The Career, Research And Collection Of Frederick H. Norton

August 9, 2019

While visiting a house in East Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod during Memorial Day weekend in 2015, I purchased some pottery from Henry Bornhofft III. The pottery was once owned by Frederick H. Norton (1896-1986), a physicist and ceramics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass. But, Norton was also a relative of the famed Norton family of potters in New England. He was also a potter himself.
Bornhofft said that Norton was a friend of some members of his family, and each piece of pottery was marked on the base with a number, which corresponded with the same number in a book owned by Norton, identifying the object and how it was obtained.
One of the objects during the visit really stood out to me. I was told John Donovan made an orange glazed vase at the Moses Paige Pottery (1847/48-1941) in Peabody, Mass., in the 1920s. I later learned that the form of the lead glazed red earthenware vase matched an object in the collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., which is prominently stamped, “PEABODY POTTERY / 1736 / MADE BY / J.J. DONOVOAN / 1930.”
However, while Norton’s name may not be widely known today, in addition to leaving a legacy behind at MIT, he made contributions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as a contributor to the research of some well-known author’s publications.
Frederick H. Norton
Born in Manchester near Gloucester in Essex County, Mass., on Oct. 23, 1896, Frederick Harwood Norton was a relative of the Norton family of potters in Bennington, Vt., and Worcester, Mass. His parents were Charles and Frances Norton, and he was the eldest of six children. His father was a graduate of MIT, successful engineer, fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and professor of industrial physics and director of the Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research at MIT.
Frederick H. Norton also graduated from MIT with a degree in physics, and upon graduation in 1918 was hired as the first technical employee at NASA Langley, an aeronautical research facility in Hampton, Va. He became Ed Warner’s assistant and partner in technical projects, such as helping design Langley’s first wind tunnel. After Warner’s departure in 1920 to become a professor of aeronautics at MIT, Norton replaced him as the chief physicist.
While Norton was employed in Virginia, he authored more than 35 acclaimed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) technical reports. His special interest was the development of recording instruments for accurate measurements of aircrafts in flight. But he left Langley in 1923, changing his field of interest completely to become the head of the Ceramics Division and member of the Department of Metallurgy at MIT. Other family members would also follow in the family legacy at the school.
An aspect about the time that Norton arrived at MIT in the 1920s is the fact that he could visit some of the potteries still in existence, like the Dedham Pottery in Dedham, Mass.; Frank Lamson’s (1859-1936) Exeter Pottery Works in Exeter, N.H.; and even the Paige Pottery in Peabody, Mass.
Among the objects that he gifted to the MFA Boston were four pieces of lead glazed red earthenware made at the Paige Pottery: a vase, two jugs and a pitcher, three of which were marked by John Donovan (1851-1931), and I believe that Norton acquired all of these objects brand new from the pottery.
Overall, Norton gifted more than 200 pieces of glass and pottery to the MFA Boston in 1971. The list is long: pre-Columbian pottery, Native American pottery, Chinese export porcelain, tiles and vases from Chelsea Keramic Art Works, Low Art Tile Works, Dedham Pottery, Newcomb Pottery, Marblehead Pottery, Grueby Pottery, Merrimac Pottery, Norton stoneware from both Worcester and Bennington, various other stoneware makers, some New England red earthenware, some Baltimore pottery and many other objects. However, some of the pottery Norton owned was also considered modern for the period.
Norton may have also visited Russell Stahl’s (1911-86) pottery in Powder Valley, Pa., seeing that Stahl’s pottery is represented in the collection he gifted to the MFA. Russell was the third generation of Stahls to produce red earthenware on the family site, ceasing production altogether sometime about 1953. In fact, more-than 1,000 pieces of Russell’s pottery were sold onsite by Maurer’s Auctions in the summer of 1987. Living family members purchased much of the estate and formed the Stahl Pottery Preservation Society (SPPS).
I have found that Norton did not necessarily collect pottery for its aesthetic appeal. Rather, it was more likely used for his research, like an article he wrote for the winter 1975/76 issue of Studio Potter called “Clay: Why It Acts The Way It Does.” Norton portrayed the story as an attempt to simplify and describe the structure of clay and the reason why it acts the way it does when used in a pottery body.
His scholarship has been featured by other writers. Massachusetts author Lura Woodside Watkins (1897-1982) cited Norton’s research throughout “Early New England Potters and Their Wares.” That landmark book was published in 1950 and included Norton’s original research into the 19th-century Osborn family pottery in Gonic, N.H.
Interestingly, Watkins also wrote about the Paige Pottery in “Early New England Potters and Their Wares.” This business operated at the same location as the Osborns, who made red earthenware in Peabody from 1736 until the 1850s. But she did not illustrate or mention that she owned two marked pieces made by John Donovan at the business, now kept with her collection at the National Museum of American History. I suspect that Norton must have acquired a group of wares from the Peabody Pottery in the 1920s, consisting of the vase I purchased on Cape Cod, the four objects he gifted to the MFA and possibly the two pieces in the Watkins collection at the Smithsonian.
Although soon after Watkins’ book was released, Norton wrote a pottery book of his own that was published in 1956, titled “Ceramics for the Artist Potter,” some of which was perhaps based on information Norton learned from being a potter himself. In fact, it was reported that Norton had developed a superior terra-cotta clay by the mid-20th century. This superior clay is probably the same used on two large vases that I acquired from Bornhofft in 2015, both decorated with African animals. The MFA also owns a great collection of skillfully created earthenware made by Norton that is decorated in various vibrant colors, colors that any American art potter would have boasted about.
In some ways similar to the research that Professor Norton published at NASA Langley, he also wrote some academic and scholarship material about ceramics that was published through MIT. Much of this applied to being a studio potter and creating artistic and decorative pottery, which had become fashionable, especially by some potters in Europe and Japan. He also wrote about the Martin Crafts Pottery in Nashua, N.H., the Norton Pottery in Worcester, and the Exeter Pottery Works, among other subjects.
I learned about the whereabouts of a group of 19th-century earthenware billheads from businesses in West Sterling, Mass., and Dublin, N.H., also known as Chesham Village. These bills of receipt were all cited by Watkins in “Early New England Potters and Their Wares” and were just rediscovered in a collection of paperwork and books from Norton’s estate. A lot of Norton’s original research, manuscripts, photography, as well as writing and paperwork from the Norton potteries in Worcester and Bennington were also identified.
But aside from that, Norton contributed as an archeologist, as well. He recovered a great collection of artifacts that should be noted today from the original Dogtown settlement in Gloucester. The community was settled about 1693 and grew to more than 100 families and 60 to 80 homes by 1750 through the American Revolution. In the 20th century, Norton uncovered all sorts of artifacts around some of the settlement’s 18th-century foundations related to everyday life, including various types of red earthenware, some decorated with slip. Some of the pottery may have been made locally at a business owned by Daniel Bayley (1729-92) in the 1750s, but some of it may have been imported from elsewhere in Essex County or even the Colonial industry in Charlestown, Mass. The Sandy Bay Historical Society in Rockport, Mass., owns the Dogtown artifacts today.
Professor Norton’s Legacy
Frederick Norton’s name alone is easily recognizable today due to the manufacturing and creative success of the late 18th- and 19th-century potteries bearing his surname in Worcester and Bennington. But Norton should really be recognized for the remarkable pottery that he manufactured at MIT in the early 1900s. I am not sure how much of this pottery exists outside of the MFA, but the accomplished beautiful colored glazes are wonderful to see.
But equally as much, Norton was a brilliant physicist who applied and tested his gifted intelligence to the field of ceramics, especially studio pottery, and how physics yielded a better understanding of what was actually taking place within the makeup of clay, the forming of clay, and how this all reacted inside of the kiln.
There are many aspects of Norton’s life that intrigue me, especially learning the progression of his career, and how he had the opportunity to visit traditional working potteries in the 1920s and ’30s. He must have been thrilled to see how some of these businesses actually operated during the period. I would have loved to have spoken with Professor Norton and met the working-class potters who he interacted with in his lifetime.

Sources:

Chambers, Joseph R. “A Century of Langley.” Hampton, VA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2017.
Norton, Frank H. & V.J. Duplin, Jr. “The Osborn Pottery in Gonic, New Hampshire.” The Magazine Antiques, February 1931.
“ “ “Clay: Why It Acts The Way It Does.” Studio Potter, Winter 1975/76.
“ “ “Ceramics for the Artist Potter.” Boston: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1956.
Ring, Madelia Hickman. “Q&A Justin Thomas. Antiques & the Arts Weekly, November 23, 2018.
Watkins, Lura Woodside. “Early New England Potters and Their Wares.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.


 

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