Exceptionally ornate and rare Morton water cooler on the block

Estimated to be worth between $15,000 and $18,000, this water cooler is one of only two known examples.


This extremely rare water cooler by potter Justus Morton, circa early 1850s, is one of only two known examples. The other one is in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Justus Morton (1801-1859) was a well-respected American potter when he left Lyons, New York to come to Brantford, Ontario to set up his stoneware business in 1849. Morton was one of the first stoneware potters in Canada West and according to a 2018 story in the Brantford Expositor, by 1851 he was operating the only stoneware factory in Canada.

This spectacular piece stands 16.5 inches tall and has a 12-inch diameter (roughly 42 by 30 cm). It is elaborately decorated with applied figures – something that significantly adds to both its appeal and its rarity.

“This was a utilitarian piece when it was made, yet it’s so lavishly decorated,” points out Moe Johnson, a long-time Canadian collector who is currently working on a new book entitled The Potter’s Reach. “Why would they take the time to do that is the question?”

The large applied figure on the front of the cooler appears to be a man wrestling two lions, which have fish-like heads, according to Mr. Johnson. But he admits the figures “are tough to decipher”.  On the upper left is what looks like a man smoking a pipe, and the upper right a woman taking snuff. There are multiple applied figures all around the cooler, some harder to identify than others. That’s why Mr. Johnson intends to enlist the expertise of biblical, classical Greek or Roman scholars during his research, hoping they might recognize the figures and know what they symbolize.

“This is an important piece because it describes a way of life in the 1800s, it embodies the itinerant potter, and the applied motifs make it very rare and very interesting,” he adds.

By 1853, Morton was employing six men and producing $8,000 worth of pottery a year at his Brantford business. And he was good at it. According to the Brant Historical Society, Morton was awarded a first and second prize for “the best specimen of pottery” at the 1852 Provincial Exhibition.

Morton’s stoneware was more durable, and more expensive to produce than the more common earthenware made by other potters, which was weaker and more porous. Morton’s hard and impermeable stoneware was made from a special clay with a high kaolin and silica content. It had to be imported from Amboy, New Jersey since at the time there was none available in Canada. It was shipped to Brantford by boat across Lake Erie to the Grand River and its canal system, which had been opened up and was then operated by the Grand River Navigation Company. This increased Morton’s production costs significantly.

His pieces were salt-glazed, which involved literally throwing rock salt into the hot kiln, which then vitrified, or essentially melted into a glass-like glaze. This was considered preferable and healthier than some of the lead glazes often used by other potters, who even then were becoming aware of the health risks associated with lead.

The water cooler is hand stamped ‘MORTON & Co.’ and ‘Brantford, C.W.’ (which stands for Canada West).

At the time of his Brantford business, Morton was considered “industrially minded,” according to the book Early Canadian Pottery by Donald Webster, since he was among those “who brought the factory system into the Ontario craft-pottery scene and who both introduced new materials and particularly new production methods.”

But it wasn’t just Morton’s experience and keen business sense that set him apart from other potters. Lavish, applied decorations like the ones on this water cooler pre-date embellishments more commonly associated with the decorative art pottery of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This, says Mr. Johnson, is what makes this water cooler such an exceptional piece and why it’s so exciting to see it offered at public auction.

“It’s early and it’s rare with this artistic application,” he says. “You don’t see such prolific decorations on any other utilitarian pottery.”

Author - Diane Sewell

Item Estimate: $15,000 - 18,000

Lot Number: 234

Auction Details: Canadiana & Historic Objects - February 9, 2019. 10 am.

Live Auction Location: 59 Webster St. New Hamburg, Ontario. N3A 1W8

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