Garden pots as well as vases appear early in the records of the 18th century British American colonies. At Bacon's Castle inn the 1728 inventory of Arthur Allen in Surry County, Virginia, clerks recorded "2 flower potts and 2 watring potts." In 1736, another Virginian John Custis recorded in his letterbook, "6 flower pots painted green to stand in chimney to put flowers in the summer time with 2 handles to each pot."
Early depictions of flower pots in colonial American paintings were large, sculptural urns, wooden planting pots & tubs, and vases. These types of pots were often used to grow garden plants. Garden pots, large & small, were usually made of clay & earthenware and often left unglazed. Most small pots had simple decoration, often in the shape of the rim. Larger pots & urns intended to contain plants were sometimes more decorated and stylized. Large urns meant to contain plants could be made of brass, lead, marble, stone, & stucco. During the 18th century, European garden writers suggested their use in groves, parterres, and at the end of walkways & vista views. In colonial American paintings, artists place them indoors & on porticos in portraits. Few landscape paintings were produced in British colonial America.
Much later in the century in 1789, at the Woodlands near Philadelphia, as he began to collect exotic plant specimens owner William Hamilton instructed, "Hilton should mark immediately on the pot of each transplanted exotic...all exotics should be arranged according to their sizes in the way I directed particularly the pots on the shelves...in a warm situation screen'd from the noon day sun & gently watered every two or three days...no soul should be allowed in the pot & Tub enclosure."
In 1790, Thomas Jefferson also described planting seeds from an exotic specimen plant from the East Indies, which he sowed, "a few seeds in earthen pots. It is a most precious thing if we can save it."
Annapolis, Maryland silversmith William Faris kept his pots outdoors in the summer and moved them in for the winter months. In 1792, he noted in his diary, "I moved the Potts into the seller for the Winter"
Grant Thornburn wrote of painting pots in 1801, which lead to his flourishing New York seed business, "About this time the ladies in New York were beginning to shew their taste for flowers; and it was customary to sell the empty flower pots in the grocery stores; these articles also comprised part of my stock...
"In the fall of the year, when the plants wanted shifting prepatory to their being placed in the parlour, I was often asked for pots of a handsome quality, or better made...
"I was looking for some other means to support my family. All at once it came into my mind to take and paint some of my common flower-pots with green varnish paint, thinking it would better suit the taste of the ladies than the common brick-bat colored ones.
"I painted two pair, and exposed them in front of my window. I remember, just as I had placed the two pair of pots in front of my window on the outside, I was standing on the sidewalk, admiring their appearance, a carriage came along, having the glasses let down, and one lady only in the carriage. As the carriage passed my shop, her eye lit on the pots; she put her head out at the windown, and looked back, as far as she could see, on the pots...
"They soon drew attention, and were sold. I painted six pair; they soon went the same way. Being thus encouraged, I continued painting and selling to good advantage. These two pots were links of a chain by which Providence was leading me into my present extensive seed-establishment...
"One day, in the month of April following, I observed a man for the first time selling flower-plants in the Fly market, which then stood in the foot of Maiden Lane. As I carelessly passed along, I took a leaf and rubbing it between my fingers and thumb asked him what was the name of it. He answered, a rose geranium. This, as far as I can recollect, was the first time that I ever heard that there was a geranium in the world; as before this, I had no taste for, nor paid any attention to, plants. I looked a few minutes at the plant, thought it had a pleasant smell, and thought it would look well if removed into one of my green flower pots, to stand on my counter to draw attention...I did not purchase this plant with the intention of selling it again, but merely to draw attention to my green pots, and let people see how well the pots looked when the plant was in them. Next day, some one fancied and purchased plant and pot."
In 1803, Rosalie Steir Clavert (1778–1821) wrote of her pots at Riversdale in Maryland, "I have arranged all the orange trees and geraniums in pots along the north wall of the house, where they make a very pretty effect, and the geraniums, being shaded, beat many more blossoms and are growing well."
Practical wooden planting boxes often replaced breakable large vases in both greenhouses and home settings in the Early Republic.
Pots, planting boxes & tubs, and vases appear in several American paintings of the period, accompanied by the eternal question of what is real and what is simply the artist's imagination.