Clarkson Crolius Stoneware Oyster Jar for Thomas Downing

Thomas Downing and Clarkson Crolius
Thomas Downing and Clarkson Crolius. In their day, each was the most famous practitioner of his trade in the United States.

A newly-surfaced Thomas Downing oyster jar holds the distinction of being the first we have seen that was clearly made by Clarkson Crolius. Few stoneware jars made for America’s most famous oysterman of his day, the African-American entrepreneur Thomas Downing, are known. But every other example we have seen can be firmly attributed to a stoneware shop that relatively few American stoneware collectors have paid significant attention to: that of Dennis McClees and later T.G. Boone in Brooklyn. This Brooklyn stoneware manufactory, located at the corner of Sands and Navy Streets, was founded in or about 1839, and the distinctive typeface used to compose its various maker’s marks is a match for that found on all previous Downing examples we’ve seen. (For more on this shop, see William Ketchum’s Potters and Potteries of New York State … and Mark Smith’s great article in the Jan-Feb 2007 issue of Bottles and Extras.)

Brooklyn stoneware maker's marks
The impressed “T. DOWNINGS / PICKLED / OYSTERS” mark juxtaposed with that of the Brooklyn potters who manufactured stoneware jars for him.

The appearance, then, of the following jar is significant:

Attributed Clarkson Crolius Stoneware Oyster Jar for African-American OystermanThomas Downing
Clarkson Crolius’s version of a Thomas Downing oyster jar.

It does not bear the aforementioned, cruder typeface used at the Brooklyn manufactory. Rather, it features a refined style only seen locally on the signed work of Clarkson Crolius, who happened to be not only New York’s most prominent stoneware maker but the most famous American stoneware potter of his day. Crolius employed a progression of numerous maker’s marks over his roughly forty-year career, and of these we particularly see an extreme similarity between this newly-discovered Downing stamp and Crolius’s oval-shaped “STONE-WARE MANUFACTURER” mark. This maker’s mark appears on some of Crolius’s more typical stoneware vessel forms, but it notably tends to appear specifically on his well-known preserve jars–stamped with the fruit names “PEACHES,” “PEARS,” “QUINCES” and “PLUMBS.” How fitting, then, that the jar at hand, made to preserve Downing’s pickled oysters, should perhaps date to the same time period.

One of Crolius’s maker’s marks juxtaposed with the newly-discovered Downing stamp. Note the refined, similar composition of the stamps and in particular the italic fonts being used.

And indeed this brings us to the other notable similarity between this new Downing jar and the work of Crolius: its distinctive, chocolately Albany glaze. Brown Albany slip, used extensively on American stoneware beginning in the first decade of the nineteenth century, was made using clay found in a specific mine in Albany, New York. You would think this would mean that Albany glaze would have a consistent appearance across all stoneware potters, but this is not the case. And indeed the overall appearance of the Albany glaze on this Downing jar matches very well that seen on Crolius’s work; see, for instance, the marked similarity between this oyster jar and a Crolius “PEACHES” jar:

A Crolius jar bearing his aforementioned “STONE-WARE MANUFACTURER” mark (along with the impressed word “PEACHES” on reverse), next to the newly-surfaced Downing jar. Note the distinctive runny, chocolatey Albany glaze on both.

While the Brooklyn-attributed jars should date to something like an 1839-1846 window based on the lifespan of that shop, theoretically for Crolius’s we could place a date as early as 1825–the first year Downing appears in the local city directory as an “oysterer” at No. 5 Broad Street. And while I think that’s probably about as reasonably early as we could go with these jars, we should also keep in mind that based on period advertisements, Downing definitely seems to have been running an oyster stand out of No. 5 Broad even prior to 1825, when oystering was not his primary occupation:

A relatively early ad for Thomas Downing and his whitewashing business, also referencing his “old established stand No. 5 Broad …, where he will keep his oyster stand also, as usual.”

As someone who personally takes an inordinate interest in New York City stoneware, African-American ceramics and the history of the African-American community in New York City, this jar stands out to me as one of the truly remarkable artifacts we have had the privilege of handling. Indeed, even from a pure stoneware perspective, signed or attributed Crolius oyster jars are extremely rare in their own right! If you aren’t familiar with Thomas Downing and his remarkable life, please see, for instance, this great article from The Virginia-Pilot. To see the last Downing jar we handled, which set a world auction record for an American stoneware oyster jar, visit our Summer 2020 online catalog.

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The question of a potter’s intent as he made a particular piece is a central one in the field of ceramic study. Even on the most straight-forward example, such as a plain, unadorned jar or jug, questions that can often never be answered conclusively rear their heads: What was it made for? Did it have one specific use, or many? What tools were used, and why? What level of standardization was expected within any given pottery during a specific time period? Was it made for a particular client? Who made it?

Extraordinary COMMERAWS STONEWARE (Corlears Hook, N. York) circa 1810 stoneware jug, to be sold in our July 11, 2009 auction.
Extraordinary COMMERAWS STONEWARE (Corlears Hook, N. York) circa 1810 stoneware jug, to be sold in our July 11, 2009 auction.
When decoration or other more elaborate attributes are added to the equation, the line of questioning extends itself that much more. What is the decoration supposed to represent? Was the decoration part of some kind of standardized design theme produced by the pottery? If so, was this an attempt at “branding” by the pottery owner, was it simply a mass production technique, or was it both? If the decoration is a variation on a theme by another pottery, was this done as a way to capitalize on someone else’s successful brand?

The large number of questions that can accumulate for even some of the seemingly simplest pots highlights the complexity in evaluating American stoneware and redware, and all art, for that matter. One important aspect of American stoneware production that factors into our evaluation of it is the business side of this decorative art form. The Thomas Commeraw jug we recently received for our July 11, 2009 auction is a good example of a piece that seems to have been made with commerce heavily in mind.

The Commeraw jug is one of the most finely made of any of his extant vessels. The contrast between the rich, dark cobalt blue against a very light gray colored body must have been at or very near the ideal appearance Commeraw sought as he fired it. The clay itself looks like it was specifically chosen or refined to be low in impurities and iron oxide, which contributes to the brown look of some stoneware. Each impressed letter and decorative element was applied deeply and with great care, to make them extraordinarily legible. The vessel itself is very well-thrown–a large, bulbous shape culminating in a pronounced, tooled spout. All of these attributes beg the question, why was this particular vessel so extraordinarily well-made?

Most other surviving Commeraw examples are a brown or tan color, though some achieve an attractive blue-on-gray that comes close to, but falls short of, that seen on this example. The crescent and tassel designs are often stamped in a more haphazard manner and can be harder to make out than in this case; the same goes for the maker’s stamps. In fact, the maker’s mark itself was very carefully applied to apparently communicate a specific message: “N. YORK” is impressed directly below the spout, giving a prominent place to declare the jug’s city of origin. Beneath that, encompassed by the striking, blue-highlighted decorative stamps, is the maker’s brand name, “COMMERAWS STONEWARE,” displayed with the confidence that the viewer will be impressed with the artist’s work. Finally, “CORLEARS / HOOK” lists the section of Manhattan on the East River where Commeraw potted.

Throughout his work, Commeraw made use of the many different combinations of words available within the repertoire of his maker’s stamps, which this jug displays in its entirety. “COMMERAWS” on one side of a vessel with “STONEWARE” on the other, simply “COMMERAWS / STONEWARE” or “CORLEARS / HOOK,” the name “COMMERAWS” alone–all sorts of variations of these marks were used by this prolific potter. Sometimes little import is apparent within the particular chosen combination, but in other cases the specific wording seems carefully selected. For instance, pieces stamped with “CORLEARS HOOK” but not “N. YORK” may have been made specifically for a local New York clientele.

Here, the prominent placement of “N. YORK” beneath the spout may indicate that the jug was made for customers far away from Manhattan. If so, Commeraw probably meant not only to communicate its city of origin, but to conjure into a potential customer’s mind the implications a New York hallmark carried with it.

New York stoneware seems to have been generally regarded as a standard-bearer of American stoneware production. The stoneware potteries of the Manhattan Crolius and Remmey families were some of the first firmly established in the United States, and carried a reputation not only as venerated, established companies but as part of the larger, extremely well-respected network of New York craftsmen. In 1812, when prominent Baltimore merchant William Myers hired New York stoneware potter Henry Remmey, Sr. to manage his Baltimore Stone Ware Manufactory, he bragged in local papers that he had “engaged Mr. Remmey, of New York, to superintend the Factory.” Subsequent ads by the Myers family over the next decade continued to stress Remmey’s New York heritage. The names of specific New York stoneware makers were probably known up and down the east coast, as well. For instance, in 1828, J.B. Cross, a Portland, Maine, merchant advertised “a large assortment of ‘Croliu’s’ [sic] New York painted, superior ware” in his local paper. In the same ad, which included many different consumer goods ranging from mustard to rat traps to toy soldiers, he boasted that he was “agent for several extensive New York manufactories.”

This claim is important in trying to ascertain the relationship between local pottery shops and distant merchant stores, and may help explain Commeraw’s intentions as he made this particularly fine example of his work. The jug was found in a barn in North Carolina, where it had apparently been kept hidden away for a long time. While pieces frequently migrated throughout the country over the past 200 years, items discovered in the manner this one was are often “native” antiques–objects resident in their current locale since around the time they were made. All of the notable attributes of this jug–the large size, exceptional craftsmanship, emphasis of its New York origin, and brilliantly emblazoned maker’s name–lead me to believe that it was made for a local Southern U.S. market to advertise the kind of high-quality, New York ware a particular merchant had to offer.

As I said at the beginning of this article, the question of what the potter had in mind as he produced a particular piece is usually one we can never completely answer. In the case of the Commeraw jug, any attempt to explain its specialness certainly falls into the category of conjecture. But I believe the circumstantial evidence is strong that this jug was made with the intent of advertising Commeraw’s New York-manufactured stoneware, to show a Southern market what he was capable of. In fact, in not just this case but also that of his entire body of work, Commeraw’s use of “CORLEARS HOOK” in his maker’s mark seems like an attempt at furthering his brand name and separating himself from the venerated Crolius and Remmey potteries located in lower Manhattan. Also, the backwards “N” in “N YORK,” not seen on other examples, may indicate that this jug was made earlier in the potter’s career than most other extant pieces, when he was still establishing himself as a pottery owner.

The relationship between stoneware potteries, local merchants, and distant merchant-agents is one that has not been explored as much as it could be. I believe the more we come to understand about this commercial side of stoneware production, the better we will be able to evaluate the surviving objects these artist-businessmen produced.

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