Holding Patterns

Appraiser John Bottero reveals the history behind a 19th-century pantry staple whose signature look is synonymous with quality and Maine’s largest city. 

E. Swasey & Co. stoneware
Bean pots, jugs, a handled storage jar, and a crock — some with numbers indicating their capacity in quarts or gallons — form the base of this collection. Rarer items, including a liquor jug, teapots, and an early pitcher are up top. Photograph by Adam DeTour.

Before refrigerators became commonplace in American kitchens in the 1920s, foods such as butter, salted meats, and pickled vegetables were kept in crocks made of durable, non-porous, glazed stoneware. Stoneware jugs held liquids like vinegar and molasses, which people decanted from barrels at the store. And businesses like Portland’s E. Swasey & Co. made it possible to unify your entire pottery collection.

In 1890, Eben Swasey began manufacturing his vessels in a brick warehouse on Commercial Street that still bears his company’s name. Having previously founded the Portland Earthenware Manufactory with partner Rufus Lamson, Swasey honed what would become his products’ signature look after striking out on his own. Brown-over-cream-colored crocks, jugs, bean pots, and oyster jars emblazoned with the block-print Swasey name filled pantries across the country. Today, these common pieces can be unearthed for $10 to $100 at antiques stores and auctions. Lesser known to collectors — and often garnering a higher price — are items the company produced that did not bear its name, such as teapots, children’s play pots, and liquor bottles made for distilleries as far away as Europe. The rarest pieces, featuring an earlier cursive Swasey logo with a pine tree, may fetch as much as $1,000. The crown jewel of this collection? A one-of-a-kind floral teapot reportedly presented by employees of the company — which fell victim to the Great Depression in 1935 — to Swasey’s wife, Anna.

John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.