Written by Ariela Reiter, 11th Grade Teen Historian
Remember those old ceramic pieces on the shelf at your grandparents’ house? Those festive yet mysterious ceramic coffee pitchers that were never actually used? Well, there is more of a story to those objects than you may have originally thought. Folk art, which these pieces are considered to be, is an art style created by artists who have no formal training and the works are usually about culture and life. This is a form of art that tends to highlight the working class and the way they lived. Many styles and pieces fall under this broad term of folk art, including a ceramic style known as mochaware.
Mochaware is a form of pottery called earthenware, which is made from clay that is then bisqued (fired in a kiln) and glazed (a form of painting ceramics) using a patterned technique. There are different styles of mochaware, each decorated with a unique design—common cable, earthworm, dendritic, slip marbling, to name a few. Originally the term mochaware was used to define the dendritic pattern specifically, but as the style transformed, so did its definition. The term ‘mocha’ originated from the Red Sea port of Mocha in Yemen—which had thriving trade with England—and the sale of creamware objects such as mochaware. The port in Mocha flourished with commerce and trade. However, when the Ottomans seized this area in the mid-1800s, Mocha’s trade declined.
At the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition this past summer, The Folk Art collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman, mochaware was represented by a variety of utility objects, placed on a low glass shelf. These utility pieces were easy to miss, as they were surrounded by other ceramic folk art objects, but they are vibrant and welcoming all the same, inviting every eye to witness their form.
The coffee pot, the pitcher, and the mustard pot have identical handles, not including the embellished petal design found at the top of the pitcher’s handle. The exact stripes on all of the pieces also provide a link among the artifacts and their time period, leading us to hint that a special tool or machine was used to capture the infinite horizontal lines. Taking a closer look at the pitcher, we can see the small smudges on the bottom edge of the stripes. This can suggest the age of the item and whether it was hand painted or mechanically crafted. The dendritic base, common to all of the mochaware pieces, suggests that they are all connected, despite the design differences. The festive colors on these pieces contrasted with the white base would lead one to believe that these were used by upper-class people. However, these objects were actually most common in taverns serving the lower-class.
First made in British potteries and shipped to America, these ceramic objects epitomize the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution. This turning point is represented by the decrease in agrarian society and the promotion of urbanization that led to the rise of factories and job opportunities. With the building of factories came the crumble of craftsmen. Objects like mochaware, which became mass produced during this time, are special because they require a unique design on each object’s top finish. Mochaware show a connection to machinery and human touch during this time by using both practices to be completed. This simple utility can tell us a chapter in the American story. The narrative of industrialization can be told by the objects created during its time, and mochaware can show us life at the very beginning of factories and mass production.
“The First American Factories.” Ushistory.org. Accessed August 08, 2016. http://www.ushistory.org/us/25d.asp.
“Don Carpentier’s Pottery.” Great American Craftsment. Accessed August 08, 2016. http://www.greatamericancraftsmen.org/articles/pottery.htm.
“Department of Anthropology: Mocha Ware.” Saint Mary’s University. Accessed August 08, 2016. http://www.smu.ca/academics/departments/anthropology-mocha-ware.html.
“The Merchant Houses of Mocha.” University of Washington Press. Accessed August 08, http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/UMNMER.html.