ABOUT 100 years ago, two society women in Cincinnati, Mary Louis McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols, realized that painting dainty flowers on somebody else's china plates was not an occupation for grown women -- much less mature artists.

The two women showed their painted porcelain at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. What they saw there changed their lives and those of a great many other people: the timeless pots of Japan and proces barbotine , the ceramic work of Haviland Auteuil of Paris. The ladies went home to Cincinnati resolved to learn how the real thing was done.

On her own, McLaughlin figured out to make the difficult Limoges faience or barbotine wares, a method of glazing. The American ceramic tradition was well underway.

This history is traced in "A Century of Ceramics in the United States, 1878-1879," a book by Garth Clark with a preface by Margie Hughto (E.p. dUtton, in association with the Everson Museum of Art). The book accompanies an exhibit at the Renwick Gallery which continues through Jan. 27.

The exhibit and the book offer the first major overview of American ceramics, a long overdue retrospective of one of the most popular forms of arts and crafts. Renwick Curator Michael Monroe selected the 230 objects by 140 ceramic artists from a larger show of 400 objects at Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.y. The show is installed chronologically with informative text panels, capsuling the decades. As Monroe puts it, "the exhibit shows the diversity of clay."

Otta and Gertrude Natzler, probably the finest ceramists of our generation, are represented with five pots -- each with a different, awe-inspiring glaze. The gray crater bowl, the dark blue and green crystalline bottle, the iridescent yellow bowl -- the delicate, ethereal pieces are so beautiful you can hardly breathe when you look at them.

If the Natzlers' work is the music of the spheres, Robert Arneson's work is the jazz of the alleys.Arneson is the father of funk (from the jazz term "bagless funk," acccording to Clark). He's seen in the show in his 1976 self-portrait with tight lips and bug eyes. Unfortunately, his funk followers, some represented in this show, lack his technique and sophisticated wit.

Mary Chase Perry, the Detroit potter who founded the Pewbic Pottery, is the artist of a subtle vase that implies a landscape with a dark bottom for earth, topped with blue for sky. Perry, understandably, was collected by Charles L. Freer, founder of Washington's Freer Gallery. Unfortunately, for Washington, he gave his Perry collection to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Perry made the iridescent glazed tiles for the dome of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here, as well as many other architectural commissions.

Some of the works are by people better known as sculptors -- Eli Nadleman, Isamu Noguchi and Louise Nevelson; some by people better known as painters -- Helen Frankenthaler, roy Lichtenstein, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg; and one by Louis Comfort Tiffany, better known for glass. The ancient Indian secrets of Maria Martinez's blackwork stand alone. Several of the potters are important not only for their own work but also for their influence on others. Eight pieces by Peter Voulkos, of Berkeley, Calif., and workshops all over the country; three pieces from Maija Grotell, who taught at Cranbrook Academy in Detroit; and five by Adelaide Alsop Robineau, of Syracruse, N.Y., all help explain how their ideas have touched other potters.

Thanks to the Renwick most of the later work, from Natzler to Voulkos, is familiar here. But the earlier pieces, by McLaughlin, Nichols and Robineau, are not as often seen.

McLaughlin is quoted in Clark's book as recalling what happened when she started the Cincinatti ceramics craze:

"It may be imagined," McLaughlin said, "with what abandon the women of that time, whose efforts had been directed to the making of antimacassars or woolen Afghans, threw themselves into the fascinating occupation of working in wet clay. The potters imparted to them various tricks of the trade and some fearful and wonderful things were produced.

"Not long ago the proud possessor of some of these treasures showed me a pair of vases with characteristic decoration of that period. While still wet they had been rolled or otherwise peppered with fragments [of] dry clay until [the] surfaces were of the texture of nutmeg graters, while all over had been hung realistically colored bunches of fruit."

McLaughlin, in terror at what she'd wrought, founded the Cincinnati Pottery Club in 1879 to upgrade standards. Unfortunately, an invitation to Nichols never reached her. She was understandably furious, and set up on her own, in 1880 opening the famous Rookwood Pottery whose wares today sell at a pretty figure.

The Cincinnati center received a boost from an unintentional source. A man named Thomas J. Wheatley, according to Clark's book, sued McLaughlin, claiming he had invented what had come to be called "Cincinnati faience." The suit was dismissed, but the uproar brought all sorts of women to study in Cincinnati and all sorts of people to admire the work. Clark quotes the secretary of the Rookwood Pottery, Clara Chapman Newton, remembering the visit of Oscar Wilde to Rookwood in 1882:

"I was not at that time, even when the newspapers contained accounts of his vagaries, prepared for the calla-lily leaf overcoat and the shrimp pink necktie of the individual who was shuddering visibly over a vase which he was pronouncing "too brancy" as I entered the room," Newton said. " . . . The next day in his lecture Mr. Wilde scored the pottery to the intense amusement of Mrs. Nichols, who has a sense of humour and fully appreciated that artistically we had much to learn."

Learn it they did. And in 1889, the Paris Exposition Universelle awarded a Gold Medal to Rookwood and a Silver one to McLaughlin, over the best of European potteries.

In the Renwick show are two vases by McLaughlin, a porcelain carved and glazed (1879-1902) and an earthenware, slip-painted and underglazed. Today some of her works, especially those with flower decorations, look too dainty for my taste. But her Losantiware porcelain with gray glaze, carved into deep stems and blossoms, has a strength and natural form you feel in the best of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The history of American ceramics certainly is filled with women. Adelaide Alsop Robineau was editor of the leading ceramics journal, Keramik Studio, and a master studio potter, as well as a leader in the women's art movement. In 1905, she began to carve and excise unfired porcelain, working on pieces already dry. The pieces were then fired at a very high heat -- a risky and expensive process. Her husband, Samuel Robineau, once wrote, "Every one of the new pieces is warped and blistered. . . . Anybody who is foolish enough to do cone nine (a heat measurement) porcelains ought to be shut up in an insane asylum."

Her 1910 Scarab Vase, "The Apotheosis of the Toiler," one of the high-water marks in American ceramics, is in the Renwick show. It won the Grand Prix at the Turin Exhibitons of 1911. The vase is excised and carved porcelain. TThe body is covered with hundreds of beetles, crawling up to the lid in search of food. The ornament look Chinese, art moderne Chinese, so simplified and stylized as to make everything near look overdressed.

(Robineau later wrote a series of 10 articles on the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale which went along way to establishing the influence of the style here. She taught at Syracuse.)

Robineau said the vase took 1,000 hours to carve. She worked by scraping, not cutting the line. The touch had to be very sure to keep from breaking the form. The vase cracked when it was fired but was restored, glazed and refired to perfection.

George Ohr of Biloxi (Miss.) Art Pottery shows an opposite approach. The "Mad Potter of Biloxi" is represented in the show with six pieces, two from the Smithsonian's own collection. The glazed earthenware teapot/coffee pot has twin chambers to hold the beverages. If you can remember which spout pours which, it would be very convenient.

Ohr's sense of humour is easy to see in "Nine O'Clock in the Evening" and "Three O'Clock in the Morning" -- two glazed earthenware vases, shaped roughly like top hats. The early one is dapper and strong, the later one is crumpled and limp. "Roughly shaped" is a phrase that can be applied to all his work. All his pieces look as though they were made by someone, who to put it mildly, saw and felt images not seen by ordinary eyes.

Ohr exhibited at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in 1895. A wonderful photograph in the book shows him with his sign:

The potter said '2 Clay/Be, Ware/and it was/Where/at Biloxi Mississippi. Geo. E. Ohr.

The story goes that Ohr decided around 1900 that his work could not be properly appreciated by the people of his time. So he stockpiled 6,000 pots in a warehouse in the hopes they would be "purchased entire" by the nation. In 1972, the whole collection was bought by an antique dealer. They come on the market with some regularity now. According to Deisroth, they bring anywhere from $300 to $700.

Clark writes that Ohr, with his 20-inch-long mustache tucked safely into his shirt or sometimes "combed into a bizare shape," would demonstrate his "extraordinary skill" on the potting wheel "like a mad duck in water." He would throw earthenware forms "to the point of collapse. He would then fold, ruffle, twist and pummel the thin vessels and add sinuous, intricate handles. . . . Ohr was furiously gestural."

It's difficult to take Ohr's work calmly. Either you have a hard-to-control wish to flee the sight of such ugliness (my reaction) or you want to love it and laugh with it forever. Today there are more potters than ever. Classes abound in every village. Joan Mondale, the wife of the vice president, and a potter herself, has done much to bring attention to the art of the American ceramist. Every other day, there seems to be a new crafts show featuring pottery. Not long ago, a large antiques fair at the D.C. Armory, for instance was full of early pottery, selling briskly. (The fair also had a notable amount of contemporary glass, brought by Lucid Moments of Chicago.) The museums and the shops are full of pots. In Washington there is even a shop devoted entirely to pottery. The American Hand. Fenderick Gallery sells Arneson.

Just a few weeks ago, a Rookwood pot sold at Bob Skinner's auction in Bolton, mass., for $10,500 -- a record for an American ceramic piece. Barbara Deisworth, Sotheby Parke Bernet's 19th- and 20th-century art expert, said in a telephone interview that other Rookwood pots go for $3,000 to $4,000 each. Newcomb College (New Orleans, La.) pottery of the turn of the century is another type much collected today.

Deisworth said, "The ceramics of the turn of the century are undervalued currently. I think the ones which are original, not imitative, will certainly increase in value."

The Renwick retrospective should have a strong influence on the prices of American ceramics. Its great mixture of classic and contemporary, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, shows the strength of American diversity.

The exhibit is financed by grants from Philip Morris, Inc., Miller Brewing Co., the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.