This Place in History: Fenton Pottery

Vermont Historical Society

DORSET, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History‘ we’re in Dorset, Vt. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“Specifically, we’re in the Dorset Hollow region of Dorset, which amazingly enough, was the home of the first stoneware pottery in the state, Fenton Pottery. So, I thought we’d head over to the Dorset History Museum and talk to Jon Mathewson, the curator there, so we could learn all about this really cool family,” said Perkins.

“Jonathan Fenton was born in 1766 in Connecticut to a stoneware, pottery family. He, most notably, after apprenticing, went to Boston, where he cofounded the Lynn Street Pottery. They were one of the first pottery factories in America, the United States,” began Mathewson. “He moved to Dorset Hollow, where the sign is, back in 1801.”

“He would make big jugs to hold things in general stores like molasses or rum or whatever. In 1810, he left Dorset for East Dorset. There’s a lot of speculation as to why. The most plausible one is they discovered kaolin beds over there, so they didn’t have to import it. He was there until 1827 when he retired and sold the business to his two sons Richard and Christopher,” continued Mathewson.

“Now by the time we get to the 1850s, 1860s, we started to see a lot of these pottery companies decline. What was one of the reasons for that?” asked Perkins.

“First of all, you needed a local potter because pottery is very breakable. You can’t really ship it very far. And then also manufactured glass became very big,” answered Mathewson.

“So, like the Mason jar, the Ball jar?” asked Perkins.

“Exactly,” said Mathewson.

“Everywhere Jonathan Fenton went, whether it was in Hartford or Boston or Dorset or East Dorset, he would have a very different, distinctive stamp on his pottery. When he was in Dorset Hollow, it was a capital J, capital F, then a smaller E-N-T-O-N. And, when he first started out in Dorset Hollow, he was using the clay from the Mettawee [River], which when fired, would become red.”

“Because of that and the signature that’s on the jug, which by the way is in Balboa Park in the San Diego Museum of Art, everything indicates it would have been made early in his time in Dorset. This style of jug was made by enslaved potters on southern plantations in the 1840s and 1850s. None of those indicators suggest Dorset in 1801.”

“What’s up with it? Why does it have the ‘J-F-enton’ stamp on it with that early red clay? Where was his inspiration from? We don’t know. It’s a complete mystery. If anyone out there has a good answer, please let us know,” said Mathewson.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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