Those who have kept up with my various updates have seen me comment on the remarkable life that Thomas Commeraw led; but Eve Kahn’s article in today’s paper is the first time I have spoken in any real detail about this man’s story. Sometime in 2003, a chance encounter with a census record embarked me on a quest that has more or less consumed the last eight years of my life. Since that time, I have gone a long way toward fleshing out the life of a man whose identity somehow slipped through the fingers of history. Someone who once burned a kiln with regularity near the beach of the East River, whose name was well-known throughout Manhattan and beyond–not only for the mark he left on thousands of pots, but for the mark he sought to leave on American (and world) history–essentially vanished for almost two centuries.My study of Commeraw has, naturally, taken me beyond the potter himself, into realms of American history that have little to do with stoneware–the story of people and places that populated the world in which Thomas Commeraw lived. One of these people was an oysterman named Daniel Johnson. In the fall of 2005, we sold two stoneware oyster jars clearly made by Commeraw, one of which was marked, “DANIEL / JOHNSON. AND Co No 24 / LUMBERSTREET / N. YORK.” A few years ago I set about to try to establish the identities of the few known people for whom Commeraw turned his ware. In so doing, I determined that Johnson, too, like so many New Yorkers ensconced in the oyster trade, was a free African American. We were privileged to be consigned another one of the oyster jars Commeraw made for Daniel Johnson, and it, along with the monumental Commeraw jug, will be sold on the 29th.
Thanks to everyone for taking interest in this remarkable story, and I look forward to sharing more of it with you soon, as I get closer to completing my long-labored-over book on the life and times of Thomas Commeraw.
There were far fewer stoneware manufactories than redware potteries in the United States. While now and then a farmer would build a kiln in his backyard and start making stoneware to supplement his income, the all-around investment in founding a stoneware operation was clearly more substantial than that required to start producing redware. This investment included a kiln capable of achieving and withstanding the higher temperatures needed to fire stoneware; a knowledge of the more complicated stoneware production process (including how to properly salt glaze); and procurement of proper stoneware clay, not as easily found as earthenware clay. In viewing their surviving works, it is often quite easy to tell which potters used clean stoneware clay obtained from a “reputable” source, and those that pulled it out of the backyard or otherwise dug it themselves. Redware, on the other hand, was comparatively easy to make. Good clay could, in fact, be frequently found in a potter’s backyard, or in a farmer’s field. The temperature the potter needed to reach in the kiln was several hundred degrees Fahrenheit below stoneware temperatures.
Because of this, rural redware potteries abounded in nineteenth century America. People who were primarily farmers but had been trained to throw on a wheel would, in fact, build a kiln on their property and sell their wares to their community and beyond. One such artisan was Philip Sipe, a York County, Pennsylvania, farmer born around the turn of the nineteenth century. The only contemporary document of Sipe’s career as a potter that I have ever seen is his impressed maker’s mark, found on one finely-made redware spittoon. In letters belonging to a bygone time, the potter stamped the bottom of the spittoon with a larger, more elaborate mark than that usually seen on American redware: “P. SiPE & SONS / LEWiSBERY / YORK Co PA.” But aside from the fact that a man named William Sipe was later a notable stoneware potter working in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the mid to late nineteenth century, I had never heard of Philip Sipe. Perhaps owing to what seems to have been Sipe’s insistence on calling himself a “Farmer,” people who have spent a lot of time researching central Pennsylvania redware potters have never heard of him, either.
Jeannette Lasansky, who wrote two great, concise books on both central Pennsylvania stoneware and redware (Made of Mud … and Central Pennsylvania Redware Pottery …) performed exhaustive work in her research of these redware potters. According to Lasansky, there were many potters working in the vicinity of Sipe’s pottery from at least the late 1810′s, but Philip Sipe was not one of them. In the 1850 census, again, many potters are listed in Lewisberry Borough (quite small at the time) and adjacent Newberry Township–the latter being the apparent actual, proper site of Sipe’s works. In that same census, Philip “Seip” is listed as a farmer, born in Pennsylvania around 1802; apparently a widower, his oldest family member was his son, William, also called a farmer.
But these men were just as adept at turning pots as they were at turning up fields. In the 1860 census, Sipe was still telling the census man that he was primarily a farmer, as was his close neighbor, John Knisely–an otherwise-documented redware potter whose son, Henry, was the only person on Sipe’s census page that year willing to call himself a potter. John Knisely’s potting career is noted in Lasansky’s Central Pennsylvania Redware …; it wasn’t until the 1870 census rolled around that he finally gave his occupation as “Potterer.” That the Kniselys were somehow involved with the Sipes and their heretofore forgotten pottery seems fairly evident.
One of these Sipes, the aforementioned William, was, in fact, the potter who made his way up the now-Route 11 and 15 corridor and was making stoneware by sometime in the 1860′s. Salt-glazed stoneware jars made in the predominant central Pennsylvania style bearing the marks “SIPE & SONS” and “SIPE, NICHOLS & CO.” are the products of William Sipe’s shop. An 1892 book, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (by John F. Meginness), confirms William’s potting lineage: ”WILLIAM SIPE, deceased, was born in York county, Pennsylvania, in 1826, and was a son of Philip Sipe. He settled in Williamsport in 1863, where he soon after engaged in the pottery business, which he had learned from his father … .” Lasansky’s book on stoneware, Made of Mud, is also one of the best sources on William Sipe’s Williamsport shop. In it, she repeats the History of Lycoming County account, but–again owing to the paucity of proper references in the historical record–did not know where Philip worked, or what he made.
Philip Sipe’s spittoon is an example of a piece of pottery that transcends its status as a decorative arts object and plays the role of a paper document, imparting information where the historical record is less than forthcoming. Sipe’s potting career reminds me of another deft Pennsylvania potter whose primary career of farming sandbagged all modern attempts to connect an artist with his work. Absalom Bixler, whose redware stands today as some of the finest ever produced in the United States, was, as Lasansky wrote in another work on Lancaster County redware, never called a potter in contemporary documents. No trace of his career as a potter could be found on any period piece of paper. As late as 2003 a great, comprehensive article on Bixler’s work appeared in The Magazine Antiques, and even the author of that article was unable to take a definitive stance on the authorship of the “BIXLER” pieces. It was not until early last year that the surfacing of a small pot stamped “A. Bixler” (in a manner only performed by potters themselves, and in a typeface consistent with Absalom Bixler’s known career as a printer) enabled me to once and for all conclusively establish Bixler as the maker of his own work. (You can read my article on Bixler here.)
It is somewhat bizarre, or ironic, that people who lived lives spent, mostly, away from the potter’s wheel, are now remembered only for what they did while at it. An activity undertaken only in the winter months, or otherwise when farming was inconvenient or impossible, has come to define so many of these sorts of redware potters. But where so many others came into this world and then slipped from history, these men who made objects to fill the needs of their community have somehow managed a different fate. Even when paper documents fail us, and family members have forgotten they existed, their work remains to do the talking for them.
Grand in its size and decoration, a unique Poughkeepsie, NY stoneware jug will be offered without reserve in our March 5 auction of antique American stoneware and redware. Measuring 21 1/2″ tall, the jug was thrown on the potter’s wheel in two sections to accomodate its monumental size. A seam line near the shoulder reveals that the majority of the jug was thrown as a cylinder, and the remainder of the jug (including its rounded shoulder and squared spout) were affixed and sealed to the vessel. While the height of the jug is extremely rare, its slender form is perhaps equally unusual. The jug’s width is comparable to that of a two-gallon example, but with a height twice that.
The incredible size of the piece suggests it was made to catch one’s attention, and the decoration supports this notion. Extending upward and covering 18″ or so of the jug’s vertical surface is a large slip-trailed cobalt tree with graduated limbs. This tree was lightly incised into the surface of the jug prior to being applied in cobalt slip, a technique which allowed the decorator to map out his design. (Interestingly, the Fenton & Hancock stoneware cooler with decoration of a Civil War general and his wife, which set a record in our November 2006 auction, features similar incising under the decoration.)
Perched near the peak of the tree are four fan-tailed birds with crests, and flanking the tree’s heavily-shaded trunk are a seated dog and a reclining doe with cobalt-spot-decorated bodies. The doe sports an unusually long tail, perhaps more fitting of a dog. Realistic sizing plays no role in the decoration, as the birds appear too large for the tree, and the dog towers over the deer. Other New York State and New England decorators were known to disregard the actual scale of design elements. For example, Norton stoneware from Bennington, Vermont is famous for such folksy discrepancies, featuring fanciful designs, such as an oversized flower basket beside a small deer or a large deer beside a much smaller tree.
The animal scene on the Poughkeepsie jug captures four distinctive designs the pottery was known for: the fan-tailed bird, the dog, the deer, and a tree with graduated limbs. It is these distinctive designs, most notably the bird and the tree, that lead to a strong attribution to the pottery of Philip Riedinger and Adam Caire of Poughkeepsie, NY. A great deal of information is provided on this potting firm in William C. Ketchum’s seminal book, Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650-1900. According to Ketchum’s research, the partnership of potters, Adam Caire and Philip Riedinger, began in 1857 at a long-standing pottery on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street. Prior to that time, Riedinger had been operating at the same location with another partner, Louis Lehman. Caire, the son of potter, John B. Caire, having finished his six-year apprenticeship in Hartford and Amboy, purchased Lehman’s interest in the operation. Thus, the partnership of Riedinger & Caire was born, a formidable business that would survive until Riedinger’s death in 1878. The operation was known as the Poughkeepsie Pottery, and during its later years, employed sixteen potters, including a prolific artisan named Samuel Brady (Ketchum, p. 118). Brady would operate a pottery in Ellenville, NY with partner, John J. Ryan, between 1881 and about 1897 (Ketchum, p. 143, 466). Numerous examples of Brady & Ryan stoneware from Ellenville show strong Poughkeepsie Pottery influences. Similarities are particularly evident in the partnership’s bird designs.
The eye-catching appeal of the jug suggests it may have sat in the storefront of the Poughkeepsie Pottery to advertise the company’s wares. Oral history of many other large-sized decorative pieces, including one or more coolers produced by J. & E. Norton of Bennington, a Decker jar from Tennessee, and an oversized Perine pitcher from Baltimore, indicate they sat in prominent locations to promote the potteries that made them. Quietly hidden away until recently in a New York State home, this great jug is sure to turn heads once again, just as it surely did over 125 years ago.
The existing group of stoneware mugs made for Yale University students around the turn of the twentieth century are an interesting lot. Quite scarce–they were, after all, made for a rather small population of college students–these vessels were clearly prized by enough alumni that a fair number were passed down to us. While some are typical late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples coated in brown Albany slip, others are salt-glazed; these latter pieces, if not baring clear dates, could easily be mistaken as much earlier American stoneware products. It is one of these–a particularly well-crafted example–that we will be selling on March 5.
While heavily decorated American stoneware mugs are themselves rare, I consider the Yale mug to be something close to a unique, hyper-specialized form unto itself. Not just drinking vessels, these were predecessors of the ubiquitous university memorabilia we interact with every day: sweatshirts, baseball caps, and modern, mass-produced mugs. In the case of the F.T. Persons’ mug, which we will be selling in March, we actually know a lot about the young man for whom it was made.
Frederick Torrel Persons was born on February 2, 1869 in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, about thirty-five miles west of Springfield. His father, Byron Persons, was a farmer; he and Frederick’s mother, Ellen Spaulding, were both descended from very old Massachusetts families dating back to the 1630′s. Frederick Persons attended preparatory school in Norfolk, Connecticut, and went on, as his mug attests, to Yale College, from which he graduated in 1894. After some postgraduate work in the study of English, he became an English teacher and later the principal of a school in Falls Village, Connecticut. In 1899, he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and after graduating three years later, he entered the ministry, serving various churches in Connecticut.]In 1906, Persons married Florence Cummings, who had attended the Yale School of Music, and the two would go on to have at least three sons. At the age of 46, he left his ministry in Connecticut for a post as librarian at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, and remained there until 1924, when he took the same position at the Congregational Library in Boston.
In Yale-related publications Persons spoke of his love of architecture, on which he became something of an authority, and his fondness for taking walks as a form of exercise. He also expressed a love of life, saying, when about 45 years old, “I am glad to be alive and want to live to do something for the world and to watch it go on till I am past eighty. Above all else, I am proud of [the Class of] ’94, and rejoice in the welfare and success of its members.”
Persons’ goal to live past eighty was almost realized. He passed away at the age of 79 on September 2, 1948.
All too often, objects are handed down to us, stripped of any memory of the men and women who handled them on a daily basis, who kept them on shelves in their homes. Pieces like Persons’ Yale mug remind us that real people with real lives actually owned these vessels, and they were capable of holding more than just water or beer, but also great significance to those who chose to keep them.
A Note About Sources: The Yale-related volumes from which most of Persons’ biography was gleaned are Quarter Century Record, Class of 1894, Yale College, and Vicennial Record, Class of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Four, Yale College, both by Frederick Dwight, Class Secretary. I also used Union Seminary Quarterly Review (May, 1949), Who Was Who In America, Volume 2 (1943-1950), and the Federal Census.
While the Baltimore potters of the time period–whose work we also encountered on a regular basis–decided out of humility or haste not to bother marking their ware, those from Alexandria left little mystery as to the origin of their products. And the names of these people who had died well over a century before became a part of our daily, modern existence. The ones we knew well, and saw the most, were “B.C. Milburn” and “H.C. Smith.” The former, Benedict Milburn, was a potter; the latter, Hugh Charles Smith, was a merchant. A fellow Alexandria merchant, E.J. Miller, also left behind a fair amount of products, and we saw his name not only stamped in the familiar Alexandria typeface, but stenciled in blue on jars made in southwestern Pennsylvania and shipped into Virginia. There were names we rarely saw but were always on the look-out for: “J. Swann” (John Swann, in some ways the father of Alexandria stoneware), “J. Black” (James Black, an associate of Milburn’s who operated a short-lived pottery of his own), “Hugh Smith” (the father of merchant H.C. Smith), and “J.P. Smith” (another merchant relative). We weren’t the only ones constantly keeping an eye out for stoneware made by this latter group; it was, and continues to be, highly prized by collectors of pottery made in the D.C. area.Literally ten years ago this month, we came across a perplexing jar bearing a mark we had never seen before: “MILLER / ALEX.” This vessel was clearly not one of the later E.J. Miller products; the jar itself belonged to an earlier time than they did, with an ovoid form, fairly crude handles, and a slip-trailed floral design unheard-of on examples made for that Miller. We began to think that perhaps this jar was made for Miller’s father, a prosperous merchant named R.H. Miller, whose name is not seen on any known examples of stoneware. Stamped with a last name familiar to collectors of Alexandria stoneware, there was little doubt to us that the maker’s mark referred to some member of that merchant family. But we decided this mark–one that in all our years of buying, selling, and studying Alexandria pottery, we had never seen or heard of–was worth investigating further.
We took a trip to Alexandria, to the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library in Old Town, which holds a wealth of documents related to the history of the city. It didn’t take long, once we began thumbing through various texts ranging from genealogy books to pottery-specific manuscripts, before we were shocked to discover that there had been a barely-documented Alexandria potter named James Miller.
James Miller’s existence was noted by at least a couple of previous researchers of the Alexandria potting industry–a man named John Pickens who compiled notes on the subject in the 1970′s (and whose papers are now in possession of the aforementioned library) and Suzita Myers, whose book The Potter’s Art was essentially the first book on Alexandria stoneware (and one of my family’s favorite stoneware books). But Myers never mentioned Miller in that book or any of her other published materials; she discussed him in an unpublished Master’s thesis for the University of Maryland, and in it noted the existence of a jar impressed “J. MILLER / ALEX” packed away at the Smithsonian. But without any known pieces in the light of day, without any in the possession of collectors, and with only obscure, unpublished sources to draw from, James Miller had completely slipped through the cracks as an important Alexandria potter whose work still existed. Even Barbara Magid’s excellent 1995 article in the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, “An Archaeological Perspective on Alexandria’s Potting Tradition,” which drew from Pickens’ notes and mentioned Miller, did not note the existence of any surviving stoneware vessels by James Miller–since none, for all intents and purposes, had been discovered.**
Compiling all of this information and considering our jar, it became apparent that we now possessed one of the rarest Alexandria stoneware vessels to surface in years, and one of the most important to ever be found. My brothers, Mark and Luke, and I ended up researching Miller further and Mark and I eventually wrote an article (“James Miller: Lost Potter of Alexandria, Virginia”) on him and his work. You can read it in the 2004 edition of Ceramics in America, and I am continually pleased when I see a rare example surface or hear people talking about Miller alongside other Alexandria potters.It wasn’t long after discovering the James Miller jar, on October 1, 2001, that we launched crockerfarm.com, and it was experiences like this that naturally compelled us to place incisive research at the forefront of everything we do. Something I never really saw myself doing growing up (cranking microfilm, combing through all manner of old documents) has been extremely rewarding–on a professional level, but ultimately, and primarily, on a personal one. Like Thomas Commeraw, Henry Remmey, David Parr, and many other potters whose lives and work we have brought into the light of day, it is fulfilling to be able to help give people their identities back.
For our March 5, 2011 auction, we have just received one of the few surviving examples of James Miller’s work, and I wanted to share it here, along with the back story on Miller that we weren’t really able to tell within the more proper confines of Ceramics in America. (Note that this jar has the same offset handles–one ear higher than the other–that we discussed in our article.) The fact that we found that first specimen almost exactly ten years ago is a coincidence that has given me the opportunity to reflect on something that began as an ordinary occurrence–bringing another crock into the house–and ended up having a significant impact on my life.
** When Mark and I were writing our article on Miller, Barbara Magid of Alexandria Archaeology was extremely generous in letting us view, handle, and photograph shards of redware sugar jars made by James Miller in Alexandria (and excavated in the late 1980′s from a local sugar house). These shards, amongst countless others that were unmarked, were stamped with the now-familiar “J. MILLER / ALEX” mark. I just wanted to acknowledge her for her generosity and her invaluable work in reconstructing the ceramic history of Alexandria.
Dan Omega Thomas was born on March 9, 1877 in Thomastown, Ohio, “a considerable village … two miles south of Akron–composed largely of coal miners, mostly Welsh, who … worked the coal mines of that vicinity.” Dan was the son of one of these sorts, a coal-mining Welshman; his mother had immigrated from Wales, as well. In 1893, while just sixteen years old, Dan was already working at some neighborhood pottery, of which there were several. On December 13 of that year, possibly as a Christmas gift, he molded a stoneware figure of a reclining lion, decorating the beast with some sort of brown glaze. On the underside, he scrawled, “DAN OMeGA THOMAS / THOMASTOWN / DEC 13 1893.”The extremely prolific Akron potteries put bread on the table of Dan’s family, at least several of whom worked in their shops. Dan’s nephews, Daniel and Ben, both found employment at the Whitmore, Robinsons & Co. (“one of the most extensive and complete establishments of its kind in the United States,” and located at the nearby corner of East Market Street and Case Avenue) circa 1900. His brother, William, was a potter, and it was probably he who produced a molded fish pitcher–with a fairly similar glaze to his brother’s lion–pictured in The Potters and Potteries of Summit County …, by C. Dean Blair. A few other Thomas’s show up as potters in the 1900 Akron city directory, as well, but I have not determined if they were relatives. 1900 is also the first year I found young Dan in the directory, where he was apparently working at the Akron China Company on Second Ave., by the Cleveland Terminal & Valley Railroad, producers of “White Granite and Porcelain Ware.”
Dan’s whole neighborhood was rife with potters in that year–so full of them, in fact, that the census taker bothered to differentiate their various functions at the manufactories. Many, like Dan, were simply “Potters,” but others show up as “Potter (presser),” “Potter (turner),” “Potter (packer),” “Kiln-burner,” “Pottery decorator,” and “China ware moulder.” I’m not sure whether Dan could deftly throw on a wheel, or if he was more of a “pottery worker” who could make things in a mold, but I am fairly certain he fell into the latter category.
Dan’s career as a potter was not particularly long-lived. Around the time he showed up in the 1900 city directory, he married his wife, Clara, and the two had a son, Harold. By 1910, he was working as the manager of a novelty store; by 1920, he had become a jeweler–an occupation he would hold until his death. Around seven o’clock on the evening of August 28, 1925, Dan was driving his car near “the river” (I assume the Upper Cuyahoga River), when some bizarre “gasoline explosion” sent him into the water, drowning him. Whether the explosion came from his own gas tank or some outside fuel container, I do not know. He left behind his widow and his twenty-one-year-old son, who succeeded him in the jewelry business. His tragic end capped a life that saw the end of the great American stoneware industry, as mass-production took over and the specialized skills of the potter’s trade fell by the wayside. But his enthusiastic signature on a small piece he made in a mold shows that even for those who did not spend years in apprenticeships, learning to turn graceful forms, the universal desire to create–and to leave behind one’s work–was present.
A Note about Sources: As can be gleaned from my text, I used applicable Akron area censuses and city directories. The two quotes (one about Thomastown and the other about Whitmore, Robinsons & Co.) came from Fifty Years and Over of Akron and Summit County, by Samuel A. Lane (1892), pg. 986 and pp. 479-489, respectively. I found Dan’s tragic fate in his death record, which survives in the records of the Summit County Department of Health. Dan’s birth date, birth place, and marriage date were found in a strange place: Over ten years ago, someone found what was possibly Dan’s family bible in a basement amongst her grandmother’s effects. She had no idea how it got there, but she sought an answer on a popular genealogy message board.