I have some Bennington Pottery, a few serving pieces and all vintage. They are some of my most prized possessions. It is beautiful, unique, versatile, serviceable and it is Vermont’s own, made right here in my own beautiful Green Mountain State. It is not mass produced and is created by local artisans who actually throw pots, make them on a potter’s wheel or specially designed molds created uniquely for Bennington Pottery. There is a lot of time, work, talent that goes into every piece of Bennington pottery. They still make pottery in the old and traditional ways and it shows in the quality of the piece. I take pride in that.
I am not a skilled potter by any stretch of the imagination but what little I do know and what little ability I have was taught to me by an apprentice of Bennington Pottery who has retired and teaches part-time in one of our colleges.
Bennington Pottery is wonderful stoneware and the clay comes right from our own clay beds, or at least it did for many, many years so if you have an older piece you may really have a piece of Vermont that is even more than the authentic work of great local artisans and it is part of what makes Bennington Pottery so special. When you own a piece of Bennington Pottery, you literally own a piece of Vermont, its heritage, its talent, its craft, its people and the very earth Vermont is made of. A piece of Bennington Potter is a special thing to own in oh so many ways. Bennington Pottery is famous worldwide for its unique, handcrafted stoneware, bakeware, cookware, serving pieces, unique country designs and now beautiful dinnerware.
I’ve tried making my own pottery. It is great fun, good therapy and it is very challenging. It is not easy to make a perfect pot of any kind and I have had to start over and re-throw my pot a dozen times or more before I come up with something I am satisfied with. I have a great deal of respect for the potters, the artisans of Bennington Pottery or any potter for that matter. There is a lot of work and talent that goes into making a really good piece of stoneware. You have to know your clay and see the treasure it holds within its mass.
Making pottery, stoneware is as ancient as time itself and Pottery making in Vermont began before Vermont was even a State and has been part of the local economy since around 1785 since the Revolutionary War era. Vermont didn’t become a State until 1791. Bennington Pottery wasn’t always Bennington Pottery but is the outgrowth of actually 3 other companies whose roots began with Norton Pottery in Bennington.
In 1785 a man by the name of Captain John Norton, a Revolutionary War soldier, began making what is commonly called “redware” a glazed pottery that was made from the abundant clay beds in the area as well as having the water power that was necessary to power the potter’s wheel and other machinery that was locally available in the area, making Bennington an ideal place to set up his post-war business. In the beginning the potter had to use his foot to keep the wheel turning but eventually water power and still later electricity was used for this purpose. Lead was also easily available for making the glaze but could only be used on the outside of the pot.
Even then people knew that lead was dangerous to use especially if you put anything acidic in the pot like cider or vinegar, wine, pickles, that sort of thing because the liquid would seep into the pores of the pot and lead would leach into the product stored in it. The good thing about the porous pot however was that the evaporation helped to keep the contents cool and there was less spoilage. Lead, however causes nerve damage and is not safe for your health and when lead leaches into your food you will get lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can be fatal. Today redware is primarily used to make plant pots for gardening and for decorative items, items that will not contain food. Redware is also fired at much lower temperatures than other clay products and is less durable than stoneware.
Bennington Pottery became and is famous for its redware pots as well as its magnificent stoneware. While redware is glazed with lead (or used to be) stoneware is more durable and is glazed with a salt glaze inside and out. Redware, unlike stoneware is not glazed on the inside of the pot. Redware pots are porous and breathe.
One of the really unique and special things about having a redware pot however is that the finished product clearly identifies the potter with his own fingerprints. As the potter throws the pot and shapes it into being on the potter’s wheel he leaves behind his own unique fingerprint, small ridges and imprints in the clay that are frequently visible right through the glaze as he created pots, pitchers, drinking mugs, jugs, jars, crocks and other items needed for everyday use in the home. Flat pieces like meat platters, plates and saucers weren’t made on a wheel like the other pots. Instead the wet clay was pressed in a mold designed to give the potter the right shape and thickness for his ware. Bennington Pottery is still made in much the same way today and is known for its unique stoneware; especially those marvelous coffee mugs that everyone seems to want at least one of.
It all began with Captain John Norton creating his redware pots for his neighbors and then in the early 1840’s his grandson Julius took over his grandfather’s business and formed a partnership with a Christopher Fenton. The company eventually became Lyman and Fenton around 1848 and in 1849 became known as the United States Pottery Company. In 1852 a potter from Great Britain joined the company and designed some of the company’s most famous and sought after pieces. For a time the company remained strong and was one of the most recognized potteries in the United States but as the economy changed and new ways, means and styles in home wares were invented the company began to decline and almost completely went out of business other than as a small local business.
It wasn’t until 1948 that Bennington’s pottery business took on a new life. A man by the name of David Gil arrived in Bennington with a dream and saw a need and the ideal spot to make his own dream come true. He had recently graduated from the renowned Alfred University known for having the best ceramics program in the Country. In a very short time he came up with a plan and purchased a small barn right near downtown Bennington in which to start his own line of pottery and business and Bennington Pottery was born, or maybe reborn out of its beginnings with Captain John Norton in 1785.
David Gil and his Bennington Pottery got off to a rather slow start but he was dedicated to his craft and his dream of producing wonderful and unique pottery for everyday use in the home. It took nearly another 20 years before the business really took off. Mr. Gil had to finally move out of his little barn and into larger quarters, where Bennington Pottery is now. He hired an apprentice and trained him in the craft and then had to hire others as the demand for handcrafted wares became more and more in demand by the mid 1970’s to the present time.
Today Bennington Pottery is a flourishing business and a hot tourist attraction in the area and people come from all over the Country and the world to watch the potter at work, and purchase their own favorite pieces of these beautiful and unique housewares from the potter’s hands. David Gil died in 2002 at the age of 79 but his work goes on in the same manner as it did in the beginning and is still the work of the potter’s hands.
If you happen to be visiting Vermont, or if you live here and you haven’t done so, you won’t want to miss a visit to Bennington Pottery. It is located on County Street in Bennington, Vermont just off route 7 north and south and today is called The Potter’s Yard; Home of Bennington Pottery. If instead you are traveling in northern Vermont, you still don’t have to miss out. You can always drop by Bennington North Retail Store on College Street in Burlington, Vermont. That is where the University of Vermont is. However, if you can find time for a visit to Bennington by all means do and while you are there you can also visit the 306 foot stone obelisk known as Bennington Battle Monument, the museum right next door as well as other museums, antique shops, art galleries, see marvelous period architecture, old churches, covered bridges, beautiful scenery and hiking trails and whatever you do, don’t miss Bennington Pottery.