Published: February 12, 2007
Today, at the end of Washington Avenue, one-and-a-half blocks west of the Albany Institute of Art, stands a small community park. The tiny landmark is quite different from the place the people of Albany knew 200 years before, a place where art and enterprise united as simple clay was transformed into something beautiful and marketable. An entrepreneur from New England named Paul Cushman owned the property then, and on it sat a thriving stoneware pottery.
“Paul Cushman: The World and Work of an Early Nineteenth Century Potter” sheds new light on Cushman’s career in Albany. The exhibition at the Albany Institute of Art brings together 72 stoneware objects, approximately 50 of which were produced at Cushman’s pottery. On view through May 27, the exhibition traces Albany stoneware production from its earliest beginnings to 1850, long after Cushman’s death.
The exhibit is one of four at the Albany Institute that make up “Earth and Fire: A Celebration of Clay and Ceramics.” Running concurrently with the Cushman show is “Clay Connections: Four Centuries of Ceramics and their Stories from the Albany Institute’s Collections,” which reveals Albany’s history through imported ceramics. “Containing History: Contemporary Ceramics from Regional Potters,” also on view, examines how the past can influence the present through the work of eight modern-day potters. A fourth exhibit, “Playing with Clay: Frank Giorgini’s Udu Drums, Tile Murals and More” focuses on the work of ceramist Frank Giorgini, and will be on view from April 14 to August 12.
Stoneware production in Albany began around 1800 when a pottery on Washington Street was opened by William Capron. A small number of modestly decorated stoneware vessels bearing the mark “ALBANY WARE” are believed to have been made there, although no examples are known with his actual signature. In 1805, an enterprising businessman named Paul Cushman purchased Capron’s site.
Cushman was born in New Hampshire in 1767 and spent most of his early years on his uncle’s farm in Vermont. Once of age, he traveled throughout the Lake Champlain area of Canada. Records indicate that he had arrived in Albany by 1800 and was working as a contractor on the docks.
It was a time of great expansion for the city, with significant development on the waterfront, and a great number of people migrating from the northeast to Albany, or through Albany on their way west. They were drawn to the city by two major turnpikes, the Albany-Schenectady and Great Western, and also by the Hudson River, an important route for the trafficking of goods.
Cushman arrived in the city at an opportune time, and much of the exhibit focuses on this changing period in Albany’s history. Curator of the Albany Institute of Art Doug McCombs comments, “The exhibit is as much about stoneware as it is about a place and time in history. It is about a man who was taking advantage of the situation in Albany. Anyone heading west would’ve passed his site.”
Of particular interest is that, unlike Capron, there is no evidence that Cushman was ever trained as a potter. McCombs continues, “In his family genealogy, he is described as an enterprising individual, a businessman. He was first and foremost a pottery owner. Whether he made any is questionable.”
Evidence suggests that Cushman may have hired other men to produce his ware. In the 1820 Census, he had six men living at his house, possibly potters. Paul Cushman died in 1833, and his operation was carried on by his widow and son, Robert S. Cushman, for about a year.
Between 1805 and 1833, Cushman’s pottery faced competition from other potters as they emerged and opened shop in Albany. The brothers Jonah and Calvin Boynton advertised in 1816 that they had opened a pottery across the street from Cushman on Washington Avenue. The pottery they sold was marked “J. BOYNTON” or “C. BOYNTON.”
Calvin Boynton moved across the Hudson River to Troy in 1825, where he used the impressed mark “C. BOYNTON & CO. / TROY” or simply “C. BOYNTON / TROY” to identify his ware. One or both Boyntons operated in Albany or Troy from 1816 to 1835.
New research brought forth in the exhibit suggests that, although the Boyntons were competitors of Paul Cushman, they likely produced much of the stoneware for him. Around the year 1820, the Boyntons were sharing their pottery site with potter James Trice and a grocer named Atherton. Similarly, it is also probable that the Boyntons produced stoneware bearing the mark of the partnership “ATHERTON & TRICE / ALBANY.”
Two other potters active in Albany that were in direct competition with Cushman were Moses Tyler and Charles Dillon, who either worked alone or together in Albany from 1825 to 1847.
A year after Paul Cushman’s death in 1834, Dillon purchased the pottery and involved himself with various potters there over the course of the next seven years, including Jacob Henry, Edward Selby and Nathan Porter.
Potters would remain active in Albany until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, yet the products would eventually lose their ovoid forms and often crude brushed or incised designs characteristic of an earlier day of artisanship.
Cushman stoneware is perhaps best known for the large signatures impressed into the surface of his vessels. There are several variations of his maker’s mark. All were produced from a coggle wheel with raised letters that was rolled across the wet clay before firing. Most commonly, collectors and historians will find examples impressed “PAUL : CUSHMAN’S” in large capital letters. In two cases, the mark includes a date of production, the earliest reading “PAUL CUSHMAN’S STONEWARE FACTORY 1809” and another with identical wording, but ending in the date 1811.
The most interesting of Cushman’s coggled signatures reads “PAUL : CUSHMAN’S: STONEWARE : FACTORY : 1809 : HALF : A : MILE : WEST OF ALBANY : GOAL”. In this case, the word “GOAL” is an archaic spelling of “jail.” Cushman stoneware is also known to be decorated around the circumferences of vessels with four distinct coggled designs: simple dashes, diamonds linked to a pinwheel within a circle, a vine and leaf motif, and diamonds with elliptical flower petals.
A variety of Cushman stoneware forms are represented in this exhibit, including jars, jugs, pitchers and keg and jug coolers, which have bung holes for pouring at their bases. Collectors may recognize four significant pieces in the exhibit, which are pictured in Donald Blake Webster’s Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America: a heavily incised churn, a jug-form cooler with elaborate incised decoration, a keg cooler with incised fish and birds and an incised bird jug. All are owned by the Albany Institute of Art.
Perhaps the most well-known of these four pieces is a churn decorated with various incised and cobalt-highlighted figures. Described in the exhibit catalog as a “tour de force of folk design,” the narrow vessel was given to the museum by John Paul Remensnyder, and is decorated with a cat churning butter, human figures, fish, birds and a fish suckling a cow. Research suggests this decoration is a visual pun regarding the abundance of sturgeon in the area at the time.
During the early Nineteenth Century, sturgeon were so commonly eaten throughout the region that they were referred to as “Albany beef.” Hence, the sturgeon is acting like a calf. McCombs states, “The saying was so prevalent at the time, whoever saw this image would’ve known what it meant. It was so well-understood.”
Another object of great importance is a double-handled presentation jug cooler decorated with incised hearts, American flags, a liberty pole and two large birds, one with a cat’s face, perhaps representing a “cat bird.” A heart to the right of the birds is incised with the initials “JFM” and the date “1818.”
Two other incised examples, a jug and keg cooler, are ranked among some of the more ornately decorated pieces of Cushman stoneware known. The keg’s designs are brushed over with cobalt blue, while the birds on the jug remain unpainted.
A brownish-colored ovoid jug illustrates Cushman’s elaborate 1809 maker’s marks, which is impressed through the use of two different coggle wheels, one for each line of writing.
Twenty or so other pieces in the exhibit represent the products of Cushman’s predecessors, competitors and successors in Albany and nearby Troy. A jar likely produced by Albany’s earliest stoneware potter, Capron, is impressed with the inverted maker’s mark “ALBANY WARE” on one side, and is decorated with an incised bird on the reverse. Made circa 1800, it is owned by the Albany Institute, and is one of only two examples known with cobalt decoration.
An ovoid jug with incised fish design made between 1825 and 1837 was made during Calvin Boynton’s Troy years, and is marked as such. An important 13-inch-tall keg stamped “TYLER & DILLON / ALBANY” was made by Moses Tyler and Charles Dillon between the years 1826 and 1834. It features a large incised fish with long snout and numerous teeth and bears the inscription “BRANDY” in large bold letters.
A small, much simpler keg on display is stamped “DILLON & PORTER / ALBANY.” It was made at Cushman’s site after his death by Dillon and a new partner named Nathan Porter between the years 1839 to 1841.
And while elaborately coggled or incised examples may attract the most viewers, McCombs still notes the importance of Cushman’s humbler creations. “Some of his [Cushman’s] undecorated pieces are just as interesting in their own way. They say something about the society they were created for. I think people were willing to accept things less than perfect, as long as they were functional.”
Several nonpottery items will also be on display, including a small lithograph of Paul Cushman, which has been enlarged for viewers, and a portrait of Cushman’s competitor, Charles Dillon. An interesting 1830s packing list of Cushman wares shows the wealth and breadth of forms produced, including mugs, pots and even a “soda fountain”— of which none are known today.
Accompanying the exhibit is a 144-page softbound book, with a foreword by Leigh and Leslie Keno and a preface by William C. Ketchum, an expert and author of several stoneware books. The book includes essays about Cushman stoneware written by several noted Albany stoneware scholars, followed by a catalog of items in the exhibit. One ambitious essay by Chris Mailman searches for a common maker among pieces stamped with different Albany maker’s marks based on similar traits, such as rim construction.
The catalog comprises 63 pieces photographed in full color and 20 black and white illustrations. Two appendices are also included at the back of the book, one written by Warren Broderick, which gives information on researching potters, and one listing various Albany maker’s marks. A limited edition of 1,000 copies have been produced, and they are available from the Institute for $34.95.
The Albany Institute of Art is at 125 Washington Avenue. For information, 528-463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org.
Editor’s Note: Mark Zipp is an historian and expert in the field of American stoneware. Along with his parents and two brothers, the family runs Crocker Farm, Inc, a Riderwood, Md.-based auction house that specializes in stoneware and redware. Zipp graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University and he has had an article, co-written with his brother, Brandt, and titled “James Miller, Lost Potter of Alexandria, Virginia,” published in Chipstone’s 2004 edition of Ceramics in America.
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