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Water Cooler

Peter Bell Family
Place Made:
Winchester Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
salt glazed –stoneware
HOA: 16 1/8″; WOA: 11 1/4″
Accession Number:
In the shape of an upright, banded keg, this monumental salt-glazed stoneware cooler is an intricately designed piece. It likely had a ceramic lid when it was in use. Though a functional vessel, it is a piece of art. Thrown on a wheel, this cooler has an opening at the base for a spigot and three unique sprig-molded decorations on the front. The molds are probably Biblical representations of John the Baptist on the left, Jesus on the right, and in the center, a Dove, a symbol of the Holy Ghost. Sprig molding involves taking a plaster, wood, or bisque clay mold that has a carved image in a negative perspective, placing a small amount of clay within the mold to make a positive, raised impression of the mold, and then releasing the clay, which is then applied to the vessel. The piece is stamped twice with “BELL,” once very prominently on the front of the cooler, for Peter Bell and his family of potters in Winchester, Virginia.

Four sets of three rounded, tooled lines encircle the cooler. The handles were made by twisting two pulled strands of clay together and laying the intertwined pieces across the sides of the cooler in the shape of an arc. The handles were placed between the two upper bands of tooled lines. The sprig molds were outlined with cobalt blue slip, and the spaces between the upper and lower two sets of tooled lines have a brushed foliate decoration executed in cobalt blue slip. The cooler does not have an applied glaze on the interior.

Salt glazing was a technique used by stoneware potters to create a glassy surface. When the pottery kiln reached over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, salt was introduced into the kiln, creating a vapor. This vapor adhered to the silica in the clay, forming a glassy appearance on the pottery. Because of the high temperature at which the pottery was fired, the clay often became non-porous, or vitrified. This, combined with the salt glazing, meant that potters did not have to apply a glaze to the interior of the vessel. It could hold liquids and not seep, unlike earthenware storage vessels.

MAKER: Peter Bell (1774-1847) was a prominent potter in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Winchester, Virginia. Although few examples of his work are known, a prodigious body of pottery survives from the shops of his sons John (1800-1880), Samuel (1811-1891), and Solomon (1817-1882). A rare survival, the account book of Peter Bell, kept between 1804 and 1844, is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia (a copy is in the library at MESDA). A comparative example is an earthenware water cooler in the collection of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, made in the shop of Solomon Bell. On its front is a large, sprig-molded design of the Biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den. Peter Bell transitioned from lead-glazed earthenware to stoneware production in 1832 and, in his “Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley,” Comstock notes that Peter Bell’s production of stoneware in Winchester was the first in that town.

Comstock, H. E. The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994.

Credit Line:
The William C. and Susan S. Mariner Collection