Published: January 21, 2020
By Justin W. Thomas
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – When people think about the history of New York City, the first places that come to mind are probably Manhattan and Brooklyn. And that is rightly so, but there is a lot more to the city’s history than these two boroughs.
When settled by Europeans in the Seventeenth Century, Staten Island or Richmond County was its own entity, separate from New York City. Known as Richmond County as early as the 1600s, the island became one of New York City’s boroughs in 1898, and renamed Staten Island in 1975. The island’s original Seventeenth Century inhabitants included Native Americans, as well as Dutch, English and French settlers. Among the early European commerce was a Seventeenth Century Dutch fur trading post. During the Eighteenth Century, the island remained a rural community, served by its farms, mills and fishing industry.
By 1747, the first ferry to Staten Island from Manhattan was established, connecting the island to Manhattan’s industries and trade. Even though there is no documented early household utilitarian pottery production on Staten Island, local production had to have been exported to the island sometime during the Colonial period. These types of wares may have found their way onto the island before 1747, but the creation of the ferry certainly presented new opportunities for merchants and potters.
The island played an important role in the American Revolution, being a key location that both armies wanted to control because of the island’s access to the Hudson River. In the summer of 1776, British ships occupied the coastline; one British soldier described the island: “Surely this country is the paradise of the world. The inhabitants of this island are tall, thin, narrow shouldered people, very simple in their manners, know neither Poverty or Riches, each house has a good farm, and every man a trade, they know no distinctions of persons, and I am sure most have lived very happily till these troubles.”
Based on archaeological evidence, it was about the time of the American Revolution that documented domestic stoneware began to appear on the island. Among the local pottery recovered by archaeologists in the 1930s at the site of Fort Richmond or Richmond Redoubt was a salt-glazed stoneware chamber pot attributed to the Captain James Morgan (1734-84) Pottery in Cheesequake, N.J., from the circa 1776-78 period.
Following the American Revolution, Staten Island’s farming and fishing businesses continued and the island’s population began to expand. The domestic red earthenware and stoneware demands in Manhattan had been largely fulfilled before the Revolutionary War by the Crolius and Remmey families, and various local red earthenware potters, some of whom had been trained in Philadelphia. Although, by the early Nineteenth Century, the red earthenware needs of New York City were largely fulfilled by manufacturers in Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey and Philadelphia, and some of these wares found their way into Staten Island.
There was also a strong African American influence, especially in the 1830s, when freed blacks from Manhattan and Maryland began to inhabit the island. Two fascinating slip-script red earthenware objects dating from this period were recently recovered from a brick-lined privy at 33 Van Duzer Street on Staten Island. The context of the privy dates between 1835-45. One of the objects reads, “Good Morning Ladies.” The manner of the script on this plate is similar to wares made by John Betts Gregory (1782-1842), who learned his trade from Absolom Day (1770-1843) in Norwalk, Conn., in the late-Eighteenth Century. He then left for the Huntington, Long Island pottery, before he arrived in Clinton, N.Y., sometime around 1810. Gregory ran a pottery in Clinton for about 20 years. He then returned to Norwalk around 1831, where he produced red earthenware until his death in 1843. The context that this plate was recovered is according to Gregory’s second employment in Norwalk, which makes sense since Norwalk was a major supplier of red earthenware in New York City.
The other slip-script object was probably used by a merchant, seeing that it reads, “Earthen Ware Here.” However, it does not necessarily indicate the merchant was exclusively a retailer of local red earthenware; they likely sold all types of earthenware that was regularly shipped to New York City and the surrounding area. There is also evidence that stoneware was shipped from New Jersey and marked with the name of Staten Island merchants.
Interestingly, the style of the slip-script found on this advertising platter is similar to two platters in the collection of the Bergen County Historical Society and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. These platters are inscribed, “Hard Times in Jersey,” and were made by George Wolfkiel (1805-67) along the Hackensack River in River Edge, N.J. Wolfkiel was born in Franklin Township, Penn. He was likely a Pennsylvania trained potter before he arrived in River Edge about 1830, working at a pottery that was established by Henry Jacob Van Saun (d 1829) about 1811. Some of the River Edge production was intended for the local marketplace, but it was also shipped to New York City.
In the collection of the Long Island Historical Society are a group of objects that retain Nineteenth Century family histories of ownership on Staten Island. Those objects include a slip script “Apple Pie” dish attributed to the Asa Edward Smith (1798-1880) Pottery in Norwalk, and another slip script dish, “Lucy,” made by Wolfkiel in River Edge. This plate is attributable to Wolfkiel because of the distinctive curly “Y,” which is a characteristic of the potter’s unique style, circa 1830-67. Other types of stoneware and red earthenware production from New Jersey are also thought to have been shipped to Staten Island throughout the Nineteenth Century.
Another notable object retaining a Nineteenth Century history of ownership with the Corson, Jones, Hillyer and Prall families on Staten Island is an early Nineteenth Century incised jug with a floral motif. The historical society describes a possible Manhattan attribution, but others suggest that its manufacture and classic decoration is related to George Lent’s production in New Jersey and New York.
Examples of Staten Island’s ceramic history have been well preserved by the Staten Island Historical Society, and this is largely thanks to the museum’s formation in 1856, when they were able to acquire objects in early years of ownership. The museum’s collection encompasses a wide variety of objects from pottery manufacturers in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Europe.
In spite of its history, Staten Island may be considered the forgotten borough by some, but its story reveals otherwise. The island’s history is just as extensive when compared to the rest of the city, and the ceramic evidence is a small example of the island’s rich past. The pottery tied to Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Staten Island proves how wares were utilized and shipped to the island, despite no known obvious early potters. This is a significant understanding, not only showing what company’s wares were present, but in comparison, how a smaller business operated by Henry Jacob Van Saun and George Wolfkiel in River Edge was established in a competitive location, helping serve the everyday household utilitarian needs of New York City.
Justin Thomas is a ceramics scholar and frequently writes about his findings at earlyamericanceramics.com.
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