Feats of Clay


A clay pot is often the solution when we desire a container made of classic material, is durable, reasonably priced, and available in virtually every size and style.  Clay pots have been around for a long time, and still serve us well.

Some local history may be of interest. The first brick kiln in New England was in Salem in 1629, and parts of early Boston and elsewhere were built from this locally made clay brick.  Clay pits were an invaluable asset for their production.

The A. H. Hews Company, a brick works founded in Weston in 1765, began by hauling its clay by wagons from pits in North Cambridge. As the demand for bricks waned, however, they became more of a pottery.  In 1871, Hews moved to Cambridge to be nearer the pits and for better access to the railroad.

This was the time of the Victorians, and the new fashion was to display garden pots in the parlor.  Hews continued to grow as a maker and purveyor of all sorts of red clay products—from flower pots to dishware to cuspidors—but they increasingly focused on the lucrative market niche of flower pots.

A big breakthrough occurred in 1888, when Hews introduced the flat-collared and completely stackable pots as we know them today.  They were a sensation, and both these standard as well as decorative pots of all sorts became their most popular items.

By 1905 Hews was the largest producer of flower pots in America, producing more than 16 million in that year alone.  These were shipped all over the country and the world. By this time the Hews family had owned the company for 140 years.

Change is a constant, however.  Following World War II, plastic pots began to replace clay pots in popularity.  They’re sharp-edged when broken and hard to recycle, but they’re also inexpensive and lighter in weight.  And some credit the hanging versions as saviors of a struggling macramé industry.

But clay pots persist.  Even if shattered they remain useful, improving drainage when the shards are placed in the bottom of another. And it’s rare when one can say that something that’s broken still works just fine!

Norm Weeks is a member of the North Shore Horticultural Society.

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