettes in there.?
Mrs. Henderson opened a door leading to the front of the house. I followed her into a small, stuffy, twilit room. Three of its walls, including one with a row of shade-drawn windows, were lined from floor to ceiling with shadowy shelves of pottery. A massive center table, also crowded with pottery, occupied most of the rest of the room. Beyond it, through a wide archway, was another, somewhat larger room, with another row of shaded windows and another loaded table and three more walls of shelves. Mrs. Henderson hesitated, and then led the way around the big table. ?If you don't mind,? she said, ?I think we'll be more comfortable in the other room. I will, anyway. I'm supposed to rest as much as I can. I may not look it and I very seldom speak of it, but I'm practically an invalid. My brother, and my husband, and I were in a terrible automobile accident three years ago. It almost ended Dorchester Pottery a little before its time. We three are it, you know. Nobody else knows the secret and nobody every will. My brother is a bachelor, and Mr. Henderson and I haven't any children. So there are no heirs. And we were all seriously injured. Fortunately, I got the worst of it. I say ?fortunately? because I'm a woman and women can stand more pain than men. I suppose you know that.?
We passed under the arch and entered a larger room. A Morris chair, with a telephone on a rickety stand next to it, stood in a corner by the windows. Near it were two leather-seated side chairs. Mrs. Henderson felt along the wall for a switch, snapped a ceiling light, and sank, with a sigh, into the Morris chair. I piled my coat and hat on one of the other chairs and looked around at the crowding tiers of crowded shelves. It was more than overwhelming. Except for a multitude of fat little bean pots massed together on a shelf at my elbow, there W/is M? kind of order anywhere. Everything looked as if it had been picked up a hundred times, examined, and then put back wherever it happened to fit. Egg-cups sat in teacups, teacups nestled in fruit bowls, cream pitchers stood with candlesticks on dinner plates and platters, and beer mugs and vases and jam jars rose up between casseroles and ashtrays and cocktail pitchers and petite-marmite tureens, and hardly two of any kind-not even the bean pots-were exactly alike in size or shape or pattern. Some were blue and some were brown and some were oyster white, many were decorated with strikingly stylized fruit or flowers, and most were at least as handsome in texture and design as the casserole in the outer room, but one good look was about all I could take at that moment. They made me dizzy. I glanced at Mrs. Henderson. She was lighting a cigarette. I sat down and lighted one myself.
Mrs. Henderson dropped her match in a relish dish on the stand. She then leaned forward and held out the dish for mine. "This is one of our few rules," she said, replacing the dish. "You can do as you like about ashes, but we're very careful of matches. That's so we won't be careless with them in the factory. I don't mean because of fire. The factory is so permeated with powdered clay that it's practically fireproof. What we're afraid of is getting a match, or something on that order mixed into a batch of wet clay. The result is a piece of pottery that comes out of the kiln ruined. Or, what would be worse, one with some hidden weakness. If it happened to be a piece of industrial stoneware, it could even be dangerous.
?What kind of stoneware is that?? I asked. ?Industrial ware?? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Well, for one thing, it's the mainstay of this business. We turn out approximately ten freight carloads of pottery a year. Tableware?the sort of work you see on display here?accounts for not much more than a fourth of that total. The rest is all industrial ware. We don't display it, because there's no reason to. It's so well known, it sells itself. In fact, it goes out as fast as we can make it. Our specialty is acid containers. Vats, pitchers, dipping baskets?that sort of thing. Stoneware is just about the only material that will resist the corrosive action of most of the acids that are widely used in industry. At least, it's the most practical. Glass is too fragile, and lead is too heavy and expensive. The one acid stoneware won't stand up against is hydrofluoric acid. You have to use something like lead for that. But for sulfuric acid and nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, stoneware is everybody's choice. And the majority of them choose Dorchester. All the leading acid men consider it the best. They always have. It's in a class by itself. I could say the same for our tableware, but I won't. The two aren't exactly comparable. Quality isn't the only criterion in tableware. There's the matter of taste. People who have a feeling for the traditional?like LauraWoodside Watkins, the author of the standard Early New England Potters and Their Wares? go into absolute ecstasies over our work. Her book will tell you that we are the only company that employs the old-time methods of production and maintains the high standards of workmanship that characterized the pottery of colonial days. But, needless to say, not everybody has that kind of taste. Some people seem to prefer the red, green, purple shiny stuff you can find in any gift shop.?
Mrs. Henderson gave me a sharp look. Then she shrugged and smiled. ?Of course, I'm a little prejudiced,? she went on. ?I design all our work. I have for over twenty years, ever since my husband's father died. That's when I stopped being just a wife, and became?well, whatever I am. I was going to say a potter, but that wouldn't be quite true. I'm a designer, and I can glaze, and I
superintend the kiln. I'm not a potter, though, and never will or could be. I don't have the gift?
what old potters call hands of clay. Also, I started too late. Until Charlie and I were married, in 1919, I didn't even know what a potter's wheel looked like. All I knew was insurance?my father was with Metropolitan Life?and clothes. I used to teach clothing design at the Dorchester High School for Girls. If you want to be a potter, your hands must be trained when you're a child. It's like learning the violin or the piano? you can't begin too early. Charlie began at ten. His father started him on making and glazing marbles. I don't know when Father Henderson learned, but it must have been about as soon as he could walk, I never knew a greater artist, or a more wonderful man. He had a bit, thick mustache and a booming laugh, and he loved me like a daughter. He was crazy about me. Nothing pleased him more than my interest in the business. Back in those days, this house was the Henderson home, and when Mother Henderson died in 1926, Charlie and I moved in to keep him company. He used to take me over to the factory every chance he got and walk me around and explain how everything was done. But I'm afraid he would turn right over in his grave if he could see me now. There were two things Father Henderson felt very strongly about. One was drinking. He hated liquor in every way, shape, and form. So do I. But in his case, it was very funny. I mean odd. Because for a good many years Dorchester Pottery was famous for its stoneware whiskey jugs. The other thing he hated was women working. He hated that even worse than whiskey.
?The truth is I couldn't help myself. I didn't really have much choice, if I hadn't gone into the factory, Dorchester Pottery would have just gradually fizzled out. You can't run a pottery very long without a designer, and Father Henderson had always been it. It had never occurred to him to train anybody to take his place. The only thing that had ever worried him was the business end of the business. He was too much of an artist to be a good businessman. But Charlie was, and is, a businessman. So, from almost the very beginning, his father encouraged him to specialize in that. I don't mean that Father Henderson expected to live forever. It was just that there had always been plenty of skilled pottery designers in his time, and he quite naturally supposed there always would be. Well, so did we, at first. It took us several years to find out different. They weren't any, and there aren't any, and there probably never will be any more.
?There aren't any real potters. When the few old men who are left die off, that's the end. Nobody wants to be a potter these days. It takes too long to learn. Besides, nobody wants potters anyway, except us. Everybody else says let the machine do it?who cares what it looks like? But, as I say, we didn't know how scarce designers were then. We thought we'd take our time and look around until we found a really good man. In the meantime, while we were waiting, I decided I'd do what I could to fill in. Father Henderson had taught me the fascination of seeing something fine grow out of a lump of clay. Also, although I'd never worked with pottery, I did at least know the general principles of design. So I started in, and by the time we realized that we were never going to find any kind of designer, I'd begun to learn. It took years, of course, and I'm still learning.
?The first thing I learned was how big a job it was. I couldn't just start in designing. I had to learn the whole business first. Design is the last thing. Before you can design pottery, you have to know what clay will and won't do. I worked as a helper to the men. Fortunately, we still had some then?almost a dozen. We have two now. The rest have all died off. Even then, some of them were just sitting and rocking. We keep our men until they die. That was one of Father Henderson's rules. If they're too old to work, they can keep the others company. I helped them and they helped me. I lifted and carried, and I arranged pots for glazing. I waited on the glazer.
Then I learned to glaze. Then I sponged, or cleaned, the pots for firing. Finally, I went into the kiln. In the nick of time, too. We had the greatest kiln burner in the world. He was a Swede named August Ekberg, and he died in 1938 at the age of eighty-five. Augie was the last of a great race, and I was his last pupil. The only trouble with Augie was that he had a terrible temper and he was a violent atheist, but I finally got on his good side and he agreed to train me. In the end, he loved me like a daughter. I'm the only one he did. The other men hated him. As I say, Augie was an atheist. That made him try to convert the others. They were all Italian Roman Catholics, so, of course, he never succeeded, which made him even worse-tempered. But he was a marvelous teacher, he considered it a privilege to be a great kiln burner. Now that I know something about it, so do I.?
Mrs. Henderson glanced at her cigarette. There was hardly an inch of it left. She dropped it in the dish and lighted another. ?Then I was ready to design,? she said. ?One of the first things I tackled was a bean pot. It was a little one, like those on the shelf there, for a restaurant down on Tremont Street, and I must say it turned out beautifully. It was completely traditional, but with just enough originality of feeling to give it distinction. Everyone was delighted with it. Only, the restaurant couldn't use it. They sent them all back and I had to design a new one. My beautiful little pot held seven too many beans.?
A voice said, ?Excuse me.? I looked up. Standing in the archway with a cheerful smile on his face was a boyish-looking man of around fifty. His hair was tousled, he needed a shave, and he had on a dirty flannel shirt, dirty tan ducks, and heavy Army shoes. He met my glance with a wink. ?Mind if I come in?? he said.
"Don't be silly," Mrs. Henderson said. She gave an indulgent laugh, and turned to me. ?I'd like you to meet my brother, Charles Hill. Among other things, Charles is our decorator. This gentleman is from New York, Charles. I was just going to bring him over to the factory. He's interested in seeing how we work.?
?Glad to know you,? Mr. Hill said, extending a grimy hand. ?But don't get up. I just wanted to ask Ethel?? He nodded toward the telephone. ?Did that bird from Storrs call?? Mrs. Henderson shook her head.
?Good,? Mr. Hill said. ?I almost hope he doesn't.? He propped an elbow on the bean-pot shelf and grinned at me. ?This is a fellow down at the University of Connecticut who wants us to make him up some beer mugs decorated with the school mascot. That's all right. We do it all the time for Harvard and Boston U. and clubs and so on. The trouble with this bird, though, he's greedy. He wants a couple of hundred and all at once. We don't operate that way. Life's too short. And you know what their mascot is? It's an Alaskan husky. Well, who wants to sit down and paint two hundred dogs? Not me. I'd be bored stiff.?
?Charles is like me,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?He prefers the traditional.? Mr. Hill nodded. ?That's true, too,? he said. ?At least, I'm used to it. The majority of our customers won't touch anything else. They don't like Gothic, they don't like Oriental, and, above all, they don't like anything even faintly cute. Also, you'd be surprised at the number of people who shy away from birds. Almost all the Irish around here feel that way. They think birds are bad luck. So we stick pretty close to the classic New England decorations?grapes, blueberries, pine cones, sacred cods, and full-rigged ships. In my opinion, that's as it should be. Good, honest stoneware deserves a good, honest decoration.?
?There's enough fake and foolishness on the market already,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?There's enough fake, all right,? Mr. Hill said. ?In the average shop, it's about all you see. It looks fine. It's shiny and pretty and slick as a whistle. Some if it is darned expensive too. But it isn't stoneware, it's only earthenware. Except on the surface, it isn't much better than what the Indians used to make. The stuff isn't in it. I don't mean the stores call it stoneware. They call it what it is. But that isn't the point. The point is nobody knows the difference any more. To most people, pottery is pottery.?
?Between earthenware and stoneware?? Mr. Hill Said. ?Heat. There are others?a different kind of clay and a somewhat different technique?but heat is the main thing. Earthenware is low-fired pottery. As a rule, it's fired, or baked, at a temperature that rises to about fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Stoneware requires twice that much heat. We fire ours to three thousand degrees. That's why it's called stoneware. At that temperature, it becomes quite literally stone.?
"They're as ovenproof as the oven,? Mr. Hill said. ?Iron melts at around twenty-eight hundred degrees. One of us left a poker in the kiln once. I noticed in when we were carrying out the finished pots. It was just a little ridge of dust. But stoneware is resistant to more than heat. Cold, chemicals, weather-almost nothing fazes it. It will even stand a certain amount of kicking around. You have to treat it pretty rough to cause real damage. Good stoneware is tough. As a matter of fact, it's the toughest pottery there is. It's also the hardest to make. Far harder than porcelain or bone china or fine earthenware, like Spode and Wedgwood. In one respect, anyway. The first firing simply bakes the clay. It brings it to what's called the biscuit stage. Then it comes out of the kiln, the glaze is applied, and back it goes for another firing. Sometimes a third, or even a fourth, firing is necessary. Multiple firing makes things easier. If something goes wrong with the glaze at any point, it's always possible to correct it in the next firing. It's a little like painting in oil. You can keep revising until you get it right. Stoneware is more like working with water colors. You only get once chance. Because it's fired just once.?
A door near Mrs. Henderson's chair gave a warning rattle. Mr. Hill straightened up. The door swung open, and a small, bony man in a dark suit and a sweater vest came into the room. He had a long black cigar in his mouth and a ski cap in his hand. When he saw me, he stopped.
?Charlie!? Mrs. Henderson said. ?For heavens sake. Have you been in your office all this time?? "Yep," said the newcomer. ?Charles Henderson,? Mr. Hill told me. ?My brother-in-law.? ?Yes,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Come here, Charlie.?
Mrs. Henderson introduced us, and her husband and I shook hands. I said I was glad to meet him. Mr. Henderson said nothing. Instead, he removed the cigar from his mouth and gazed intently at its ash. After a moment, he put it back between his lips. He glanced at his wife and then at Mr. Hill. Then he looked at me again, nodded pleasantly, and turned away. He went through the archway and down the other room. His footsteps sounded on the floor of the room with the counter. The outer door opened, and closed.
?We'll go with you,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Or, rather?you two go on. I want to make some phone calls first. But I'll be over before you reach the kiln.? She gave her brother a look. ?You don't mind?? Mr. Hill caught me by the arm. ?A pleasure,? he said.
When Mr. Hill and I emerged from the house, the station wagon was gone. Apparently, Mr. Henderson had taken it. We crossed the courtyard to the factory. It was still raining, and there were puddles among the cobblestones. Three sagging steps led up to the factory door. Mr. Hill bounded ahead and wrenched it open. I followed him into a low-ceiling immensity of dust and shadows and sawhorse tables piled with earthy-gray pottery. The only light was a watery haze at the windows and the only sound was a distant moan of radio music, and the place was as cold and raw as the day outside. It was so cold I could almost see my breath. I turned up my collar.
Mr. Hill smiled. ?Chilly, eh?? he said. ?I'm afraid that can't be helped. There's heat in here, but we like to keep it down as low as possible. Otherwise, the pottery coming off the wheel dries out too fast. Easy does it with stoneware. If not, it's apt to crack. ?In the kiln?? I asked. ?It might,? Mr. Hill said. ?Most likely, though, before. But that's getting a little ahead of the story. Let's start at the beginning. The first step is down cellar. That's where we store and prepare our clay. This floor is mostly storage?stuff waiting to go into the kiln. The kiln is through that door off there to the right. Upstairs is turning, glazing, and decorating. If you'd like to see the cellar, we'll go down, but there really isn't much point in it. All you'd get is colder?and dirty, like me. I was down there all morning mixing up a new batch of clay, our base clay comes from New Jersey, down around Raritan. It doesn't look like much?it's about the color and consistency of powdered cement?but it's the only stoneware clay in the United States that's suitable for the high firing temperatures we use. Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of it, because it's what the old Dorchester formula calls for. To that, we add certain other clays, from certain other places, and water. But mixing is not more than the prologue. After that, it sits in vats and soaks. The idea is to restore the clay as nearly as possible to its original colloidal state, and the longer it sits, the better. We usually give it a week. Then it's shoveled out on the floor and left to stand for another day or two. That's to allow the excess water to drain off. From the floor, it goes into what we call a pugmill. A pugmill is a grinder. It kneads the clay and stiffens it up and squeezes out air pockets. Also, it shapes it into cylinders about the size of stovewood. Then it's ready to sit again. We stack it up on a platform under a damp canvas and try to forget about it. In the Orient, I understand, one generation makes the clay for the next. Well, naturally, we can't do that. There isn't any next generation here. We're the last lap. So a month is about our limit. Then a conveyor belt takes it up to the potters. We'll use the stairs.?
A boxed staircase, dark as a tunnel and creaking with age, brought us to the second floor. It, too, was dim and cold and banked with loaded tables. Somewhere near but out of sight, a radio throbbed with song. ??Il Trovatore,?? Mr. Hill remarked. ?The duet, it sounds like.? He hummed a ragged bar or two, threw me a grin, and then led the way down a long, gloomy aisle, one of the flanking modeled casseroles. It was hard to believe that anything could quicken them into beauty. They looked like so many mud pies. On another table stood a ponderosity of ten-gallon crocks. The music rose, the twilight lifted, and the aisle abruptly ended in a cluttered clearing. In a corner, under the glare of a dangling bulb, a small man of around forty with massive shoulders and a mass of iron-gray hair was bending over a workbench, he had a greasy lump of clay in his hands and he was kneading it into a ball about the size of a grapefruit. Ranged around him on the bench ware a dozen similar balls, a basin of water, and a muddy litter of wooden paddles. Off to one side, sunk in a kind of counter, was a turntable wheel, somewhat larger than a record player, with a treadle underneath. Mr. Hill gave me a nudge. ?Nando Ricci,? he said with respect. ?His father was old George Henderson's master potter. Nando is ours. If anything should happen to Nando, we'd be out on the street.?
At the sound of his name, Mr. Ricci looked up. Mr. Hill raised an instant smile and an apologetic hand. ?Don't mind us, Nando,? he said. ?Go right ahead. I'm just showing a friend around. I thought he ought to see what a real potter looks like.?
Mr. Ricci chuckled. ?Sure,? he said. ?Is O.K.? He cocked an eye at his ball of clay. ?Why not?? He turned back to the bench, dipped a hand in the basin of water, and sauntered over to the counter. He touched a button, and the wheel swung gently into motion.
?Our one concession to modernity,? Mr. Hill said. ?We have electric power to turn the wheel. But Nando regulates the speed with the treadle.? Mr. Ricci nodded, his eyes on the wheel, and tossed the clay from hand to hand. Then he stomped on the treadle, accelerating the wheel. At the same moment, he swung the ball of clay high over his head?and down. It landed, with a soggy thump, precisely in the center of the wheel. ?How's that for accuracy?? Mr. Hill said. ?But, of course, the clay has to be exactly centered or it's hopeless. Now watch!
Mr. Ricci's fingers were clasped around the clay. The wheel was spinning like a top. His thumbs swung free and sank into the middle of the mass. He gave a grunt and a twist and an upward squeeze?and the ball was suddenly a hollow disc. He cupped his hands on its flank, and lifted. It became a cylinder. Then, releasing it for a moment, he caught up one of the paddles. He thrust the paddle into the opening. The wheel slowed, speeded up, and slowed again. He withdrew the paddle and tossed it away. His fingers closed once more around the open neck, he released it and took his foot off the treadle. The wheel returned to a lazy idle. On it sat a plump little petite marmite.
Mr. Hill shook his head. ?I've watched Nando a thousand times,? he said. ?I still don't see how he does it.? Mr. Ricci shrugged, and plucked a piece of string from the bench. He slipped it between the base of the pot and the wheel, and jerked. The pot came free. He lifted it carefully and set it on a table. ?Is all in the hands,? he said, moving back to the bench for another ball of clay. ?They know.?
There was a pause. Mr. Ricci returned to the wheel and kicked it into motion. We watched him start on a second pot. Then Mr. Hill gave me a glance, and we said good-bye and headed back up the aisle. ?He's working against time. Those petite marmites he's turning out today are about the last that will make our next kiln. That's only a couple of weeks off. I told you a pot can't go into a kiln until it's reached a certain degree of dryness. By tomorrow, Nando's petite marmites will be what we call leather-hard. In other words, the clay will have lost its plasticity. It will have begun to set, and the pots can be handled without damaging their shape. But they'll be far from dry enough for firing. Proper drying takes about two week?more or less. It depends on such things as heat, humidity, and the size of the pot. Then they're ready for the kiln. But before that comes glazing and decorating. Which is the next step.?
The dark mouth of the stairway was just ahead. Mr. Hill cut away to the right, through another labyrinth of tables, and halted at along workbench strewn with a wild detritus of cans and pots and boxes. At one end of it sat a rectangle vat about the size of a kitchen sink. Mr. Hill groped overhead, and a light went on. I walked over to the vat and looked in. It was filled with some pale, turbid liquid. ?Glaze,? Mr. Hill said. ?This batch happens to be white. That's what we're working with at the moment. But they all look pretty muck alike in the tub. It takes fire to bring out the color.? He swung a leg over a corner of the bench and took a pull on his cigarette. "There are several different kinds of glazes. Back in old George's day, we used salt glaze, that was the only kind of New England stoneware potters know. I understand we were the last people in the country to give it up. Salt glaze was just what it sounds like?salt. The air-dried pots were put in the kiln and a bucket of plain salt was dumped in the center of the kiln floor. When they fired up, the salt vaporized and spread evenly over the pots. You've probably seen some salt-glaze work. The American museums are full of it. It can be very pretty, but it's rough. It's also a little monotonous. All salt-glaze work is a sort of dusty grayish blue. We now use what's called a Bristol glaze. It was developed in England a couple of hundred years ago, and in my opinion it's the best stoneware glaze going. And the simplest. It's nothing but powdered rock suspended in water, with certain amount of some metallic oxide added for color. For a white glaze, we use zinc. Our brown glaze comes from iron or manganese. Cobalt gives us our blue. The quantity determines the shade. If we wanted a green, I could use either copper or chromium. And so on down the list. Almost anything is possible. I've recently been experimenting with a new color. We call it morocco, after the leather. Some people who know tell me it's the only thing of it's kind since the Oribe glaze of sixteenth-century Japan.?
Mr. Hill stared off down the room for a moment. Then he shook himself, reached for a shard, and punched out his cigarette on it. ?Well, maybe so,? he said cheerfully. ?If morocco works out, I'll be mighty pleased. It's nice to be able to contribute. But color is only color. The secret of a really fine glaze is the rock. For the most part, we use feldspar and flint. We pulverize our rock with pebbles in a revolving cage that batters the pieces together until they're reduced to a very fine powder. The pebbles we use come from certain beaches in northern France. They tell me picking up pebbles is an industry over there. A fine powder is essential. The finer the particles, the more readily they melt, and, also, the more points of contact they have to bind them to the clay. Our rock is crushed to literally microscopic grains. You know how fine the texture of ladies' face power is? Well, face powder is course compared to our powdered rock. The test for ordinary face power is will it pass through a one-twenty mesh? That means a mesh of fine ware containing a hundred and twenty holes to the square inch. The mesh we use in our test is a three-twenty. It takes something pretty small to go through a mesh that size. Maybe you'd like to see for yourself. Put your hand in that tub there. Then tell me what you feel.?
I submerged a thumb and finer. After a moment of stirring, I rubbed them firmly together. ?Nothing,? I reported. ?It doesn't feel like anything but cold water.? ?No,? Mr. Hill said with satisfaction. ?But it would if you had a microscopic sense of touch. Rock isn't soluble, you know. So it's there-millions and millions of tiny little rocks. George Henderson's old kiln burner used to say that the average glaze fits the clay like a glove fits your hand but that ours was different?it fits like skin. The way we pulverize our rock is probably the biggest reason.? He slid off the bench. ?Now I'll show you how we glaze the pot.? He rummaged through the litter and picked up a glum gray mug, holding it delicately by the bottom. ?Most of the pottery you see on the market is glazed with a spray gun. We use a gun, too. But only on the multiple-gallon industrial ware that's too big for one man to handle. All the rest is dipped by hand?like this. Notice how I'm holding it in the tub. I've got a firm grip, but I'm only using a couple of fingers. Where the fingers touch, the glaze will be thin. There'll always be a mark there. Some people might call it a blemish. Not the experts, though, they recognize it as the hallmark of a hand-dipped pot. Well?that ought to do it.? He lifted the pot and held it out for inspection. It wasn't much to see. It looked just wet, and somewhat darker gray.
Mr. Hill smiled. ?Not very impressive, is it?? he said. ?But it will be, once it gets a touch of heat. It'll come out of the kiln as white as snow.? he eased the mug from between his fingers and onto the edge of the bench. ?At this stage clay is pretty absorbent. So the glaze soaks in very fast. In fifteen minutes or so, it ought to be dry enough to handle. Then we'll go over the rim of the base with a spring-steel scraper. Otherwise, when it's fired, the glaze would seal it to whatever it's standing on. What happens next depends on what it is. If it's an acid pitcher or a bean pot or a casserole or anything of that sort, it can go right into the kiln. If it's something fancy, it has to be decorated first. But that doesn't amount to much. The paint I use is just more glaze, and I put it on with an ordinary artist's brush, once I've flushed and idea, there's nothing to it.?
A door slammed somewhere on the floor below. Mr. Hill threw back his head. ?That must be Ethel,? he said. ?If so, maybe we should head her off. No sense in making her climb all the way up here at this point. The kiln comes next, and that's downstairs.?
It was Mrs. Henderson. We found her, wrapped in a heavy shawl, standing near the foot of the staircase, lighting a cigarette. She greeted us with a smoky smile, and gave her brother a questioning glance.
?All set,? Mr. Hill said. ?As a matter of fact, I'd just about given you up.? He waved a hand toward the door a the end of the room. ?Lead on.?
The door was faced with metal and operated on a trolley. Mr. Hill heaved it back. I followed Mrs. Henderson through, and down a flight of concrete steps, past a bulky coal-bin, and around the bole of the chimney. We stepped into a brick-walled room, and stopped. Towering up before us was a great truncated cone of pumpkin-colored brick. The room was as wide as the building and some fifty feet long and at least two stories in height, but the kiln all but overwhelmed it. The flanks of the kiln, bound in iron and pierced at intervals with shuttered firing holes reached almost from wall to wall, its roof was lost in a sooty stratosphere of struts and girders and rain-streaked windows, and it resembled no kiln that I had ever seen or heard of or imagined. It might have been a fortress, or a tomb.
I looked at my companions. They were watching me, and smiling. ?Go right ahead and stare,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?Everybody gawks the first time they see it. I know I did.?
?Me, too,? Mr. Hill said. ?But the ones it really staggers are the experts. We had a party of engineers from a big brick company in here a while back. Their jaws dropped a foot. It can't be done, they said.?
?They were quite right,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?It can't be. Not anymore. It would impossible to build a kiln like ours these days. Nobody knows how. The men who did are dead and gone. Father Henderson designed this kiln himself, and it was built specialists from Germany. He told me it cost over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And remember, that was sixty or seventy years ago. I doubt if it could be done today for a million.?
?Or two million,? Mr. Hill said. ?As Ethel said, the secret's lost. We do know that, among other things, it involved the principle of the Roman arch. There's no mortar between those bricks. It's simply a matter of thrust and balance. The bricks at the base are seven deep, and they're laid butt end in. Just below the level of the firing holes is the firebox. That's nine feet deep and a couple of feet high, and it runs the circumference of the kiln. Above the box, the wall tapers gradually up to the dome. The roof is five bricks thick. When we get inside, you'll notices that the floor is perforated tile. This is a down-draft kiln. The fire is sucked out of the box, up the sides of the chamber, and down through the floor. An underground flue carries it to the chimney. Well, those are the facts?such as they are. I won't say this is the only kiln of its kind in the country. There may be others, though I doubt it. But I will say this. There isn't a hotter one anywhere. I don't know why, and neither does anybody else. That's the mystery.?
?You can't explain a work of art,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?So there's no use trying.? She shivered, and drew her shawl closer about her. ?The entrance is around this way.?
We filed down a narrow canyon between a wall and the monstrous flank of the kiln. A few steps brought us to a low, cavernous doorway. Mrs. Henderson ducked her head and vanished into darkness. Mr. Hill went next. I burrowed gingerly after him. A little light followed me in, but not enough. I stumbled against a wall. It was as cold and smooth as ice. I had an eerie sense of being underground. Then the darkness dimmed, and a lofty, vaulted chamber with a gridiron floor and walls of polished brick slowly emerged from the dusk. Where the light from the touched it, the brick sparkled and gleamed like gold. Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Hill were standing near a barricade of shallow brown crocks piled bottom-side up along the wall at the far side of the kiln. I picked my way across the treacherous floor and joined them.
Mr. Hill cocked a finger. ?I suppose you noticed these walls,? he said. ?Beautiful, aren't they? They also give you some idea how old this kiln is. That sheen is glaze. A certain amount escapes from the pots as vapor during every firing and forms a film on the brick. My guess is it's at least an inch thick by now. Somebody is going to have some job when the time comes to tear this place down.?
?Somebody?? Mrs. Henderson said. ?No human being could destroy this kiln. It would take a bomb.? She laughed. ?Well, as you can see, we've already started to stack the kiln for our next firing. There are pots under all those saggers. A sagger is a crockery cover. It shields the pot from direct contact with the flame. Raw fire will ruin a white or blue or decorated pot until the glaze has set. IT turns them all brown. That stack of pots, of course, is just the merest beginning. By the time we're ready to seal up the door and start the fires, this room will be packed almost to the roof. The reason for that isn't as obvious as it sounds. Naturally, we want all the production we can get. But there's more to it than that. It's a matter of physics. The chamber must be full. It's absolutely essential that we use every possible foot of space. It's so important, in fact, that if we haven't enough unfinished pots for a capacity load, we have to fill it out with finished work. Empty space is dangerous. The air heats too rapidly. It creates a king of vacuum between the pots, and they begin to bend and totter and?well, you can imagine the rest. The results could be a total loss.?
?Loading a kiln is a pretty tricky job,? Mr. Hill said. ?One little slip can cost you three month's work. Opening it up again is a tricky business, too. During the firing period, the kiln door is sealed with a double wall of bricks laid in mortar. Like everything else around here, that has to be done right. The outer wall goes first, but only the upper half. Then we very carefully pry loose one brick at the top of the inner wall, and listen. At the end of an hour, if all goes well?if we haven't heard that horrible sound of something cracking as the cool air moves in?out comes another brick. Then we wait and listen for another hour. If everything is still O.K., we take out a third. We follow that routine until the top two rows are down. Then we begin to speed up. The rest comes down at the rate of a row every hour. It ^flosrabout an hour to seal the kiln. With good luck we can get it open in around four days.?
?The whole process is nerve-racking,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?We live in absolute terror from beginning to end. So many things can happen. A good kiln means almost two weeks of constant attention. But I love every minute of it. When the door is sealed and the flames begin to leap, I almost feel like singing. We have a little peephole opening, down low in the wall behind those pots. Nothing is more fascinating than to stand there and watch. Not that there is much to see at first. Only a lot of smoke. It takes a certain amount of heat to start a down-draft working, and we fire up very slowly. Our first fire is only a few dry sticks and enough coal to keep it just going. The reason for that is to give the pots a sort of final drying out. Too much heat too fast is
risky. Well, that period lasts from around eight to twelve hours. Then we add a little more coal, and the temperature begins to rise. After about four hours, the draft catches hold and the smoke clears and we settle down to a regular firing schedule. As far as I know, our system is our own. For the next forty hours, we fire every hole once every hour, right around the clock. We don't sleep and we hardly eat~we just work. But it's worth it. That's when the flames begin to leap.?
?It's quite a sight, all right,? Mr. Hill Said. ?It's glorious,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?But the best is yet to come. Forty hours of regular hourly firing brings the temperature up to only about twenty-five hundred degrees. That's quite hot enough to fire the body of pots. By then, the clay is hard as stone. But the glaze is still just a powder. It hasn't vitrified yet. For that, we need more heat. So at twenty-five hundred we start firing every fifteen minutes. And we switch from coal to wood. Wood produces longer flames. They're endless. They reach from the firebox nearly to the top of the chimney. In almost no time at all, this whole chamber is just one solid mass of fire-floor, walls, pots, everything. Nothing could be more beautiful. It's an absolute inferno. And then, suddenly, it's all over. The minute the temperature reaches three thousand degrees, we stop firing, close the fire-hole shutters, plug up the peephole~and wait. We wait for five days. Then we start unsealing the door.?
?How can you tell when it's time to stop firing?? I asked. ?Is there some kind of temperature gauge?? ?Oh, yes,? Mrs. Henderson said. ?They think of everything these days. A company out in Ohio makes a full line of something called pyrometric cones. They're little clay pyramids that you set inside the peephole, and at a certain degree of heat they melt. Then you know how hot your fire is. However, we don't bother with them much. I don't think they're accurate enough. I prefer to use my own two eyes.?
?Ethel can call the temperature just by looking at the fire,? Mr. Hill said. ?That's the old-fashioned way. She's a flame reader.? ?I'm the only one left in the country,? Mrs. Henderson said.
As we walked down the factory steps and headed for the house, the station wagon swung into the courtyard. Mr. Henderson was at the wheel. He pulled up, got out, and gave me a nod of recognition.
?Seen everything?? he asked. I said I thought I had. ?You certainly turn out handsome work,? I added. ?I've never seen so many fine things. How many different kinds of pots do you make?? I looked at him.
?Oh, I heard you,? he said. ?But when you come right down to it, your guess is about as good as mine.? He smiled an economical smile. ?All I know is we make a raft of them.?
?Charlie,? Mrs. Henderson murmured. ?The last time I checked,? Mr. Hill said, ?It was roughly seventeen hundred.?
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Created: March 27, 2009 Modified: March 27, 2009