Some of the best selling items in our antique shop are stoneware crocks. They seem to just embody that antique aesthetic, and it seems that they transcend place and time to be ever popular and ever useful. But many of our customers are surprised to learn about the history of crocks, and how they were actually used.
That’s why in this week’s blog post we decided to explore the story behind crocks, in hopes of sharing with you the fascinating history that can be found in every piece.
THE HISTORY BEHIND THE PIECES
Crocks played an important part in the day to day life of the typical Canadian household in the 1800s, and even up until the 1950s in many homes, including on Prince Edward Island(1). In fact, these sturdy, multi-purpose vessels were the predominant houseware of the era, and it seems that in those days, for every household need there was a crock built to suit the purpose.
As for why crocks rose to prominence over other vessels, such as glassware or enamelware, the answer lies in the inherent utility of the crock. They were safe to use, couldn’t be worn out, were far sturdier than glass or ceramic counterparts, were cheap and readily available, and offered a vast selection of utility.
COMMON TYPES OF CROCKS
There are several styles of crockery which are most commonly found on Prince Edward Island, those being the pickling crock, the jug, and the bean crock, and it is rather telling that these types were commonly used, for they reveal the utilitarian connection which Islanders had with these objects.
THE PICKLING CROCK
The pickling crock, identifiable by its wide, flat bottom, and smooth features, save for its tiny handles, was a staple in virtually every Island home during the late Victorian period. In era before refrigeration, electricity, or the convenience of grocery stores, Islanders were forced to rely on their own self-sufficiency, lest they face the perils of hunger or starvation.
In the absence of an abundance of food preservation options, pickling was seen as a life-saver for families and wives who sought to preserve their summer selection of fruits and vegetables from the garden for the long winter months, and as such a pickling crock was an indispensable item in the home. Salt, vinegar, water, spices, and prepared produced would be placed into the crock, ensuring that the pickles were entirely submerged, and then they would be sealed from the top using the lid of the crock. After that it was simply a waiting game; on average it takes about four weeks of pickling time for a 10-gallon crock, although this varies depending upon the desired taste of the finished product (2).
Crocks were ideal for this pickling purpose as they were readily available in such large sizes, and their dense, heavy construction kept the contents cool and well protected from the light, which helped to fend off mold and spoilage. Even today, when I go antique picking in basements of Island homes I often find crocks sitting on the basement steps or lining shelves, as good as they ever were, just waiting for someone to pick them up and put them to use once more.
Crock jugs are another one of the most common crocks found on Prince Edward Island, and for good reason. Just like their pickling cousins, it was the sheer utility of the stoneware jugs which led to their ubiquity. In an era which predates mason jar and other common methods of storage, these jugs offered a standardized and convenient way to store and transport any variety of drinks and beverages. And whilst it is the image of a mountain man drinking moonshine which most readily springs to mind when we imagine these jugs, their contents ran the gamut of not only spirits but water, sodas, tonics, and medicines as well.
Another typical site in an Island home in those days was that of the humble bean crock. Perhaps less glamorous than some of its grander cousins, the bean crock provided day-to-day utility in such a way that earned it a welcome place in the kitchen cupboards, and it was never far from the stove top. The thick and sturdy nature of the crock was enough on its own to earn its reputation as a wive’s trusted aid, but it was the curvature and design of the bean crock which really proved its mettle. The design of the crock was such that as the beans within simmered and boiled, any overflowing water would rise up, ride the curve of the crock, and settle back into the beans, thus ensuring the beans remained moist and well cooked. It is a design which has yet to be bettered, to this day, and in fact the Evergreen Cafe, located in Souris, recently purchased several of our bean crocks to use in the making of their famous chili.
GINGER BEER BOTTLES
And while these three types listed above are among the most common, we would be remiss if we were to neglect to mention another very popular type of stoneware, one which is greatly becoming a scarcity, even amongst antique collectors, namely the ginger beer bottle. Just like many storage vessels in those days, ginger beer bottles (ginger beer being something akin to a cross between weak beer and soda) were made from stoneware. But unlike crocks, which were purchased and handled with the intention of consistent use and re-use, ginger beer bottles were seen as disposable and dispensable, and as such were commonly broken or tossed away after use. Owing to this fact, ginger beer bottles are becoming increasingly rare and sought after. Of those still available, the Ferris and Frederickson bottles, of Charlottetown, selling for upwards of $2 000, are the rarest, followed after by G. H. Simmons, also of Charlottetown, which sell for well over $1 000.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING CROCKS
Crocks were made in a staggering array of shapes, sizes, and decorations, and as such it can often be difficult to know what you are getting, and whether it is a good deal. In order to help you to know what to look for and what to avoid, we have created the following checklist:
DISPLAYING YOUR CROCKS
Once you have found a crock that you can’t do without, many people are pressed to find a place for them in their home. Fortunately, just as in the past when crocks offered a multitude of practical and decorative uses, the same holds true today.
You can’t go wrong using your crocks to line a shelving unit or kitchen cabinet, and they do wonders to decorate the space above the cupboards, especially in a country kitchen style. More practically speaking, pickling crocks offer a handy place on the countertop to store rolling pins, spatulas, and other kitchen utensils.
For crocks with larger gallonage, pieces may rest on the floor beside the porch or front doorway, and can be filled with birch cuttings and hardwood sprigs to create a vibrant decoration which changes with seasons. For smaller crocks, a table top setting offers a refined charm, and these crocks can be topped with fresh wildflowers for an old fashioned look.
If you are interested in learning more about crocks, exploring Island history through the stories behind the stuff, or in purchasing a crock of your own, visit at The Phoenix: Antiques and Oddities in St. Peter’s Bay, Prince Edward Island.