Collecting Mania: Butter Crocks
A mainstay of American kitchens for generations, these utilitarian pieces are making a comeback with collectors.
Before the days of refrigeration, the storage of perishable dairy foods presented daily challenges to the American homemaker. Churning and storing butter required especially careful preparation and high standards of cleanliness. Until commercial dairies began keeping local grocery stores in good supply on a regular basis late in the 19th century, butter making was part of the domestic routine. Most households stored butter in small covered crocks and placed them in the coolest place available - be it the cellar, the well box, or the springhouse. When properly salted, butter could keep in these locations without spoiling for several days at a time.
Wooden vats that were covered with cloth or a makeshift lid served as the earliest storage containers for butter. These vessels proved difficult to clean, however, and their porous nature allowed grease to soak into the wood, causing rancid odors to develop over time.
Redware crocks with tight-fitting lids became available late in the 18th century, often in one- and two-gallon sizes. Homemakers found these clear-glazed pots easier to clean, but they posed their own set of health hazards: Their interior glazes often contained toxic substances.
Stoneware crocks with matching lids began to replace the more fragile Redware by the mid-19th century. One- and two-gallon pieces were available, as were smaller examples both with and without lids.
The practical shape of these utilitarian crocks remained unchanged throughout the century, forcing manufacturers to compete for customers by means of creative patterning and decorative glazes. The wide variety of styles that resulted is a strong draw for many collectors today.
Working either freehand or with the aid of stencils or small metal or wooden stamps, potters applied swirls, numerals, and simple floral designs using cobalt oxide and quills or brushes. Since cobalt was expensive, potters sometimes used a thin wash of watered-down cobalt to create pleasing designs. Both merchants and manufacturers with products to advertise occasionally commissioned crocks imprinted with their name and address.
Fanciful molds were used late in the century to create crocks with impressed swags, butterflies, cows, flowers, and other graphics. Decorative sponged designs were also popular, as were butter crocks bearing sponged designs. In contrast, the Red Wing Pottery Co., of Red Wing, Minn., introduced an all-white crock in 1885 that was marketed as the last word in cleanliness.
Yellowware butter crocks became popular late in the 19th century. Offered with and without lids, these pieces were sometimes slip-banded or imprinted with the word "BUTTER" or advertising messages.
Antiques shows featuring a large number of dealers provide the best bet for scouting butter crocks. Ceramics dealers will sometimes have a few in stock, as will shops specializing in 18th- and 19th-century antiques. Expect to pay $100 to $200 or more for rare examples in perfect condition. Pieces missing their lids - the slippery nature of these crocks' contents often caused accidents - or in poor condition can be found for about $40. Though no longer suitable for storing perishables, these items make attractive storage crocks for kitchen utensils or cachepots for potted plants.
Butter crocks that retain their original lids garner the highest prices, but beware of "marriages" of mismatched tops and bottoms. Experts suggest a close inspection of the glaze colors and the exactness of the fit to ensure a perfect match.
Crocks from potteries in the Shenandoah Valley are rare and eagerly sought. These crocks bear distinctive mottled brown, green, and yellow glazes and sometimes have marks on the bottom made by individual potters, which adds to their value.
Enamelware, also called agateware and graniteware, was introduced in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Easy to clean, this enamel-coated metalware was lightweight in comparison to stoneware. Enamelware butter pots have been found in spattered shades of gray, blue, purple, and brown.