From Colonial times through the mid-1900s, American potters formed heavy utilitarian crockery of stoneware. These useful items helped hearty cooks and farmers with everything from pickling vegetables to churning butter and transporting all types of goods from farm to market.
While some large companies were established by the late 1800s, many early potteries producing stoneware employed only one or two farmers making wares in their "off" season. They usually set up shop where clay, water, and wood needed for production were readily available. These homespun potters made an abundance of jugs, crocks, churns, bowls, and pitchers along with other utilitarian wares such as chamber pots in more limited quantities.
Just because they weren’t booming enterprises doesn’t mean they were producing inferior wares, however. Many of them became very skilled at making stoneware, and their craftsmanship is thoroughly appreciated by today’s collectors.
The Primitive Collecting Craze
In the 1970s, when primitive antiques were at their peak of popularity, many pieces of stoneware found their way from storage spots in old barns to flea market stalls around the country. Collectors went absolutely crazy for the clunky shapes ranging from individually sized jugs to enormous crocks with matching lids. They went along with primitive furnishings perfectly.
So many were snapped up and used to decorate homes with a country look, they aren't seen all that much today. Persistent collectors find a way to own crockery, however, and they have favorites, too.
The Popularity of Red Wing
Pieces manufactured by Red Wing, actually marked with a red-colored wing on most items, hold the top spot when it comes to stoneware collecting. These items were manufactured between 1901 and 1947, according to the Wing Tips website.
Made more with the usefulness of the item in mind rather than decorative value, these stoneware pieces look rather plain when compared with other types of fired and glazed pottery. Most Red Wing crocks have a number on the front, ranging from two to 60, noting the size. Many were originally purchased with matching lids.
Finding a Red Wing crock these days with the matching lid in the appropriate size can actually double the value of the piece. For instance, 40-60 gallon Red Wing jars can sell from $350-750 with the corresponding lid going for just as much in good condition.
Folks interested in learning more about Red Wing crockery should take a look at a few of the many books on the topic. Two available from Collector Books (now out of print, but available through online booksellers) are Red Wing Stoneware by Dan and Gail DePasquale and Larry Peterson. Another is Red Wing Collectibles by the same trio. Even if you don't plan to collect these interesting items, you may remember some of the contents if you spent time on a farm when you were young.
Other Popular, Valuable Stoneware Styles
Other popular types of crockery, with some being much older than Red Wing's wares, feature cobalt blue decorations. These designs can range from fairly simple curlicue artwork to elaborately painted birds and other motifs, first done by hand and later stenciled on by clever craftsmen. These are also very popular with folks looking to add to stoneware collections.
Having the mark of the maker seems to add some value to the pieces, too. Look for names such as Norton, John Bell, and numerous others on crockery pieces when assessing their value. Stoneware produced by regional potters, such as the Myer family of Texas, can also hold more value than unidentified items.
Take note of other types of decorations and colors as well. Adding some variation through the molding process also allowed later manufacturers to decorate their wares in a different way. By designing an embossed image to the mold, an impressed decoration and a manufacturer's mark could be added to pieces over and over again. Any unusual detailing adds value to stoneware, in most instances.
Values of Uncommon, and Common, Stoneware
As a veteran collector might suspect, a browsing of online auctions reveals that the more elaborately decorated and hand done pieces tend to get higher bids. Sometimes varied colors will appeal to collectors more than plain pieces, since finding cream and green or brown and yellow items provides more of a challenge than the run-of-the-mill brown or beige crockery. And the Red Wing and cobalt decorated pieces mentioned above, still bring good prices in the secondary marketplace.
Don't discount your plain items as having absolutely no value though. Even the most common brown and white jugs sell in the $20-40 range today, depending on the size. And if you're looking for a super bargain, hunt down a plain unmarked butter crock in the $10 range. They look great sitting near a kitchen stove filled with wooden utensils.