Rick Reed of New Braunfels brought by some of his great stoneware finds Saturday. His little gray E. B. pitcher solidifies the emerging concept of a pottery career of an early black Texan who stamped his stoneware with a peculiar stamp, identical to the one in my store attributed to Elix Brown, of Rusk County.
Mr. Reed believes the pitcher comes from the Randolph Pottery in Bastrop County. Although that is one possible theory, and would explain why Duncan and "E. B." stoneware are so similar, it is a stretch for me, but there is no doubt now there are three pieces of "E. B." stoneware discovered in central Texas and that is significant. There are not very many "signed" vessels by George Duncan, of the Randolph Company in Bastrop County, who made similar stoneware and supposedly stamped a G. D. on some of his wares. I have only seen shards with these initials pressed into the clay. Certainly "E. B." is coming to the forefront as an important early Texas potter.
The stamp on Rick's pitcher is not as clearly pressed, and so the intriguing upside-down T hanging down off of the E, as in the one in my custody, is not distinct. In fact, it may illustrate what I have already postulated, and that is that after freedom, Elix Brown continued to throw stoneware throughout the post-Civil War period, but would have modified his stamp to reflect the severing of his connection to his former master, Taylor Brown. Thus no T may tell us that it was made after slavery.
So, not surprisingly, this little mundane pitcher tells me stuff.
It is salt-glazed. That also affirms the possible stretching of the career of the mysterious "E. B." from Ante-bellum and Civil War era ash-glazing into the post- Civil War salt-glazing that became feasible after plentiful salt arrived on frontier store shelves.
BUT, the enigma is that the pitcher handle is misshapen and weakly constructed. The pitcher is not thrown or designed or built as well as the other two known vessels. So it is just as possible this pitcher was thrown early in E. B.'s career, before he had mastered his craft. Salt was available in Republic period Texas, it was just scarce and expensive, and not as economical to use for mass-production of stoneware. Taylor Brown was a man of means. It could have happened. And there is another possibility…
Here is where I will tell a trade secret, to help you understand what you are up against trying to identify stoneware. Potters will often work as teams, allowing each person to do the parts they are good at. I have worked in a production pottery, where others were better at certain skills… so I did what I was decent at… which was applying handles. Someone else pulled them and threw the vessels. Sometimes, especially in a slavery situation with a master and a workshop system, a potter might work at certain functions for weeks, even months, and be very strong in some areas and weak in others. It is possible that this little pitcher tells us that E. B. was the master turner, and had someone else pulling his handles, when the ash-glazed vessels were thrown, and after he left this pottery, he had to make them himself… and this was the result. This deficiency might have eventually led to his hiring out, after less than ten years on his own, to the Hunt Pottery, also in Henderson, Rusk County, in the 1870's where once again his strengths could be utilized, and his weaknesses compensated.
This may also suggest that as a self-employed businessman, he had an assistant who threw (or pulled handles) for him and used his stamp. Perhaps one of his children... and whoever it was, the weak construction of the handle was overlooked. There is no question that the other two E. B. vessels were made by an exceptional master potter, who could throw large, thin-walled ovoid forms, with consistent glazes and beautifully pulled handles. But they may be the work of a pottery team, led by E. B., much like the brothers who worked for Hiram Wilson.
And yet the little humble salt-glazed pitcher has the E. B. decorative multiple rings around the shoulder, showing some pride and consistency of production style.
After all is speculated, we still have no evidence that Elix Brown made these vessels. We only know he is the only potter in Texas we know of, some 150 of them, with those initials. And only one of five known potters from the period of this pottery to even have the last name initial of B. And, what are the odds, after making that hurdle, of there being any other explanation of the upside down T, hanging between the E. and B., except for the amazing coincidence that Elix Brown’s master’s initials were T. B. These stoneware vessels are the most exciting discovery in Texas material culture… in years. And the prices paid at Burley Auction for Harold Hollis' E. B. jar seem to indicate that others agree.
Congratulations Rick for a fabulous find. And welcome to the E. B. family! Whatever that may mean.