Ceramics Class Provides Trip Back to Industrial Revolution

October 9, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson

Emily Allison, '18, works with her Toby Jug in her "Ceramics in the Industrial Revolution" Honors class. Professor Lynne Chytilo speaks to the class in the background.
Emily Allison, '18, works on a Toby Jug in her "Ceramics in the Industrial Revolution" Honors class. Professor Lynne Chytilo speaks to the class in the background.

There is more to Lynne Chytilo's honors ceramics class than meets the eye.

"I don't think anywhere in the world is there a class like this," said the Albion College art professor who specializes in ceramics and sculpture.

And she may only be partially kidding.

The class, formally known as "Ceramics and the Industrial Revolution" and part of the College's Great Issues curriculum in the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program, is more than just making items from clay. Chytilo, who has offered the class only one other time (in Spring 2012), is using it as a pathway to learn about so much more.

"The students are having a blast," she said. "In addition to art, they're learning about chemistry, geology and physics."

And they're also learning about history—specifically the era from mid-18th-century England where the Industrial Revolution was born and, eventually, made its way to the United States.

Her research on the subject took her to England and led her in directions she never expected to go in terms of the significance of ceramics in the daily lives of the growing middle class in England.

"I found it fascinating and I thought that if I did that students would find it interesting," Chytilo said.

She offered the class three years ago to 14 students and this fall it has attracted a group of 16, only some of whom have a ceramics background.

Emily Allison, '18, an English major from Pinckney, Michigan, is one who didn't.

"I haven't taken an art class since I was in middle school," she said as she put the finishing touches on her Toby Jug, a classic piece from that era. "I wanted to take the class and see what it was about. It's been neat learning the history and the process of making ceramics. The process has been really something different and it has me interested in maybe taking another art class."

And, in the end, that's always Chytilo's goal—to develop students' interest in art and, perhaps, show them more about a subject than they could have imagined.

"It was just an interesting time," Chytilo said of the era that saw ceramics grow not only artistically, but practically as it became part of everything from sanitation pipes to dishes and cups for everyday use.

Toby Jugs freshly painted by the class.
Toby Jugs freshly painted by the class.

It also gave rise to new pottery types such as Wedgwood, created by Josiah Wedgwood ("an evil genius," Chytlo said), and Spode, a type of china made of crushed cow bones and developed by another Englishman, Josiah Spode.

Both remain popular today.

Chytilo said that during an economic downturn in England in the 1780s, many potters moved to the United States, especially Ohio, to continue their work and help spread the Industrial Revolution to the fledgling nation.

"I told the students that taking this course adds meaning to watching Antiques Roadshow," she said.

The students are required to produce four projects during the semester—folk pottery (such as ceramic plates); the iconic Toby Jugs (cups which all resemble a pudgy old man reputed to always sit by the pub fire drinking); encaustic tiles which were used in 18th-century England to replace worn tiles of medieval cathedrals; and slipcasting, items made from molds.

Each student is also expected to give a presentation on how the Industrial Revolution impacted advances in their major.

"You don't hear much about ceramics when it comes to the Industrial Revolution, but it played a prominent part," Chytilo said.