Stoneware Crock Jugs & Alcohol on the American Frontier

Stoneware Crock Jugs & Alcohol on the American Frontier


Crazy Crow Trading Post offers glazed stoneware jugs for use in the home or camp. The early use of stoneware jugs in American in general, and the western frontier in particular, dates back to the end of the eighteenth century when their production began in the East.

Stoneware Jugs: aka Liquor Crocks, Whiskey Jugs & Shoulder Jugs

Stoneware jugs, also referred to as liquor crocks or jugs, whiskey jugs, and shoulder jugs, predate the mason jars and other modern containers that replaced them. While they obviously weren’t used exclusively by any means for the consumption of “spirits”, the image of a mountain man, pioneer, or other early frontier inhabitant taking a drink from a stoneware shoulder jug is certainly an American cliché, if not icon.

Stoneware Crock Jugs & Alcohol on the American Frontier

From Pack Mule or Steamer to Tin or Jug

Alcohol was commonly shipped to the mountains in ten-gallon wooden kegs. The weight of a ten-gallon keg and it’s contents would have been just about one-hundred pounds. Two such kegs would have been about the optimum weight that a pack mule or horse could carry. Glass bottles, or ceramic jugs were too fragile and delicate to survive the long trip to the mountains. After arrival at its destination, the alcohol was sold in much smaller quantities, often being the customer’s responsibility to provide a tin cup, jug or kettle to hold the purchased alcohol.

Alcohol and the Fur Trade

Alcohol was an important element in the fur trade from its origins in the earliest 1600’s through the end of the era in the 1840’s. During the rendezvous period (and earlier) all distilled liquors were colorless, amber whiskeys and rums not becoming available until much later. Rum and brandy and then later whiskey were used by the traders, whether they were French, English, American or Spanish. Large profits were assured through use of alcohol prior and during trading with the fur gathers, whether they were free trappers, company men or Native Americans. Indians were particularly susceptible to alcohol, because the Indians were culturally unprepared for alcohol and its affects.

Unsuccessful efforts were made to deal with the problem, both by the Indians, and by edict and law decreed by the Colonial powers and later by the U.S. government. Alcohol was most abundant around forts and trading posts, and at rendezvous. Alcohol packed to rendezvous was extremely high proof. Once at rendezvous or trading post, the alcohol was generally diluted with water at a ratio of 1:2 or 1:4. This increased the volume of the product and profits. Rufus Sage in his book, Rocky Mountain Life. records that on one occasion an Indian woman drank a cup of alcohol which had not been diluted: the woman died of alcohol poisoning within a few hours. Typically voyageurs and engageés were allocated one gill of whiskey at the end of every days work. While on the hunt, alcohol was generally not available, although there often seemed to be some around for someone badly injured and requiring an anesthetic or for other medicinal purposes.

A Jug Christens a Lake

Besides the usual use for personal comsumption, Fur Trade Era alcohol seems to have been used for more ceremonial uses. A marker located on the Summit of the hill on the road to Fremont Lake (Sublette County, Wyoming) reads:

“On the edge of this magnificent sheet of water, from 1833 to 1844, Captain William Drummond Stewart of Scotland, camped many times with Jim Bridger and other Mountain Men and the Indians. In 1837 his artist, Alfred Jacob Miller, painted the first pictures of this area. On Stewart’s last trip in 1844, eight men in a rubber boat, first boat on the lake, honored their leader by christening these waters as Stewart’s Lake in a joyous ceremony near the narrows with a jug of whiskey. Years later this glacier-formed lake with its shoreline of twenty-two miles and over six hundred foot depth was named for John C. Fremont, – the map makers knew not it had been named long before.”

What is American Stoneware?

The term American Stoneware refers to the predominant houseware of 19th century North America-stoneware pottery usually covered in a salt glaze and often decorated using cobalt oxide to produce bright blue decorations. The vernacular term “crocks” is often used to describe this type of pottery, though the term “crock” is not seen in period documents describing the ware. Additionally, while other types of stoneware were produced in America concurrently with it-for instance, ironstone, yellowware, and various types of china-in common usage of the term, “American Stoneware” refers to this specific type of pottery.

Stoneware is pottery made out of clay of the stoneware category, fired to a high temperature (about 1200°C to 1315°C). The pottery becomes, essentially, stone. Salt-glazed pottery is a type of pottery produced by adding salt to a kiln to create a glass-like coating on the pottery. At just over 900°C, the salt (sodium chloride) vaporizes and bonds with the clay body. The sodium in the salt bonds with the silica in the clay, creating sodium silicate, or glass. A very commonly employed technique seen on American Stoneware is the use of cobalt decoration, where a dark gray mixture of clay, water and the expensive mineral cobalt oxide is painted onto the unfired vessels. In the firing process, the cobalt reacts to produce a vibrant blue decoration that has become the trademark of these wares.

Salt-Glazed Stoneware Productcion Begins in America

While salt-glazed stoneware probably originated in the Rhineland area of Germany circa 1400’s, it became the dominant houseware of the United States of America circa 1780-1890.

Americans began producing salt-glazed stoneware circa 1720 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Yorktown, Virginia. By the 1770s, the art of salt-glazed stoneware production had spread to many centers throughout the United States, most notably Manhattan, New York. By 1820, stoneware was being produced in virtually every American urban center.

While salt-glazing is the typical glaze technique seen on American Stoneware, other glaze methods were employed by the potters. For instance, vessels were often dunked in Albany Slip, a mixture made from a clay peculiar to the Upper Hudson Region of New York, and fired, producing a dark brown glaze. Albany Slip was also sometimes used as a glaze to coat the inside surface of salt-glazed ware.

Decorating American Stoneware

While decorated ware was usually adorned using cobalt oxide, American Stoneware potters used other decorative techniques. Incising, a method in which a design of flowering plants, birds, or some other decoration was cut into the leather-hard clay using a stylus, produced detailed, recessed images on the vessels; these were usually also highlighted in cobalt. Stamped or coggled designs were sometimes impressed into the leather-hard clay, as well. Potters occasionally substituted manganese or iron oxide for cobalt oxide to produce brown, instead of blue, decorations on the pottery.

In the last half of the 19th century, potters in New England and New York state began producing stoneware with elaborate figural designs such as deer, dogs, birds, houses, people, historical scenes and other fanciful motifs including elephants and “bathing beauties.”

A significant percentage of American Stoneware was signed using maker’s marks and, much more rarely, incised signatures. Many pieces can be attributed to particular makers based on the cobalt decoration, clay body, form, etc. The gallon capacity of the vessels was often denoted using numeral stamps or incised or cobalt oxide numbers or hash marks applied in freehand.

American Stoneware was valued as not only a durable, decorative houseware but as a safer alternative to lead-glazed earthenware pottery produced in America before and during its production there. This earthenware, commonly referred to today as American Redware, was often produced by the same potters making American Stoneware.

Early American Stoneware: 18th Century Tupperware

Stoneware was used for anything we might use glass jars or tupperware for today. It held everything from water, soda, and beer to meat, grain, jelly, and pickled vegetables, and was produced in a very wide variety of forms. These ranged from common jars and jugs to more specialized items like pitchers, water coolers, spittoons, and butter pots, to much rarer banks and poultry waterers and exceptionally unusual pieces like bird houses, animal figures, and grave markers.

Mason Jars Replace Stoneware

With the proliferation of mass production techniques and machinery throughout the century, in particular the breakthrough of John Landis Mason’s glass jar (see Mason jar), the production of what had been one of America’s most vital handcrafts gradually ground to a halt. By the turn of the 20th century, some companies mass-produced stoneware with a white, non-salt glaze (commonly referred to as “bristol slip”), but these later wares lacked, for instance, the elaborate decorations common to the earlier, salt-glazed stoneware.

American Stoneware Glazing Techniques

Fired at temperatures ranging from 1200 to 1390 degrees centigrade, stoneware had an extremely hard and durable body. Fabric colors include gray, buff, and yellow-reds. The typically thick walls were part of heavy, utilitarian objects such as jugs, crocks, churns, pitchers, inkwells and oil lamps. Stoneware was being produced in eastern North America by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The variations in surface treatments recognized ncludes: unglazed, plain; salt glaze; Albany slip; and Bristol.

Plain, unglazed stoneware is rare, most was at least partially glazed for decorative reasons or to make cleaning easier. The surface of unglazed stoneware has a flat, mat-like texture and is light-brown, cream, or gray in color.

Salt Glazed Stoneware

Salt glazing was a simple technique. Common salt was thrown into the kiln as the object was being fired. Vaporizing, it condensed on the ware as a very thin film of glassy silicate. The distinctive surface is clear and shiny, but textured like orange peel. The color of the vessel will reflect the amount of iron present in the clay and the concentration of oxygen in the firing atmosphere. In the most basic expression the interiors were left unglazed. Equally common, however, were interiors treated with yellow-green lead or dark brown Alban

Stoneware Crock Jugs – Related Products

The following items are used in the above-article, or may provide added reference and helpful information.

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