1997 >> August >> The Mysterious Southern Porcelain Company  

The Mysterious Southern Porcelain Company
by Jon E. Wreb

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", August 1997, page 9

The search for Kaolin, S.C. began while thumbing through a 1973 edition of Old Battle Magazine. In the "Insulator News Notes" section, a short article entitled "Rebel Insulators" caught my eye. It stated, "At least one source of Confederate insulators is now known. Researcher Vivian Jones, writing in the Iowa AB Newsletter notes that the Southern Porcelain Co. of Kaolin, S.C. made brownware insulators for telegraph lines during the Civil War. Her reference mentions the fact that pottery workers were in such short supply that they were made exempt from military service..."

I was born and lived most of my life in the small kaolin belt in S.C., yet had never heard of this village or the company located there. I was familiar with the extensive kaolin mining areas and had spent many a leisurely hour swimming in the azure waters of various "clay pits" while growing up.

I phoned my bottle digging and insulator hunting partners and best friends, my brother Jeff and my sister Laura. Neither had heard of the location, but, as always, they were game for finding it. 

From the start it has been a family endeavor with help and support coming from different members. Laura's husband, Rob, was invaluable in the research and retrieval of old documents. Without their support, this first-ever study of the mysterious Southern Porcelain Co. would not have been possible.

Kaolin and Kaolin, S.C.

The southeastern Native Americans called it unaker and fashioned ceremonial pipes and other wares from it. "Kaolin" is a derivative of kaoling (high ridge) where the first samples of the clay sent to Europe were gathered by a French Jesuit missionary in China in the early 1700s. Although the Western world had not unlocked its secret, the Chinese had been making fine porcelain for some 30 centuries from kaolin. Kaolin is essentially the mineral kaolinite, a hydrated aluminum silicate, whose formula is Al2032SiO22H2O. 

The kaolin in South Carolina was formed some sixty million years ago, as secondary deposits, as the feldspathic rocks of the Piedmont plateau of North and South Carolina decayed and were washed down to the shore of an ancient sea settling in lagoons. The kaolin deposits follow the irregular fall line in a portion of South Carolina and Georgia. This strip, some 25 miles long and 11 miles wide produces 90% of the U.S. kaolin today.

The oldest deposit is soft kaolin found at about 300 feet above present-day sea level. Hard kaolin is from a latter age and is found at 375 to 450 feet above sea level. Today kaolin is used as a filler in rubber products such as tires, shoe soles and insulation. It is a refractory and is used in making china, tile, brick, insulators, fertilizer, fiberglass, paper, paints, insecticides and pharmaceuticals.

The first claim of porcelain manufacture in America came about 1739 when the Governor of the Colony of Georgia wrote, "Andrew Duche is the potter at Savannah (Georgia) who goes on very well there and is one of the most industrious in the town has made several experiments which seem to look like the making of china." 

Josiah Wedgewood imported many tons of South Carolina kaolin to England for use in the manufacture of his china. The Revolutionary War and the discovery of fine residual clays in Cornwall combined to halt the imports. Wedgewood, who exported his ware to the colonies, became perturbed when he mentioned a new pottery setup in South Carolina where "They seem to have all the necessary materials, which are equal, if not superior to our own for carrying on that manufacture." It has been suggested that Wedgewood was referring to the English potter John Bartlam who advertised in 1770 that "A china manufactory and pottery is soon to be opened in this town (Camden, S.C.) by Mssrs. Bartlam and Company, the proper hands etc., for carrying it having lately arrived from England..."

The earliest known large-scale mining and processing of kaolin was in the Edgefield district of South Carolina by Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Co., established in 1856. One of the founders and major stockholders wvas William H. Farrar of U.S. Pottery in Bennington, Vermont. He employed Josiah Jones, who had been active in management at the Cartlidge works in Brooklyn, N.Y., to guide the operations at Kaolin, S.C. A few years later, southern interests took over the Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Co. at Kaolin. The treasurer of the company and one of the largest stockholders was none other than Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America. One of the presidents of the company was R. B. Bullock, governor of Georgia. 

Southern Porcelain Co. made very creditable fired ware including: tableware with an exceptionally good glaze, large terra cotta drain pipe, brick and, importantly, telegraph insulators. Most of the items produced used the slip-casting method. 

During the Civil War, Southern Porcelain Co. was the only fine-ware manufactory in the blockaded and isolated Deep South. They produced a limited line of pure, white plain china with some raised relief designs. (Fig. 1) In addition, they manufactured a large amount of Parian (unglazed, soft paste porcelain) ware and decorative vessels. 

Surviving examples of the ware are scarce, and much of it is unmarked. Leading publications on porcelain make little or no mention of Southern Porcelain Co. Similar ware is often labeled Bennington, 1850s or American, 1850s.

Various porcelain handles and kiln stilts.

The three-foot long tile drainage-pipes of varying diameters were glazed inside and out. Most appear to have a wood-ash type glaze widely used in the Edgefield District at that time, producing many beautiful shades and combinations of brown. The tiles were indispensable to the Confederate War Department and engineering projects. 

Two types of brick were manufactured -- common red and ivory-colored refractory brick made of kaolin. Much of the ivory-colored brick (See front magazine cover) has the incuse marking:

The large amount of saggars, shelves and kiln furniture at the dump site may indicate these were also produced.

COVER: The history and products of the Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Company of Kaolin, South Carolina have been well researched and documented in this month's account beginning on page 9. This fall Crown Jewels of the Wire will launch a website which will feature archived stories from past issues with full color photographs. This epic account of discovery in South Carolina will be the first to be placed on the Web: Watch CJ for the official start date.

Early Telegraph

The most vital and strategically important items produced by the Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Co. were early pottery telegraph insulators. They were produced in significant numbers since glass insulators were, for the most part, unobtainable. At the outbreak of the war, the South was served by two lines: the Washington-New Orleans Telegraph Co. trunk line, operated by the American Telegraph Co., and the line which followed the Mississippi Valley to New Orleans, operated by the Southwestern Telegraph Co.

Both lines were severed at the outset of war and were respectively placed under separate management from the Northern portions. Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan was directed to assume control of all telegraphic operations. He, in turn, appointed Dr. William S. Morris (President and major stockholder of American Telegraph Co.) to the post of Confederate Supt. of Military Telegraph. The southern portion of the Washington-New Orleans Telegraph Co. line from Richmond was reorganized as the Confederate, or Southern, Telegraph Co. 

Morris allowed the civilian management of the southern portion of both companies to continue to operate the lines, giving first priority to military dispatches. Both companies performed their task admirably, considering the constant disruption and destruction of many miles of their lines. (Fig. 2) 

Fig. 2 
Both Armies sought to destroy each others communications.

Fig. 3 
Union Army installing field telegraph lines.

The Union was far superior in the utilization of telegraphy. (Fig. 3) Land, submarine and field wire length at the end of the war was 15,000 miles, with a total expenditure of $2,655,500 during the war years. The Confederacy added a mere 461 miles of wire during the war, with a total expenditure during the war years of about $200,000. 

Both telegraph companies in the Confederacy undoubtedly had adequate reserves of insulators at the outbreak of war to handle routine replacement of damaged insulators. Neither company would have had the numbers required to restring mile upon mile of destroyed lines, particularly since many sections had to be repaired numerous times. With the major glass manufacturing houses located in the North, it is easy to understand the dilemma faced by the South.

The Richmond, Virginia dig (see Crown Jewels of the Wire, May 1990) of the Mayo Confederate warehouse ruins turned up an interesting array of insulators including glass and pottery eggs, Leffert's ramshorns, teapots, and even a partial CD 740, embossed "Tillotson." A little of this, and a little of that. 

Southern Porcelain Co. served as a major source of insulators for the Confederacy until it was destroyed by fire in 1864.

The 461 miles of new wires built by the South during the war years (using the standard practice of 25 poles per mile on straight runs, and two insulators per pole for the Morse two-wire systems) would amount to around 23,000 insulators having to be produced just for the small amount of new wire added. Though all S.P.Co. insulator-types were molded in pieces, the time-consuming handwork of assembling, sponging, and glazing U-990 teapots - plus the fact that they were fired twice, and they took up considerable volume in the kiln - suggest that these teapots were unfeasible for the new wire construction. 

This makes for a logical explanation of the large number of ceramic block-type insulator sherds found at the dump site. Although the block-type insulators saw very little use after 1848, it seems that their use by the Confederacy, most likely for new construction, would be more realistic. Remember, S.P. Co. produced many other wares besides insulators. Thus, the teapots seem more likely canqidates for replacement insulators on the two commercial lines. The clear intent of S.P. Co. to make only brown teapots and white teapots may have been an attempt at color-coding to insure the right insulator was matched to the right company's line. All white glazed teapot insulators (Fig. 4) and fragments examined have 1" pin holes, whereas all brown glazed teapots (Fig. 5) and fragments have 3/4" pin holes.

Fig. 4 
A white glazed teapot. 

Fig. 5
 A brown glazed teapot.

The unusual spout on the teapot would no doubt facilitate the rapid stringing of downed wires. The knob-like top on the spout forms a convenient and ingenious wire groove. No need to spend time in the untying of the damaged conductor. A new conductor could be rapidly strung and tied on the spouts. 

The U-989 "Milk bottle" seems to be a later and better-built expansion of the rapid wire-stringing concept. The deep U-shaped channel at the top of the insulator, along with the two "ears" with individual wire grooves, would enable this insulator to perform nicely in this respect. (Fig. 6)

Fig. 6
 The U-989 "Milk Bottle".

The Edgefield District

Of the dozen potteries located in the Edgefield District in South Carolina, two-thirds utilized slaves in the production of wares. Most of these were hand-built, utilitarian jugs, vessels and crocks for plantation use in the southeast. Many of the surviving wares, in collections, exhibit "X"s, slash marks, triangles and circles near the upper portion of the shoulder of the pieces. It was common practice for the slave potters of this district to place their "marks" proudly on finished wares. It was illegal for slaves to read or write. One exception was a slave named Dave, a former typesetter, who inscribed different verse around the top of his wares, i.e., Give me silver or either gold, though they are dangerous to our soul. Many S.P. Co. wares are marked with similar hand-scribed "X"s and slash marks. (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7 
Various marks found on Southern Porcelain Co. wares.

Edgefield District pottery, of which S.P. Co. was included, is rapidly increasing in value. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA recently paid $125,000 for a large piece! Edgefield District pottery transcends time because of its no-frills simple design. Glaze colors, though drab, are of an alkaline type composed of clay mixed with either wood ash or lime, giving colors from straw to light green to dark olive brown, as found on dark-colored insulators. This type of glaze was found only in the southern U. S., though used in the Far East before the tenth century. The connection between Edgefield glazes and those of the Far East came about through an Englishman, William Cookworthy, around 1736 who read translations of letters written by French Jesuit missionary Pere D'Entrecolles detailing pottery factories at Ching-te-chen, China. Cookworthy duplicated the ash and lime glazes and took out a patent in 1768. He transferred his patent in 1770 to Richard Champion, a major shareholder in a Bristol company. Champion experienced financial difficulties and retired to a plantation in South Carolina in 1784, where he most likely communicated with local potters before his death in 1791. This glaze persisted in the Edgefield District through the 1860s and spread to other parts of the South.

The U-990 "Teapot"

By comparison of glaze color and markings, it is now possible to attribute all pottery type U-990 teapots to the Southern Porcelain Co. The first finds at the dumpsite were a limited number of unglazed, but bisque-fired, teapots made of terra cotta-type clay as well as light buff clays. (Fig. 8) These were most likely rejected before glazing took place due to shrinkage-cracking on mold lines and spouts which opened during bisque firing. Several dark, magenta-brown unglazed teapots were later unearthed, as well as a limited number of sherds from these.

Fig. 8 
Bisque fired teapots.

Overall sizes of glazed and unglazed teapots vary. The smallest base diameter is 3- 3/4", and the largest is 4- 1/2". The tallest measured in at 4-1/2", while the shortest was 3-7/8". The most notable difference is in the diameter of the dome. Here, the smallest diameter was 1-7/8", while the largest was 3". Wall thickness at the base of the insulators ranges from 3/16" to 1/2".

Four different molds were used for the production of U-990 teapots and sherds recovered. Most likely, four different masters were used to cast numerous Plaster of Paris molds for insulator manufacture. 

The insulators appear to have been molded separately in halves. The halves were then joined by brushing slip on the surfaces and pressing them together. Many of the pieces found had split cleanly in half on the mold, or more appropriately, the slip line, showing even striations or brush marks from the slip application. (Fig. 9) Misalignment of the halves is common. (Fig. 10)

Fig. 9
A teapot which split on the slip line.

Fig. 10
Misalignment of halves.

It appears that the next step in fabrication, after joining the halves, was to size the pin hole and interior skirt radius by removing clay. Impressions of a three-bladed mandrel have been found on some pin hole walls. This mandrel was spinning counterclockwise and may have been fitted to the head of a potter's kick wheel. The insulator may have been held in both hands at the tip of the mandrel while "feeling" for the center. Once the center was felt, the insulator could be guided down until it came in contact with the wheel head. The most constant dimension in all teapots is height, which would become very critical in the pin hole formation.

The largest discontinuity noted in all unglazed teapots was shrinkage-cracking on the slip line after bisque firing. As noted, some split cleanly in half. A significant torsional or twisting force, caused by the sizing mandrel (counter-clockwise), prompted the interior pin hole position of the crack to be twisted out of plane with the outside of the crack. This is evident in all insulators with any degree of shrinkage cracking. Many pinholes exhibit wobbling from the mandrel. After sizing, the insulators were thoroughly sponged or brushed inside and out while spinning -- as evidenced by even, spiraling, concentric markings. 

The spouts were molded in halves, joined by brushing on slip, then attached to the insulator body using slip as an adhesive. The pressure used in applying the spouts caused many insulators skirts to become egg-shaped from this two-handed operation. Many spout slip-lines do not line up with the insulator body slip lines. Some spouts are more erect than others. 

Fig. 11 
Shrinkage-cracking caused spouts to detach.

Shrinkage-cracking on the spout-to-body joint seems to be the second greatest cause for rejection. (Fig. 11) After the spout was attached, the joint was smoothed by brushing or sponging. Numerous fingerprints were left by handling after cleanup took place. Perhaps these are the fingerprints of slaves who worked in the production of these and other wares.

The intent of S.P. Co. was to produce teapots in white and brown. However, the actual glaze colors, although generally light or dark, vary widely in appearance due to the nature of the uneven and uncontrollable parameters of the wood-fired kiln, the glaze compositions and clay-body types. All white or light colored glazes were applied on terra cotta, buff, or porcelain clay bodies. All dark glazes were applied to dark magenta-brown to blackish clay bodies. All white colored insulators have 1" pin holes, whereas all brown have 3/4" pin holes. Only one white insulator or sherd has been found with the incuse marking "Southern Porcelain Company Kaolin, SC" within a shield-marking. All brown colored insulators and sherds, of which far less were recovered, have this mark on the interior skirt. Some white-colored teapots recovered at the dumpsite, as well as at the 1990 Richmond, Virginia Confederate warehouse dig, have a curious "X" hand scribed in the dome top, made before the bisque-firing or glazing took place. This same "X" is also found on the bottom of some porcelain tableware next to the incuse Southern Porcelain markings and on some ceramic block-type insulators recovered. (Fig. 7) 

White or light colored glazes appear to be feldspathic-type glazes for use at above 2,282 degrees Fahrenheit. The usual ratio for this glaze was 66% feldspar, 10% flint and 23% whiting. Many glazed insulators exhibit crawling where the high surface tension feldspathic glaze rolls back on itself, leaving bare or unglazed areas. This was the result of too much feldspar in the glaze formula and grounds for rejection. Another similar glaze likely applied to white insulators was a ratio of 45% feldspar, 20% china clay, 20% flint and 15% whiting. This glaze tends toward fine crazing when cooling as noticed on some insulators. 

Ample ,amounts of orthoclase (pink) and albite (white) feldspar were found at the dumpsite. Also, large pieces of brown-colored flint were found, some with even abrasion marks and curvature, indicating a large grinding wheel was used. Fritted glazes were evidently used to some degree. A fritted glaze is produced when raw glaze ingredients, like flint and china clay, are melted together and re-ground. Frit was also added to clay bodies and slips. Some examples of the partially melted frit contain angular particles in a milky, drippy white matrix can be found on insulator bottoms as well as a few top portions. (Fig. 12) Rounded, 2" to 3" diameter fritted pieces have also been unearthed. Many other rounded rocks showing much abrasion have been found and are not indigenous to the site. These were most likely used in a pebble mill -- a rotating, tumbling cylinder for smashing and grinding rock and frits.

Fig. 12 
Partially melted frit on dome of teapot.

A mortgage was taken out by S.P. Co. in 1859 to secure a $9,000 loan pledging their property and improvements as collateral including clay bed, slip house, kiln house, steam engine, machinery, molds and completed ware. The steam engine would have been fired from the large reserves of wood kept on hand to stoke the kiln and was invaluable in mixing and grinding operations. Glaze variations in the teapots are so profound, it is hard to find any two alike. Colors, though basically brown or white, are dependent largely on the color of the clay body. The uncontrollable factors in firing produce numerous variants in color. Pink, oatmeal, rust, rose, lavender, green and salmon must be used in describing the white and brown variants. It is not unusual to see blistering in the glaze. Blistering occurs when the glaze is overly-stiff and doesn't smooth out properly, trapping many bubbles. These bubbles, though clear, trap light from the ultraviolet spectrum, giving an eerie, frosted opacity to portions of the insulator. (Fig. 13) One insulator, intended to be brown, is best described as blue-gray due to this effect.

Fig. 13 
Block half exhibiting blistering.

Teapot sherds have been recovered which closely resemble the famous "Rockingham Glaze" developed by Christopher Weber Fenton at his pottery in Bennington, Vermont. (As further research progresses, other Bennington connections to S.P. Co. are coming to light.) All glazed teapots have no firing ring or rest. They were glazed top and bottom and dependent on a bat wash of refractory clay to keep them from sticking to shelves.

The U-989 "Milk Bottle"

The U-989 is now known to have been produced by S.P.Co. exclusively. The unique tapering form, overall dimensions and white glaze closely approximate the rounded type glass milk bottles of days gone by, lending itself nicely to this nickname. (Fig. 6) The number of U-989s in collections, or known to exist, is one! This undoubtedly makes the milk bottle one of the rarest known insulators. A very small number of partials and sherds were recovered at the dump site, indicating this insulator was either produced in very limited numbers, or it was put into production shortly before the destruction of S.P.Co. 

The clay bodies of the milk bottles vary from terra cotta to a white porcelain. The only glaze color found was white. Partial fragments of the recovered milk bottles indicate the typical discontinuity of the other types of thick pottery insulators produced by S.P. Co., most often shrinkage-cracking along the slip line during bisque, or initial, firing. The white glaze has very little gloss and is very thin, which may have been the reason they were rejected. 

Measurable differences in overall height, diameter and interior curvature of the skirt were noted. Typical dimensions are 6" high by 4" wide, making this the tallest threadless insulator. The deep U-shaped, 1" diameter saddle at the top of the insulator has two unique 3/8" x 3/8" appendages on each "ear." Centered on the appendages, a shallow wire groove extends circumferentially around both ears. 

Perhaps the most unique feature of the U-989 milk bottle is the 1/4" wide by 1/8" deep keyway cut the entire length of the pinhole! (Fig. 14) Upon reaching the top of the pinhole, it then makes a right angle turn counterclockwise for half of the pinhole circumference. Though this would seem to indicate a machined or precise steel pin was used on this insulator, the large pinhole size (1-1/4" diameter) would make the use of steel pins seem absurd. The specialized pin mounted in the crossarm would not become as critical to the final orientation of the saddle once the insulator was turned clockwise, "locking" it on the pin, since the conductor was tied to only one "ear" at a time. The keyways were "cut" in while the clay was still pliable, as evidenced by the continuous, raised burr of clay at the edges of the keyway. No patent -- U.S. or Confederate -- has been found regarding this strange configuration. 

Fig. 14
Keyway in pinhole of a U-989.

As with all S.P.Co insulators, glazing is continuous, covering all of the insulator top and bottom, with no unglazed firing ring or surface typical of other ceramic insulators. Adhesion to kiln shelves and furniture was avoided by a thick, bat wash of refractory clay. We found no markings of any type on the U-989s. Small stilts left indentations on the top flat surfaces of the "ears," indicating that it helped to support another layer of insulators or other ware.

Pottery Blocks

Whole, unglazed block-type insulators, as well as glazed partials, were uncovered at the dump site. These are similar in shape and size to the CD 1000 glass blocks. It appears the blocks were constructed of four individually-molded pieces! (Fig. 15) The pieces were joined by brushing on slip. Many pieces which split apart on the seam or slip-line exhibit even striations or brush marks on the interior faces. Each block is unique in shape due to the pressures involved in hand-joining the pliable pieces. 

After assembly, the blocks were heavily sponged or brushed to remove most of the raised seams. Some of the oblique tabs on the wire slit were re-trimmed after the cleaning. Many fingerprints from handling were found. 

While overall dimensions vary slightly, blocks measured 3" x 1-1/2" x 2". The major cause of rejection of unglazed blocks was due to the oblique wire-slot tabs being too close or too far apart. Terra cotta, dark magenta, buff and china-clay bodies were used in fabricating the blocks. Block sherds were found with straw, gray, rust, brown and transparent glazes. 

Fig. 15
Whole and quarter piece blocks.

A sharp knife was used to make the mysterious single slash, double slash and X-marks on many blocks. Several were found with crude backward embossing, where the company's abbreviation had been carved in the mold face: 

Fig. 16 
Block half with backward embossing.


In addition to the incuse mark of a shield, bearing the words "S.P. Company Kaolin, S.C." -- a mark which is found on the U-990 teapots and some china -- there are three other marks appearing on porcelain tableware. (Fig. 7) The first is an incuse eagle, grasping a bundle of arrows, with the words "S.P. Company Kaolin" appearing above the eagle, and "S.C." below the eagle -- all enclosed within a shield. The second mark has a similar incuse eagle and arrows with "S.P. Company" above the eagle, and "Kaolin, S.C." below. This is contained within a loose diamond-shape, formed by a series of short, opposite-curving lines. The third mark is the incuse block letters "S P" over "M", with the letters "SC" appearing below the "M". 

These, along with previously stated slashes and Xs, show at least nine different ways the wares were identified in the eight years the company was in business. One source states that S.P. Co. was restarted and operated for several years after the devastating fire of 1864, however, the author has been unable to find evidence of this.

Then and Now

Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Co. was a major pre-industrial facility in the southeastern United States. The innovative, pioneering use of large-scale slip casting had few peers at the time. The kaolin was dug with shovels and hauled by mules and wagons. The large kiln was fired with copious amounts of the resinous longleaf pine indigenous to the area. Though lower in BTUs than hardwoods, pine released them faster, enabling the stoker to reach the high temperatures required for the vitrification of porcelain. 

The backbreaking labor required for all aspects of production -- with the benefit of little or no technology -- is awe-inspiring. To know that these tasks fell upon an enslaved people is heartbreaking. Small fingerprints and fingernail impressions found on some pieces indicate that children may have been used to some extent. 

Southern Porcelain Co. insulators have been described as "crude pottery-type insulators," when, in fact, nothing is further from the truth. It is doubtful that many insulators have the amount of hand-craftsmanship these insulators share. Each is unique and more like a sculpture or an art object. 

The dump site, located a short drive from the destroyed works, has seen extensive damage from earth-moving equipment over the years. The strata of sherds was re-spread over an area averaging one-foot in depth, making recovery of artifacts relatively easy. (Fig. 17) Through cataloguing the thousands of recovered sherds and artifacts, important information will be recorded about this littIe known industry, shedding light, at long last, on the mystery which has, for years, shrouded the existence of Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Co. (Fig. 18 and Fig. 19)

Fig. 17 
Recovered insulator sherds.

Fig. 18 
Close up of clamshell handle.

Fig. 19 
Close up of relief cast face.

An eerie silence hangs over the site, broken occasionally by the raucous shriek of a blue jay. Shafts of golden sunlight dapple the forest floor, glinting off snow-white china fragments. Winds whisper in waves of sighs through the tops of tall pines. A fitting monument to those who toiled so hard in serving their homeland or their master at Kaolin, South Carolina.

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