SETTING SITES: When I started studying archeology in college, I fell in love with ceramics. Of all the artifacts, they're the easiest to place as far as what they are and where they come from. They're a great tool for dating a site. Then when I came to work at the Alexandria Archeology Museum (oha.ci.alexandria.va.us/archaeology/) in 1980, I learned that potters had worked in the city in the late 18th and 19th century. One of my first projects was an exhibition of their stoneware.
GETTING WARE-Y: The two kinds of ceramics are earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware is red with a shiny glaze. Because it's fired at a lower temperature, it's easier to make. Stoneware is usually gray and has "orange peel" texture, created with a salt glaze. It's fired at a higher temperature and usually has blue decorations.
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WHO'S WHO: The first earthenware potter, Henry Piercy, came to Alexandria from Philadelphia in 1792. Until then, most of what was being used in the area was imported from England or Philadelphia. As far as I can tell, all of Piercy's designs and shapes were also being made in Philadelphia, though in some cases his decoration is finer. In about 1813, we get John Swann, the first to make cobalt-decorated stoneware. Later came Benedict Milburn. His pottery thrived until the late 1860s or early 1870s, when America started to get industrial pottery. Pots made in molds began to arrive from Ohio and Baltimore, and they were far cheaper. Glass also became cheaper, so women began to use jars for canning and storage.
DC ID: You can identify Alexandria stoneware by the potter's mark. It usually says Alexª or Alexandria. The design is also distinctive -- a round flower with leaves. Common potters' marks include JSWANN ALEXA, which dates from between 1810-1825, HSMITH&CO from 1825 to 1831, and B.C. MILBURN ALEXA DC or B.C. MILBURN ALEXA, which date from 1841 to 1867. The ALEXA DC mark comes from before 1847, when Alexandria was part of Washington. There's a wonderful piece -- a water cooler made by H.C. Smith & Co -- on display at the American History Museum and more at the Lyceum, Alexandria's history museum. We'll also have pieces on display at Alexandria Archeology through April.
HOT POTS: It's not always easy to find Alexandria pottery. Prices have gone up a lot. Today, a piece can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Twenty years ago, it would've sold for well under $100. Look out for pieces that look Alexandrian but were made after our pottery closed in the 1870s. They come from a potter named James Hamilton of Greensboro, Pa., and are stenciled, not hand painted. As told to Jane Black