The History of Ceramics
“Ceramics are all around us. It is one of the most ancient industries on the planet. We often take for granted the major role ceramics has played in the progress of mankind. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, and then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground. 10,000 years later, as settled communities were established, tiles were manufactured in Mesopotamia and India. The first use of functional pottery vessels for storing water and food is thought to be around 9,000 or 10,000 BC. Clay bricks also began to be made around the same time. Glass was believed discovered in Egypt around 8,000 BC, when overheating of kilns produced a colored glaze on the pottery. Experts estimate that it was not until 1,500 BC that glass was produced independently of ceramics and fashioned into separate items.”¹
Hobby ceramics, as we have come to know it today, exploded into the conscience of the public during the Great Depression. Erma Duncan, founder of Duncan Enterprises and Francis Darby, founder of Paragon Industries, began making glazes and kilns, respectively, for the home artist to enjoy making ceramics at home. The hierarchy of the ceramic manufacturer, distributor, traditional dealer and customer was formed.
The manufacturer made the molds, color, brushes, tools and kilns. The manufacturer required a distributor to stock a large inventory of the product and educated the distributor on the product. The distributor then educated and sold the product to the dealer or traditional ceramic shop, school, finished ware producer or potter. The public was required to purchase the product from the distributor. Of course, some distributors and dealers did a better job of selling because they did a better job of educating and servicing the end customer. Manufacturers offered certification programs to distributors and dealers. Those receiving certification were then able to teach ceramics to the general public.
From the 1920’s and until the introduction of the contemporary ceramic studio in the 1990’s, for the general public, there were only traditional ceramic dealers and potter’s studios. At the traditional ceramic shops, molds were purchased from mold distributors or manufacturers. Owners mixed liquid slip, poured it into the molds, let it set-up, poured it out, and set the greenware out on shelves for sale. Customers purchased glazes, brushes and tools from the shop and either worked on the projects at the shop or took them home to work on them. Then they would bring them back to the shop to be fired. Often times classes were offered for the beginner, intermediate or advanced students.
In the potter’s studio, one or more master potters worked long and hard on their potter’s wheels to create beautiful and functional works of art, but the experience wasn’t available to customers off the street. Years and years of study and apprenticeship were the only way to go if one wanted to become a master potter. Many potters went on to become finished ware producers as their businesses grew, creating not only functional ceramics, but ceramic fine art.
From the 20’s and up until the mid 1980’s, the ceramic industry boomed and flourished. But during the mid 80’s, some of the manufacturers that were not keeping up with new products and new education began to suffer loss of sales. When they began selling directly to the public, bypassing the distributors and dealers, the education process suffered, as well, and thus the decline of the business of ceramics began.
In 1993, the contemporary ceramic studio concept, today popularly known as paint-your-own-pottery (PYOP), emerged to offer the general public paint, brushes, glazing and firing, bisque instead of greenware - all for one price, in an appealing studio setting. This new concept coincided with the huge growth in America involving the home and garden niche markets and “Do-It-Yourself” genres of business. Lowe’s, Michael’s, Martha Stewart, Home Depot, Home and Garden TV (HGTV), Home Shopping Network, Hobby Lobby and Garden Ridge were all part of an exploding craft industry. Today, approximately 1800 studios exist around the world, up from 50 studios in 1995. Around the year 2000, studios began showing up in Europe and Asia – England, Germany, France, China, Japan, Austria and other countries.
The Internet, the growth of the DIY and the new paint your own pottery concept put a much needed jolt in the ceramic industry. In 2002, and as recent as late 2006, the magazines, Craft Trends and Craft Reports, stated Wall Street was paying very close attention to the overall craft industry – and with good reason. Super hobby and craft stores like Michaels, Hobby Lobby and Jo Ann’s Fabrics were consistently showing staggering profits. Everyday, not only new craft shows, but also whole craft networks were showing up on television and the ever-growing cable and satellite franchises.
And here we are at the birth of the 21st century. In 2015, the world economy seems unsure and shaky, at best - What does this mean for the ceramic and fired arts industry? When we consider the history of ceramics and especially its popularity in the last century - remember, it exploded during the Great Depression, as did the entertainment industry - we can see ceramics and fired arts will always be with us for so many reasons. Mankind NEEDS ceramics - for functional reasons and for artistic reasons. We have to express ourselves and making something creative that can last a lifetime with our hands is relaxing, stimulating and enduring. So there is no surprise that during these difficult times while other industries struggle to survive, ceramics is enjoying yet another boom.
Read more - The American Ceramic Society, 1990 and Ceramic Studio of Prague, 2007
More Ceramic History sites to visit:
Most excellent site for an overview of ceramics and history: