Craftsmen In Clay

( Originally Published 1940 )

With carpentry and cabinetmaking, pottery-making was among the first crafts practiced on a wide scale in America. There is a natural logic to this, the logic of people who occupy their time and skill with necessities in a more or less natural succession of importance. American settlers arrived and built their houses. The importation of furniture on a large scale being impractical, they set about building it. Simultaneously with the need for houses and furniture arose the need for the utensils of everyday life, of which the products of the potter are among the most predominant. Again large scale importation was not immediately practical or desirable. By a curious irony, it was only after a fairly well established American potters' industry existed that importation loomed as a large factor, throwing the American potter into competition with European manufacturers.

In Colonial America every community of importance must have had its pottery. Yet the records of these enterprises are surprisingly meager. The town-clerks, diarists, and travelers of that day apparently felt that there was nothing worth noting about the mere existence of a pottery. To all intents and purposes we have little evidence, prior to 1684, except that they were there.

In 1684 a large pottery was founded by one Daniel Coxe, near Burlington, New Jersey. Coxe himself is not one of our early potters, however. So far as we know he may never have visited America. He was one of the "proprietors" of West New Jersey and organized his enterprise, strictly as a business proposition, from his London home.

An inventory of his properties tells us, in part, "I have erected a pottery att Burlington for white and chiney ware, a greate quantity to ye value of L1200 have been already made and vended in ye Country, neighbour Colonies and ye Islands of Barbados and Jamaica where they are in great request. I have two houses and kills with all necessary implements, diverse workemen and other servants."

The "chiney ware" may have been a good grade of saltglazed white earthenware but, as we shall understand later, was certainly not real chinaware, or porcelain. Coxe had trouble with his white ware. There is a record of a plant superintendent, Edward Randall, imported from England at some expense to handle this product. Randall was subsequently sued by Coxe for failure to produce the goods. He was defended by a potter named William Winn who testified that there was "noe Clay in the County that will make white ware." Of the actual prosperity of the Burlington pottery we have no record.

The early American pottery industry is characterized by the existence of large numbers of small enterprises scattered all over the colonies, with a heavy mortality rate among them. Success in any of our early manufacturing efforts, even such fundamental ones as pottery, was the exception. In our scanty records there was apparently no room for accounts of those who fell by the wayside.

By 1750 there was such recognition of the necessity for domestic manufactures for the general welfare of the colonies that public subsidy was not uncommon. Yet, as always, it was more often sought than granted. Two partners, Goussin Bonnin and George Anthony Morris, started a pottery in Philadelphia in 1769. In 1771 they hopefully sent specimens of their work to the Legislature observing that they "would not wish to aspire to the Presumption of dictating the Measure" of the Legislature's encouragement, "but with all Humility hint at the Manner." Unfortunately the hint was futile and the Philadelphia pottery failed in 1774.

New York was naturally a center of manufacture. Two of the earliest names in the records are those of John Remmey and William Crolius. These men are believed, by some, to have been partners. In any case a map was drawn by David Grim in 1813, purporting to show New York City as it was between 1742 and 1744. On this map, a group of buildings on Potter's Hill is labeled "Remmey and Crolius Pottery." Whether or not these buildings represented separate manufactories and Grim's notation was meant to imply that both the Remmey and Crolius potteries were here located is of little concern to us. Evidence clearly reveals a link, formal or otherwise.

The Grim map shows very distinctly, a short distance to the southeast of the other buildings, a "Corselius Pottery." As it happens, John Remmey and William Crolius married sisters by the name of Corselius and consequently were brothers-in-law. I. N. Phelps Stokes, in his Iconography of Manhattan Island, says: "The first stoneware kiln or furnace in the United States was built in this year 1730 in this city." He then quotes the noted potter, Clarkson Crolius, as saying, "It was first called Corselius Pottery, afterward Crolius Pottery . . ." In effect, William Crolius and John Remmey married the Corselius Pottery and afterward divided it.

John Remmey carried on his pottery until his death in 1762. His place was taken by John 2nd. He, in turn, took his own sons, Henry and John 3rd, into partnership in 1790, dying two years later. The two brothers remained in partnership for two more years after their father's death. In 1794 Henry left John and went into business independently. He subsequently left the potters' trade altogether. The last accounts of his activities indicate that, after a variety of enterprises, he fell upon evil days, ultimately fleeing the city to escape the consequences of the embezzlement of public funds.

The third John Remmey, however, maintained the old Pottery on Potter's Hill. He took a dignified part in the city government as became a noted scholar. He was Assistant Alderman of the Sixth Ward from 1817-1818. (The same post, incidentally, was held by John Crolius, Jr., 1799-1800, and Clarkson Crolius, 1802-1805, apparently being something of a potter's prerogative.) He was one of the five members of the Committee on Arts and Sciences, 1817, and thus assisted at the rendering of many wise decisions. For example, ". . . . resolved that so large and growing a City as New York should not long remain without its latitude being accurately ascertained."

He never travelled, yet was the author of a scholarly book, Egypt As It Is. He owned one of the largest libraries in New York City, in his time, maintaining it as a lending library, at so much per annum for "Gentlemen and Ladies of Quality." He continued the active operation of the Remmey Pottery until 1831 some eight years before his death.

The Crolius family was prolific. The original William, who married Veronica Corselius, was in partnership for a time with his brother Peter. Peter was issueless. William, on the other hand, was followed in the stoneware craft by five more Williams, five Johns, one George, and two Clarksons, making fifteen Crolius potters in all.

The first Clarkson Crolius, grandson of William, became active in city politics. He served on a diversity of committees protesting elections, inspecting elections, etc. When he held office as Assistant Alderman of the Sixth Ward, however, he was scant in attendance at meetings.

His career in office hardly appears to have been notable. He sponsored "A law to prevent dogs from running at large." The measure was passed and soon revoked. In 1803 he was one of only two Assistant Aldermen favoring a revision of the City Charter. The conservatives of the Council were stern in their defense of the document. "It is perhaps inexpedient for the Common Council at this time to express any opinion of the motives of those who appear solicitous to obtain alterations in the charter or to animadvert upon the means which have been used and are now pursuing to accomplish their views."

Of course to advocate change in a charter is far from being necessarily suspect. On the other hand, whatever the merits of the particular case, the subsequent activities of Crolius hardly show him in an enviable light. In spite of his habitual absence from meetings he had a great desire to be re-elected to his office in i808. He had lost the confidence of his constituents and exercised considerable ingenuity trying to regain it. An affidavit of the election states that ". . . . while the Inspectors were engaged in the manner above stated (counting the votes) they were interrupted by a person of the name of John A. Crolius who proposed to them a different mode of counting." And in addition to John's proposal, whatever it may have been, ". . . . Mr. Leonard Seaman one of the Inspectors (related to Crolius by marriage) did make the proposition that said Inspectors should take each for himself a separate parcel of ballots and examine it." By means of these special systems of ballot-counting variously endorsed by Cousin John and his wife's relative Leonard Seaman, Clarkson Crolius was elected. But the election was held over again, and when tallied by more conventional methods was won by Crolius' opponent.

The second Clarkson succeeded his father, and Crolius Pottery continued to be made far into the 19th century. Both the Remmeys and the Crolius made stoneware, usually of a light grey or tan color, salt glazed, and decorated with flowers and formal patterns in cobalt blue. It was extremely hard and sturdy and may be taken as representative of the best in early American stoneware.

Other New York potters were Dirick Benson, John Eutatse, Henry Bensing, Jonathan Durrell, and Thomas Campbell. Probably no other colony supported so many, but there are records of potters at Salem, Peabody, Braintree, Weston, and Boston, in Massachusetts; one in Litchfield, Connecticut; one somewhere in South Carolina; one each in Huntington, Long Island, and East Greenwich, Rhode Island. There were others in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, Pennsylvania. These, in addition to those already mentioned in more detail.




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