C. sends me this wonderful figure of a ram — and wonders what it is, and what it was used for, and who made it.
It is of clay, glazed in brown and primitive looking. He suspects it is a sewer tile, and he is right. So what is a sewer tile? Was it meant to cap a sewer? No, it was the work of artists who made those underground clay sewer pipe conduits, but, after hours, they designed wonderful figures and often competed with one another to outshine their fellow potters.
Because at heart, they were clay artists. These were made as gifts to family members by clay workers.
This work was done by ceramic artists after hours, who worked in the Midwest or Northeast clay sewer pipe factories, and they did these whimsical designs for fun. Today they can sell for quite a few bucks, because they are rare and speak so strongly of American Folk Art.
These figures originated from the clay sewer lines being made — historically speaking — in England in 1810. The tradition of potters making clay sewer pipes came to the U.S. from Scotland, when John Johnson noticed that clay was great for agricultural sewer lines, and brought the idea to his relative’s farm in upstate New York.
Potters worked in these factories making clay pipes, but they were also artists of a kind. Described today as Americana folk artists, they fashioned figures built upon the round sections of the clay pipes either horizontally or vertically, adding molded figures and sometimes hand built clay figures in the shapes of dogs, crows, lions, sheep, owls, eagles, frogs, groundhogs, baseball players, and as we see — rams.
Jack E Anderson wrote the book in 1973 called the “Illustrated handbook of Ohio Sewer Pipe Folk Art.” C, should look into this book, as his ram is in there.
We can see these figures of all manner, selling at auction (Garth’s Auctions in Ohio sells these well) for up to $2,000.
These were made in factories that by day produced clay sewer lines and by night clay figurines for personal gifting purposes in factories in Ohio; St. Louis; Red Wing, Minn., and throughout Illinois and Indiana from 1880-1900, and into the 1950s in some areas where clay pipes for sewers were still being made.
The history of these sewer pipe figures is commensurate with the history of drainage. Sewers in the Indus Valley in 2,500 BC were made of brick and mortar by the Persians, Macedonians and Minoans. Then the Greeks and Romans created sewer systems of brick and stone.
Oh, the Middle Ages? Sanitation was not so important, and it was not until the 1900 that sanitation became an issue because of urbanization.
Philadelphia was the first city to realize the problem, and it developed a sanitation system of wood pipes, in the stave style or in the hollowed out log style, but then soon turned to clay pipes made of vitrified clay ( clay with salt). Only major cities could afford such technology, or cities that were close to clay deposits. Some of our cities in the U.S. still contain vestiges of the old wooden pipe system, such as Spokane, Wash., which found wooden pipes in use in 2018.
The journey to clay was long, as many cities replaced wood pipes with cast iron pipes, but by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clay pipes were preferred. And therefore, the clay sewer pipe figures began to be made by itinerant potters working in those factories. These figures were made from molds or hand applied to clay pipes of Redware or Stoneware clays.
When the kilns closed due to new technology in sewer systems in the mid-20th century, those itinerant potters began to work for factories that made clay pipes for agricultural systems. Therefore, farm animals were a favorite subject for sewer tiles.
In England, there was a tradition in the late 19th century of clay workers making primitive looking figures in the region of England called Staffordshire. Influenced by those figures, American potters who worked in factories that made agricultural clay pipes crafted figures resembling Staffordshire figures. But they made them larger, using hand modeling or hand casting to create wonderful figures.
We can see the tradition called combing on C’s figure of a ram, where the coat of the ram looks realistic. Figures were often simply glazed in salt glaze of a shiny brown, and some of these figures are signed.
I put the value at $1,500.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.