In 1753 members of several congregations of Moravians in Pennsylvania were granted a lease from agents of Lord Granville on more than 100,000 acres of land, known as the Wachovia Tract, in the Piedmont of North Carolina. They and Moravian immigrants from Middle Germany established three thriving towns-Bethania, Bethabara, and Salem — by 1770. Among their ranks were numerous highly skilled craftsmen, and the prosperity enjoyed by these industrious immigrants to the southern backcountry gained them the reputation as a "people remarkable for their orderly behavior, plain obliging manners, unvaried economy, and steady, unremitting industry."1
The region was rich in natural clay sources and mineral deposits, and the various potteries established by the Moravians became widely known for the quality of their glazed earthenware stove tiles and their innovative molded forms based on manufactured English and European prototypes, such as this tin-glazed fish bottle. Rudolph Christ, one of the early master potters in Salem and Bethabara, began about 1800 to produce a range of figural, press-molded bottles and other forms, including fish, squirrels, bears, foxes, turtles, various birds, and other animal figures. Inventories indicate he continued to make wheel-thrown and press-molded wares until his retirement in 1822. Probably inspired by Staffordshire models, press-molded techniques required a more refined clay of finer particulate than that needed for wheel-thrown work.2
In press molding, clay was pressed by hand directly into plaster molds rather than poured in a liquid state, as in slip casting. Press molding had been perfected earlier in Salem's potteries in the production of molded stove tiles. In 1793 Christ began experimenting with "faience," or tin-enameled glazes like that on this fish bottle. The brilliant opaque glazes preferred for these molded animal forms were achieved by adding tin oxide to the basic lead glaze recipes containing flint, red lead, and kaolin clay as well as colorants such as copper oxide for green, manganese for brown, black iron oxide for black, lead antimony for yellow, or cobalt for blue.3
An 1819 inventory for the pottery documents that four sizes of fish flasks were made in Salem and sold for "5d, 9d, 10d, and 12d"; later, in 1829, John Holland, a potter who succeeded Christ, also listed four sizes of the same form.4
A surviving two-part mold for these fish bottles exists.5
1 As quoted in John Bivins and Forsyth Alexander, The Regional Arts of the Early South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press in association with Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991), p. 114.
2 Christ noted to the "Collegium" leadership of Salem in his 1780 request to start manufacturing "fine pottery" that it "cannot be manufactured together with the rough pottery, because the finest grain of sand that comes into the clay will do a great damage." See ibid., p. n
3 A rare surviving manuscript in the Moravian Archives in Salem titled ''A Collection of Faience China Glazing Formulas: also, All Sorts of Painter's Colors and How Such Are to be Treated, Salem, 20 October 1793" documents these recipes and Christ's experiments; see ibid., p. 83.
4 Manuscript day books of Christ and of Holland, collection Old Salem, Winston-Salem, N.C.
5 This mold and several other versions of these figural bottles and their related molds are in the collection of Old Salem.