Exploring The Fall River Line Interiors: Intro to Ceramics

ART – Study the interior design of the Fall River Line steamships and learn soft slab construction for ceramics.

Sheet music cover, On the Old Fall River Line, 1913.

The Fall River Line (1847 – 1937) was a combination steamboat and railroad connection between New York City and Boston. It consisted of a railroad journey between Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts, where passengers would then board steamboats for the journey through Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound to the line’s own Hudson River dock in Manhattan. The Fall River Line was a night line that carried hundreds of thousands of passengers yearly with a stop at Newport in each direction. For many years, passengers preferred this route for travel between the two major cities. The line was extremely popular, and regarded as having the most advanced and luxurious steamboats of the day.

From 1847 to 1937, the steamships of the famed Fall River Line were important employers for large numbers of black service workers, who filled the positions of waiters, cooks, bartenders, and porters, among others. The pages of the Fall River Line Journal regularly showed photographs of black crew members. 

Fall River Line steamer Priscilla docked at Newport, Rhode Island.

The steamboats of the Fall River Line were in fact the major employers of Newport’s black service workers throughout the period. These steamers were more than mere functional vehicles. They provided luxurious, hotel-like accommodations for their passengers. … As ‘floating hotels,’ the steamboats required the same kind of workers, with the exception of their nautical crews, as did conventional hotels. African Americans filled these slots. In Priscilla of Fall River, a historical novel depicting life aboard the steamboat Priscilla, first launched in 1894, the author described a boarding scene: ‘Scores of blue-uniformed, white-gloved, negro porters were lined up in orderly array to assist the several hundred travelers with their baggage.’ The pages of the Fall River Line Journal regularly showed photographs of black crew members. Erick Taylor, a white native Newport, concurred with this impression of black-run steamers. He recalled: ‘A great industry for black people … in Newport was the New York boats. They were the pursers and the workers on the boats. They’d be all the carriers and porters and things like that. And they’d be the waiters in the dining room. The waiters were very well paid. In addition to be being waiters and being paid for that, they also were helping them load and do other things. The New York boats were frankly directed by black people … The captains were always white people, but they [the blacks] would actually run the boat. They’d have three hundred or four hundred people on the boat and they had to feed and wash them, as it were.’

Myra Beth Young Armstrong, in her book Lord, Please Don’t Take Me in August: African Americans in Newport and Saratoga Springs, 1870-1930

Soft Slab Construction – Ceramics 1

Enduring Understandings:

Artists get inspiration from many sources. Art is a personal or individual response to their environment. Creative expression allows an artist to express a personal response to inner and external prompts, think “outside the box,” and express our deeper concerns.

Historical Understanding:

Students will understand the meaning, implications, and importance of historical events, while recognizing the contingency and unpredictability of history — how events could have taken other directions — by studying past ideas as they were thought, and past events as they were lived, by people of the time.

Priscilla dining room, SSHSA Archives.

Essential Question:

  1. How can learning about the design and aesthetics of The Fall River Line promote thinking and insight into the lifestyle of a local person during that time period?
  2. How does the manipulation of clay techniques & tools foster creative expression?
  3. How can the use of soft slab construction emulate the design inspired by The Fall River Line?
Priscilla‘s Purser’s Office, John F. Murphy, news agent for the Fall River Company – Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line, 1896 company promotional book.

Intro to Ceramic Hand building skill: Using Slabs

Slabs can be used to make the most basic of forms as well as highly complex forms and structures. Soft slab building is the most efficient method for creating uniform straight vertical walls. The use of slabs during the cylinder method is sometimes cumbersome and usually requires some type of form to place the slab of clay on for shaping. Once the basic cylinder is formed, using the demonstrated method and steps, students may finish the piece by using any of the illustrated techniques: add elements to the surface, roll texture into the clay, carve designs, stamp, or cut out negative spaces and finally glazing.

These surface additions will be planned out and devised from their research of The Fall River Line steamships. Students will replicate the textures and patterns found in the interiors of the local steamship line. They will then press into slabs using found objects that closely resemble what the steamships had on hand during that historical time period. After students bisque their work they will also choose glaze decisions based on the color palette also inspired by the interiors of the steamships.

Learning outcomes:

Students will:

  • Explore and investigate the local history of the Fall River Line Steamship company
  • Experiment with taking textures and images from the design aesthetic on the Fall River Line interiors of a specific steamship, Priscilla and replicating the patterns and motifs into a soft slab.
  • Demonstrate individual knowledge of the unique characteristics of soft slab hand building method
  • Demonstrate skillful craftsmanship in the use of 3D clay media, tools, equipment, glaze materials and techniques
  • Demonstrate the ability to critique their own work and the works of peers, participates in discussions, and respond to criticism and inquiries using appropriate vocabulary and terminology
  • Demonstrate the ability to conceptualize, organize and complete the assignment independently and on time
  • Create an original form using the soft slab method and incorporate one or more of the illustrated surface designs inspired by the Fall River Line interiors to the finished piece.
  • Responsibility-personal accountability, arrives on time for school/classes with required materials, demonstrates respectful behavior as designated in student handbook, takes responsibility for actions

Soft Slab/ Cylinder Activity

  • Introduce Slab Hand-Building Method, soft and stiff slabs
  • Discuss and examine soft slab cylinder forms
  • Introduce the Fall River Line steamships and website
  • Explore the patterns/motifs/bas reliefs and designs found on the steamship Priscilla.
  • Show and discuss various levels of successful student examples
  • Introduce lesson criteria and Fall River Line Ceramics Rubric
  • Watch and listen to demonstration on entire cylinder slab building method including the use of the slab roller
  • Consider desired personal outcomes – design, function, surface quality, keeping the aesthetic of the Fall River Line in mind
  • Experiment with texture and other surface enhancement techniques demonstrated
  • Create design plan (sketch), share with teacher
  • Select appropriate size form and wrap with paper (do not tape paper to form)
  • Create a paper template of exact slab length + 1/2 “ and desired height
  • Prepare clay material, tools and workspace (the condition of the clay is a crucial consideration).
  • Cut slab using template, ruler and knife tool
  • Add any desired texture, trim again as needed
  • Place form on slab and lift slab (and paper below) to roll around form
  • Score and slurry seam
  • Place cylinder walls on base slab and trace outline with any marking tool
  • Cut out base carefully remember to keep cutting tool perfectly perpendicular to table (at a 90% angle)
  • Remove form (don’t create a vacuum)
  • Score and slurry base
  • Finish as desired: add any additional texture elements to the surface, handles, lids, designs, more stamps, carve or cut out negative spaces to illuminate etc
  • Label work
  • Glaze once bisque fired
  • Participate in class critique of finished slab cylinders

  Respond in writing to the following questions:

  1. Look up some other overnight steamships from this time period. How do the interior designs of the Fall River Line compare?
  2. What can you learn about life in 1931 from the Fall River Line Journal?
  3. What class of people do you think the Fall River Line appealed to and why?

Click through the images from Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line, 1896 below to view the interiors of the steamships. Or flip through the entire digitized book here.

Click here to download a pdf of this Fall River Line brochure.

Click here to download the pdf of the Fall River Line Journal.

Additional Resources

Fall River Line Had A Style All Its Own.

Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Fall River Line,” The New Yorker, 1931.

Learn more about the interior design of ocean liners.

Education Standards

Massachusetts Visual Arts Frameworks

1.9       Demonstrate the ability to create 2D and 3D works that show knowledge of unique characteristics of particular media, materials, and tools

1.10     Use electronic technology for reference and for creating original work

2.15     Create artwork that demonstrates understanding of the elements and principles of design in establishing a point of view, a sense of space, or a mood

3.10     Create 2D and 3D images that are original, convey a distinct point of view, and communicate ideas

4.9       Demonstrate the ability to conceptualize, organize, and complete long-term projects, alone and in group settings

4.10     Demonstrate the ability to develop an idea through multiple stages, responding to criticism and self-assessment

4.15     Demonstrate the ability to draw from other disciplines in the creation of a body of work

5.9       Use published sources, either traditional or electronic, to research a body of work or an artist, and present findings in written or oral form

5.10     Critique their own work, the work of peers, and the work of professional artists, and demonstrate an understanding of the formal, cultural, and historical contexts of the work

6.5       Interpret the meanings of artistic works based on evidence from artists’ biographies, autobiographies, or videotaped or written interviews

7.8       Analyze how the arts and artists were portrayed in the past by analyzing primary sources from historical periods

7.10     Describe the roles of government, philanthropy, arts institutions, critics, and the publishing, recording, and tourism industries in supporting the arts and historic preservation, and in creating markets for the arts. For example, band members investigate music cop

8.8       Identify the stylistic features of a given work and explain how they relate to aesthetic tradition and historical or cultural contexts

8.10     Identify variants within the style of a particular time period, and describe the advantages and limitations of using the concept of style to describe and analyze the work of a particular period or culture

10.4     Continue the above and integrate knowledge from various disciplines and cultural resources

National Core Arts Standards

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