|By Larry LeMasters
Beginning in Colonial America, potteries specialized in utilitarian earthenware, redware, and stoneware pieces primarily for local use. Individual potters and different geographical regions of America had their own styles, allowing various regions to become famous for their ceramic wares. One such area was Galena, Ill., which supported many small family potteries, whose wares are collectively referred to as Galena Pottery.
The city of Galena is named for the natural mineral of the same name that is the leading ore of lead. In the 1800s, Galena was a prosperous lead mining region as well as the industrial and cultural center of western Illinois along the Mississippi River. One by product of the lead ore found here was the lead glazed, soft-paste redware made in and around Galena.
Galena Pottery is the name given to the numerous potteries found in Galena and the surrounding towns of Cranes Grove, Dunleith, Eleroy, Elizabeth, and Freeport. Some of the potters that make up Galena Pottery lived in the border towns of Iowa and Wisconsin, within a few miles of Galena. These potteries are noted for the red clay, found in abundant deposits throughout the area. The redness of the clay is exposed on the bottom and unglazed areas of early Galena pieces. This area of Illinois is also well known for its plain, lead glazed, porous earthen redware with light pumpkin orange coloring.
Many Galena pieces were finished with cream or yellow slip on the upper half of the jugs, crocks, or pots. And nearly all Galena pots and jars have applied handles. Orange iron ore and yellow glaze spotting (known as “moons”) along with brown manganese spots and well-turned rims give Galena Pottery a beauty that is truly unique in America.
In the 1840s, salt-glazed stoneware replaced redware production around Galena as more and more consumers demanded durable salt-glazed stoneware, which was far more impervious to liquids and reacted less to acidic foods. Salt-glazed Galena pieces were often given a light brown interior that was commonly called “Albany Slip” since salt glaze was applied in a gaseous form and could not penetrate into the interior of vessels.
The 1890 pottery production in and around Galena had slowed and by 1900 nearly all pottery production had ceased.
Collectors love Galena Pottery because its potters threw (using typical, for the era, potter’s kick wheels) and offered for sale all necessary utilitarian stoneware for kitchen or home, including milk pans, crocks, chimney pots, pitchers, tiles, butter jars, preserve jars, bottles, jugs, and flower pots. Some Galena potters produced poodle dogs with common appearances that suggest the same mold might have been used for all of the dogs. These dogs are rare and have dark brown splattered glaze with yellow slip. When one of the Galena Pottery dogs is auctioned, it brings close to $4,000.
Unfortunately for collectors, Galena Pottery items are somewhat rare, forcing prices to climb higher and higher for quality pieces. The average low range for Galena pottery is $350-$500, and the high range often $1,500, occasionally climbing to $2,000.
The History of American Pottery by Rhusain (www.streetdirectory.com) explains, “They [Galena Pottery] made useful everyday wares that served their purpose, were broken and discarded, and there was no particular reason to treasure them.”
Examples of the rising prices of late 19th century Galena Pottery stoneware have been found at most ceramic auctions for the past 10 to 15 years. In 2017, two Galena Pottery jugs from the late 1800s with applied strap handles and yellow glaze spots or “moons” sold at auction for $4,680. The estimate on these two jugs was $350-500, indicating to all collectors that the realized prices have outpaced market values, which makes it difficult to accurately price them. This is not a lone example. At most auctions, Galena wares are selling for as much as five times their estimated value, which makes today’s prices definitely a seller’s market.