November Clay Club recap: The Wedgwood Cherokee kaolin connection

A big thank you to Alex Glover for his presentation on the Wedgwood Cherokee connection of North Carolina kaolin at this month's Clay Club, and to John Britt for hosting us at his studio.

A little about Alex: Alex Glover recently retired as Director of Mining and Mineral Resources from Active Minerals International of Baltimore, Maryland. AMI is a major clay producer specializing in kaolin and attapulgite clays. After a 40-year career as a Professional Industrial Minerals Geologist, including 10 years as Chief Geologist of the Feldspar Corporation, Alex now teaches geology at Mayland Community College.

Alex has done a lot of research into Josiah Wedgwood and the kaolin Wedgwood imported into England from North Carolina in the 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood was born into a family of potters. As a child he contracted smallpox, which left one leg impaired; as a result, he couldn't operate a potter's wheel. (As an adult he had the leg amputated below the knee. Without anesthesia!) Wedgwood succeeded in the pottery business by developing clay bodies, glazes and ceramic designs; implementing division of labor factory practices; and using innovative marketing techniques to increase sales. Had he been able to operate a wheel, maybe he wouldn't have made all of these advances.

In the late 1760s, Wedgwood needed kaolin. He had learned that there was high-quality kaolin in North America in an area controlled by the Cherokee. He funded an expedition to locate the kaolin, hiring a man named Thomas Griffiths to lead the effort. Griffiths located the Cherokee kaolin and had several tons transported to the port in Charleston, South Carolina, and then back to England. This was the Wedgwood Cherokee clay connection.

The precise location of the kaolin Griffiths found isn't known for certain, but it is believed to be near Franklin, North Carolina. The kaolin was high quality, but transporting it was difficult and expensive, and Wedgwood did not continue to get kaolin from North Carolina. (Kaolin had been discovered in England earlier in the 18th century and began to be mined more extensively around the time of this expedition, negating the need for importing kaolin.)

There are records of Wedgwood using the Cherokee clay to make Jasperware. At the Museum Of North Carolina Minerals, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Spruce Pine, there is a Wedgwood vase made with Cherokee kaolin.

There is much more to the story (including a connection to Charles Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood's grandson), but it is Alex's to tell. If you have a chance to hear him, don't miss it! We're hoping to get Alex to come back and do an another presentation.

John Britt also posted about Alex's presentation on his blog:

November Clay Club saw the return of Jim and Sheila Sockwell, who we haven't seen at Clay Club for quite a while. Jim is doing well and it was great to see him and Sheila. Thanks again to John Britt for hosting, to Alex Glover for his presentation, and to everyone who came!