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Home | Articles | Selections: A Private Collection of American Stoneware

by Karl H. Pass

Inkwell, New York City, 1773. Signed and dated New York, July 12, 1773 / William Crolius. Stoneware. H. 2-1/8, L. 5, W. 5-1/2 in. Image copyrighted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. L.1993.25 a-c.

While a student in the 1950s at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy, David Bronstein lived with a family who dealt in antiques and would often take him to auctions – experiences that helped lay the groundwork for his collecting interests. His first purchase was a Chinese export vase, which he still owns, but it was American stoneware and redware pottery that would become the focus of his pursuits.

Dr. Bronstein amassed his collection primarily in the 1970s, when he was a regular at the pottery sales of the late Don Kinzle in Duncansville, Pennsylvania, and the late Charles Pennypacker in Kenhorst, Pennsylvania. Private dealers and collectors also helped shape his collection; Gary and Diana Stradling, and the late Barry Cohen in particular. Today, Bronstein's collection stands at nearly four hundred pieces and is distinguished by its range of decorated forms from such regional pottery centers as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Manhattan, and South Amboy, New Jersey. The collection has been put together with a spirit of enthusiasm and with a keen interest in the scholarship of early American ceramics.

Pitcher, David Morgan, New York City, 1795–1803. H. 11, Diam. 4-1/2 in. at base.

The cornerstone of the collection is the iconic heart-shaped inkwell signed on its base 'New York July 12th 1773 / William Crolius', currently on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The elaborately decorated folk art masterwork, with original pounce and ink bottle, represents a rare survivor and is among the most well-articulated and earliest dated examples of American stoneware. Purchased seventeen years ago, Dr. Bronstein recalls, 'I knew there would very likely never be another chance to acquire it.' The inkwell ranks alongside the Crane family presentation punchbowl now at the American Folk Art Museum; it is attributed to the John Crolius Jr. pottery, active in Manhattan roughly between the dates 1790 and 1812. It is believed John Jr. was bequeathed the pottery from his uncle William. Both William and John's father, John Sr., operated potteries. The Croliuses were one of New York City's best-known multigenerational families of potters well into the nineteenth century, originating with William, who is believed to have immigrated to New York from Germany at the age of eighteen. Like many others in the field, succeeding generations followed in the trade.

Crock, Thomas Warne and Joshua Letts, South Amboy, New Jersey, 1807. H. 14, Diam. 6-1/2 in. at base.

Other early New York and northern New Jersey potters incorporated incised floral work among other decorative motifs into their wares. The cross-pollination of techniques and decorative embellishments occurred throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Interrelationships developed as a result of marriage and the exchange of workers between potteries has forever been a factor in stylistic similarities for stoneware. Regional variations in decoration include the use of swags and tassels, clamshells, holly leaves, watch spring designs, floral designs and various coggle wheel patterns such as triangular, rectangular and circular shapes. A semi-ovoid pitcher features the distinctive incised clamshell design above the name 'David Morgan / N. York.' Morgan worked at the Coerlear's (often spelled 'Corlear') Hook Pottery located on the East River in Manhattan roughly between 1795 and 1803. For a short period he worked for John Crolius Jr. and later with Thomas Commereau. A Morgan jug in the collection purchased privately from the late collector Barry Cohen features the potter's characteristic impressed half moons and hearts below the name stamp.1 Any relationship to the Morgans of South Amboy, Middlesex County New Jersey, has yet to be established.2

Pitcher, Richard Clinton Remmey, Philadelphia, 1872. H. 7, Diam. 3 in. at base.

Also purchased privately from Cohen, an ovoid open-handled crock dated '1807' has the stamped neck and ribbed banding, impressed design work, and flared top typical of potters Thomas Warne and Joshua Letts. Warne was in partnership with his son-in-law Letts from 1805 up to his death in 1813. Letts died two years later and the granddaughter of Captain James Morgan inherited the property where they produced their wares. Warne and Letts worked in the Cheesequake or South Amboy area along the Raritan Bay. The partnership is known for impressed stamp designs. One common patriotic stamp they often used was 'LIBERTY FOREV.' Many pieces with that stamp are dated '1807,' and are possibly a reference to President Thomas Jefferson's trade embargo with both England and France at a time when the young republic was in danger of becoming directly involved in the Napoleonic Wars.3 The cobalt in-filled clamshell, or crescent and tassel, are standard decorative motifs for the makers. Warne and Letts rarely personalized wares, so the inclusion of the name 'Noble Reid,' the crock, is unusual. Reid, the grandson of John Reid, a seventeenth-century surveyor, lived on a large plantation in New Jersey entitled Hortensia.

Jug, T. H. Willson & Co., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1852–1855. H. 11-1/2, Diam. 6-1/2 in. at base.

A third-generation potter whose ancestors worked in Manhattan, Richard Clinton Remmey made the small elaborately decorated presentation pitcher at the age of 37. The Philadelphian signed the 7-inch high pitcher under the applied handle: 'R.C. Remmey / 1872.' The incised bird and floral design work in deep blue cobalt and the protruding cobalt-decorated thumb or hinge stop above the handle mimic the engraved design and structure seen on pewter and silver tankards of the time.

Located on the banks of the Susquehanna River and close to the Pennsylvania Canal, which provided veins of quality clay as well as a means of shipping, Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, was a ceramics manufacturing center throughout the later half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, famous for its stoneware produced by the prolific Cowden and Wilcox firm. The pottery was in operation from 1863 to 1881; thereafter, the firm of Cowden and Company, run by John W. Cowden, continued until 1924. Dr. Bronstein has one of the finest collections of stoneware from this producer, among other makers who worked in the capital city. The collection showcases a broad array of forms and decorations. Some, including the Man-in-the-Moon, a profile view of a Punch-and-Judy style man's face with a large round nose and chin, are characteristic of Cowden and Wilcox. 4 Others are one-of-a-kind designs such as a long-tailed bird with the head of a cat, affectionately referred to as the catbird.

Jugs by John Young & Co, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1856–1858. H. 17, Diam. 9-1/2 in.; H. 19, Diam. 9-1/2 in.

A Harrisburg pottery that predated Cowden and Wilcox was the short-lived firm founded in 1852 by the brothers Hiram, Daniel Tyler, and Thomas Hill Willson. Among Bronstein's favorite potters, the Willsons' used a stamp depicting the state capitol building on some of their wares and sometimes 'T. H. WILLSON & CO/HARRISBURG, PA,' as on a jug in the Bronstein collection with a cobalt brushed bird in profile inside a floral swag. The Willson pottery on Filbert Street was purchased in 1856 by John Young and Shem Thomas only to be sold back to the Willson brothers two years later. One three-gallon highly decorated crock in the collection stamped 'John Young & Co.' is signed on the bottom 'Shem Thomas' and is the only known piece bearing Thomas's name. The three and four gallon finely slip-decorated jugs are both stamped 'John Young & Co/Harrisburg PA.'5 Both Young and the Willsons incorporated dark cobalt slip cup decoration and typical cobalt brush decoration; among the Harrisburg makers, John Young & Co. is most noted for intricate slip cup decoration.

Jug by M. & T. Miller, Newport, Pennsylvania, ca. 1870. H. 17, Diam. 9 in. at base.

Further north from Harrisburg along the Juniata River, just south of the town of Newport, was the Miller pottery. Brothers Michael and Theophilus Jr. ran the operation after their father's passing in 1864. Most signed pieces are marked 'M&T Miller/Newport, PA,' as is this four-gallon jug acquired privately, which represents a possible depiction of the two brothers.

1. Exhibited in The Barry Cohen Collection of American Stoneware (1975) at the then Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Colonial Williamsburg.

2. William Ketchum Jr., Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650–1900 (Syracuse University Press, 1987; 2nd Edition), 53–54.

3. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, 'American Stoneware in the Collection of Arthur and Esther Goldberg', The Magazine Antiques (September 1989): 571.

4. Matthew R. Miller, Decorated Stoneware of Cowden and the Stoneware Potteries of Harrisburg, PA (2001), 119.

5. Illustrated in Jeannette Lasansky, Made of Mud: Stoneware Potteries of Central Pennsylvania 1834–1929. (Lansky and the Union County Bicentennial Commission, 1977), 42.

Karl H. Pass is a freelance writer and a private curator in Pennsylvania.

All images courtesy of Dr. Bronstein with the exception of the inkwell; photography by the author.

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