British potters wanted U.S. trade

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British potters wanted U.S. trade

January 18, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Benjamin Franklin's maxims decorated many forms of children's plates and mugs in the 19th century as a means of moral instruction. Photo courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology.
The little child's cup was quickly spotted as we were screening the "dirt" from the privy on the 500 block of King Street in 1978. Very near to where people stand in line at Starbuck's, we excavated in 1978 hoping to finish recovering millions of artifacts before construction.

This one privy-well was different than others--not as deep or fully packed with discarded artifacts as others. Yet, something about it seemed significant; the artifacts were so unique from one another. We tentatively crossmended the fragments of the little cup to view one scene, people working near a village, and read its verse: "Industry needs not wish and he that lives upon hope will die fasting." "FRANKLIN'S MAXIMS" was spelled out between this scene and another of a sinking ship.

So began our study of this privy-well, its contents, the inhabitants of the property, and eventually even the little cup and the values taught to children. Darcie A. MacMahon researched the verse as well as the mid-19th social context in which the cup was manufactured and used. Darcie originally wrote her research paper more than a decade ago. The City of Alexandria is publishing it this year. Her work helped open our eyes to how much one artifact can say about the past and encourage reflection about the present.

It may seem ironic that Benjamin Franklin's maxims from Poor Richard's Almanack were used on pottery made in England after the Revolution. As one of the senior statesmen who led the colonies into Revolution and helped formulate the Constitution, you might be surprised to read his verse on English pottery.

As early as 1785, Liverpool potteries were printing American patriotic scenes to tap the new market. The British exported huge amounts of manufactured items into the new country, while holding imports to a minimum. The Embargo Act curtailed English trade from 1807 through the War of 1812. Then, Liverpool and Staffordshire potteries rushed to meet the American demand for patriotic motifs at prices for the general public.

While the cup we found dates to the mid-19th century, the maxims go back to the 1736-1758 period of Franklin's Poor Richard. Although Franklin has been dead for nearly 206 years, it is interesting to note how useful his words are even today. During the 1787 Philadelphia convention that resulted in the Constitution, great differences in opinions divided the delegates. Too weak to stand and speak, he exerted his moderating influence through the written word of a craftsman: "When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition." His compromise gave equal state representation in the Senate and proportional by population in the House. Perhaps Ben's words would be instructive today to our federal leaders locked in debate.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.