The manufacturing of pottery has occurred throughout Tennessee during much of its history, but records are nonexistent until the 1820 manufacturing census, which listed eight potteries, all in East Tennessee. Isaac Hart and John Mathorn (later Mottern) produced earthenware in Carter County. Earthenware was also made in Greene County at potteries owned by Frederick Shaffer, John Click, Thomas Ripley, and Henry Kinser. A Jefferson County pottery, the owner of which is unknown, also produced earthenware. The only listed stoneware manufacturer was Samuel Smith in Knoxville. One additional pottery, according to current research, was located in Davidson County.
Potteries established throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were primarily family operations situated where abundant clay deposits existed. These potteries produced primarily handcrafted, utilitarian wares using nonindustrial techniques and featuring stylistic similarities passed from master to apprentice over several generations. Only a very few of these family operations produced a limited number of pieces that can be considered art pottery.
Industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century changed Tennessee’s pottery operations. Industrial wares were produced by larger firms employing nonfamily workers using mechanized techniques and imported clays and were transported to nonlocal markets. Most industrial potteries were situated in major towns and cities near available rail lines. They produced primarily fire brick, sewer pipe, stove pipe, flu linings, window caps, chimney tops, crocks, churns, flower pots, and stoneware whiskey jugs.
Techniques for firing greenware and the types of pottery produced varied from region to region during the nineteenth century. In East Tennessee, pottery was fired in above-ground, circular updraft kilns, with 42 percent being earthenware and 58 percent stoneware. In Middle Tennessee, semisubterranean, circular updraft kilns were used and produced 11 percent earthenware and 89 percent stoneware. West Tennessee operations used mostly above ground, circular downdraft kilns and fired 100 percent stoneware.
As the 1820 census indicates, East Tennessee works initially dominated the state’s production of pottery. Kiln sites were located on a north-south line following the East Tennessee Shale Belt in the valleys and ridges of the Appalachian chain. Most of the known potteries were situated in Greene, Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and Blount Counties. Dominant among family operations in this part of Tennessee was the Keystone Pottery operated by Charles F. Decker Sr. and his sons. Other noteworthy potteries were those operated by William Grindstaff of Blount and Knox Counties and William Hinshaw, William Grim, and John Click in Greene County. Moses P. Harmon of Greene County, Chattanooga Fire Clay Works in Hamilton County, Weaver & Brothers Pottery in Knox County, and Southern Potteries, which produced the famous Blue Ridge ware, in Unicoi County were successful industrial potteries.
In Middle Tennessee, family-operated potteries were concentrated in White, Putnam, and DeKalb Counties on lands rich in clay deposits situated on the Eastern Highland Rim. Pottery manufacturing in this three-county area seems to have been tied to the arrival of Andrew LaFever in White County about 1824. LaFever’s six sons and the three generations of the family which succeeded them had connections with most of the major potteries in the area and seem to have influenced their products. Also noteworthy among family operations were those of the Dunn, Hedgecough, Roberts, Elrod, and Spears families. The Nashville Pottery Company in Davidson County and the Cookeville Pottery in Putnam County were the leading industrial firms in Middle Tennessee. Nashville Art Pottery, created as part of the Nashville School of Art in 1884 and operated until 1889, was probably the first of its kind in Tennessee.
In West Tennessee, family potteries were primarily along the north-south West Tennessee Bedded-Clay Belt. Leading family potteries in this portion of the state were those operated by the Connor, Crave, and Reevely families of Hardeman, Henderson, and Madison Counties, respectively. Grand Junction Pottery of Hardeman County, Currier-Weaver Pottery and W. D. Russell Pottery in Henry County, Pinson Pottery Company and Jackson Pottery Company in Madison County, and the Bluff City Terra Cotta Works of Shelby County were leading industrial firms.