The Piercy Pottery
Henry Piercy was Alexandria’s first potter. He came from Philadelphia in 1792, and made slip-decorated earthenware in the Philadelphia style. Read In the Philadelphia Style: The Pottery of Henry Piercy, in Ceramics in America.
The Wilkes Street Pottery
The Wilkes Street Pottery is the site of stoneware potters John Swann and B. C. Milburn. The Virginia Research Center for Archaeology conducted rescue excavations here on four weekends in 1977, recovering thousands of pottery fragments, pieces of kiln furniture used to stack the pottery, and a fragment of a brick interior arch from a kiln. Learn more about the pottery of Swann and Milburn from articles published in Ceramics in America.
Tildon Easton, a lesser known potter, manufactured both earthenware and salt-glazed stoneware for a very short period of time, between 1841 and 1843. His kiln, on the 1400 block of King Street, was excavated in 1985. Read A New Look at Old Stoneware: The Pottery of Tildon Easton, in Ceramics in America.
Alexandria Earthenware: Henry Piercy
The ongoing study of Alexandria’s potters is an important aspect of Alexandria Archaeology’s research. The potters themselves have interesting histories. Some, like Alexandria’s first potter Henry Piercy, were successful businessmen and prominent citizens. Others, like stoneware potter John Swann were struggling to make ends meet. The study of their pottery kilns, kiln furniture and potsherds tells us about manufacturing techniques and stylistic preferences. The study of the distribution of their pottery throughout the town and throughout the region, and of newspaper advertisements for their wares, tells us about trade and distribution networks. And discovery of their pottery on archaeological sites helps us to date the area of the site in which they are found, and to determine what activities took place there.
Henry Piercy, 1792-1809
The earliest earthenware manufactured in Alexandria is linked both stylistically and historically with Philadelphia, 150 miles to the north. Henry Piercy was born in Saarbrücken, a traditional German pottery-producing region. He and his family moved to Philadelphia in 1769, when he was 13. Piercy learned the trade from his older brother, before serving with Washington in the Revolutionary War. In 1792, now 36 and an accomplished potter, Henry moved to Alexandria. He opened his own pottery, where he continued to produce slip-decorated earthenware in the Philadelphia style. His pottery of the 1790s continued to look very much like Philadelphia pottery of the 1770s. This style of slip decorated earthenware was also produced by other Alexandria potters in the 1790's and early 1800's, as Piercy's techniques and style were passed on through various apprenticeships and short-lived partnerships. If not for the Smithsonian’s 1968 excavation of a test pit at Piercy’s kiln site, at the corner of Washington and Duke Streets, we would surely identify slipware and plainer utilitarian earthenware in our collection as Philadelphia imports.
Several more sites related to Henry Piercy have been excavated over the past thirty years. Some of his pottery was found at a house on the 100 block of South Royal Street, where he lived in 1796. More than 80 vessels were recovered from a brick-lined privy shaft behind a shop on the 400 block of King Street. These also date from 1796, when Piercy closed his china and glass shop in this building after only six months of operation.
The Piercy and Fisher Pottery Sites
Piercy built his pot-house on a quarter-block lot on the northeast corner of Washington and Duke Streets. In 1792, this location was on the outskirts of town, where noxious fumes from the kiln and danger of fire would be of less concern. In 1968, the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History excavated a test pit in the backyard of one of the Lloyd’s Row townhouses, built on the site in 1811. Artifacts recovered from this small excavation include fragments of slip-decorated chargers, pans, and bowls; dark brown-glazed chamber pots, porringers, tankards, jugs, and pitchers; and utilitarian pots and milk pans, glazed only on the interior.
Piercy and Graham, China and Glass Shop
In addition to pottery manufacture, Piercy was involved in retail ventures. At first, he sold "a large assortment of China Queen’s Ware and Glass" from his house on Prince Street (Alexandria Gazette, November 1, 1792). Then in 1795, he advertised a new shop on the 400 block of King Street, where a hotel now stands:
PIERCY AND GRAHAM Have Just Received and Now Opening for Sale Opposite Mr. McNight’s Tavern, King Street, a neat and general assortment of DRY GOODS … Amongst which are a beautiful assortment of NANKEENS … Also an Assortment of China and Glass. (Alexandria Gazette, June 20, 1795)
This shop only operated for ten months. A well behind this shop was excavated in 1974, during the Alexandria Urban Renewal project, and eighty earthenware vessels of Piercy’s manufacture were recovered from the site. Many of these vessels were nearly complete, and were able to be restored.
The Piercy Waster Dump
The most recent Piercy discovery was made in 1999, in the backyard of a house at 211 S. St. Asaph Street, when a back-hoe hit a huge cache of kiln furniture and potsherds from a waster dump associated with Piercy’s nearby kiln site. This site yielded a ton of information, and about 1 ½ tons of artifacts. Most of the collection consisted of heavy clay saggars used to protect the more delicate pottery in the kiln during firing. Also found were thick tiles and rectangular fire bars to steady the big pans and pots, and small placed on the pot-rims to separate them in the kiln. Larger pieces with heavier rims were stacked one upon another, separated and steadied as needed with kiln furniture and small wads of clay.
Huge quantities of wasters, or fragments of pottery which are too badly damaged to use, were thrown away at all pottery sites, and provide insight into the products made. Most of the fragments recovered from Piercy’s waster dump were utilitarian jars and milk pans, and brown glazed jugs, jars, pitchers and bowls. These are all identical to forms made in Philadelphia, as are the more elaborate and decorative slipwares. Sloping sided pans with everted rims are glazed in orange (really a clear glaze), and decorated with spirals of trailed slip. Chargers, or big platters, have a shallow rounded shape, pie-crust rim, and combed slip decoration. Bowls have a yellow slipped interior, usually with brown splotches. The most unusual find was a dated punch bowl, with the date and lettering executed in slip. This important bowl is the only known piece of Alexandria earthenware with a date or inscription. However, only part of the bowl was found, with just tantalizing fragments of the writing, spelling out "..Company.." and the partial date "17..." Does this advertise a local business or organization, or does it invite tavern goers to drink "In Good Company"? We may never know.
Alexandria Stoneware: The Wilkes Street Pottery
Its wares are well known throughout the country, and considered the very best of their kind.
- - Alexandria Gazette, April 10, 1867
The Virginia Research Center for Archaeology conducted rescue excavations on this site on four weekends in 1977, recovering thousands of pottery fragments, pieces of kiln furniture used to stack the pottery, and a fragment of a brick interior arch from a kiln. Historical records, together with the makers’ marks, shapes and designs found on sherds from the archaeological site and surviving pieces of stoneware in museums and private collections, help to tell the story of Alexandria stoneware and the potters who made it.
Potter John Swann, 1810-1825
Alexandria’s first stoneware was probably made by potter Lewis Plum around 1799. In 1803, Plum took an apprentice named John Swann for a period of seven years. After his apprenticeship ended, Swann opened his own manufactory on Wilkes Street, where he concentrated on the manufacture of stoneware.
John Swann’s earliest stoneware consisted of large bulbous jugs and jars, usually dipped to the shoulder in a brown iron-oxide wash, which dripped down the surface of the pot. The jugs have ringed necks, and jars have round or angled rims. The earliest vessels do not have a maker’s mark, but the distinctive rims and the use of iron wash help to identify them.
In 1819, Swann advertised “a great improvement to his ware,” and began to decorate his stoneware with simple blue floral and foliate designs, usually made up of very short brush strokes.
All or most of Swann’s decorated stoneware was stamped with a maker’s mark or merchant’s mark. His own mark, J. SWANN / ALEXA, may have only been used until 1821, when china merchant Hugh Smith agreed to purchase all of Swann’s “sound and merchantable stoneware.” After that date, most or all of Swann’s wares were probably marked with the Smith company name.
Hugh Smith and H. C. Smith, ca. 1825-1841
China merchants Hugh Smith and his sons owned the Wilkes Street Pottery from 1825 until 1841. Swann manufactured stoneware stamped with Hugh Smith’s name at least by 1821, and potter B.C. Milburn continued to make stoneware for the Smith company until it closed in 1851.
Swann probably used the mark HUGH SMITH & Co. on pieces he manufactured for Smith from about 1821 until 1825. The designs in this period are still very simple with leaves made of short dabs of color, but the central round flower, which has come to be known as the “Alexandria Motif,” reaches its mature form in this period.
The H. SMITH & Co. mark was first used in 1825, when a new partnership was formed with that name. The company foreclosed on its mortgage on the Swann Pottery and purchased it at auction. The earliest wares with this mark are identical to those marked HUGH SMITH & Co.. Soon, however, the designs reach a new level of sophistication, with more abundant leaves and more complicated designs. In this period, we also begin to see the work of different potters and decorators working at Wilkes Street. This includes the work of a free black potter named David Jarbour. Jarbour made a huge, 27” tall jar, inscribed on the bottom “1830 / Alexa / Maid by / D. Jarbour,” [sic] which is in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, NC.
Hugh’s son, Hugh Charles Smith, took over the business in 1831. His mark, H. C. SMITH /ALEXA DC , was used until Alexandria’s retrocession to Virginia in 1847. Potter B.C. Milburn worked for H.C. Smith at the beginning of this period. After Milburn purchased the Pottery in 1841, vessels with the Milburn and Smith marks were probably made concurrently. In this period, new rim and handle shapes were developed and the designs became more crowded on some vessels.
The mark H. C. SMITH / ALEXA was used after Retrocession, until J.P. Smith took over the family’s retail business in 1851. Just a few pots are known with the mark J.P. SMITH, used from 1851-1854. Stoneware with these marks, made by Milburn and his staff, is similar to ones with his Milburn’s own mark.
Potter B.C. Milburn, ca. 1841-1867
Benedict C. Milburn came to Alexandria from St. Mary’s County to apprentice with a potter, as did his predecessor at Wilkes Street, John Swann. Milburn may have worked at Wilkes Street with Swann as early as 1822. He took over operations by 1833 and purchased the business in 1841.
Swann had struggled with the business, but Milburn was very successful. His stoneware has been found as far away as West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.
The earliest of the Milburn marks, B. C. MILBURN ALEXANDRIA D.C., was probably used from 1841 until Alexandria’s retrocession from Virginia in 1847. Only a few vessels are known with this mark, as most of the stoneware made in this period probably still advertised the Smith Company. From 1847 until his death in 1867, Milburn used the marks B. C. MILBURN, and the more common B. C. MILBURN/ ALEXA. Some of the designs used with these marks were quite elaborate, and similar patterns were executed in brushed cobalt and using a new slip-trailing technique. Clearly, two or more decorators were at work in this period. Many of the vessels have sophisticated artwork, while others have surprisingly primitive designs.
Very little decorated stoneware was produced at Wilkes Street after the Civil War. The use of cobalt may have been all but discontinued due to the cost of labor and materials. Similar undecorated jars and jugs were made with the B. C. MILBURN / ALEXA mark, and with those of his sons S. C. MILBURN/ALEXA (1867-1873) and W. LEWIS MILBURN (1871-1876). The Milburns also made similar wares with the mark of Alexandria merchant E. J. MILLER / ALEXA (1865-1876).
After the Wilkes Street Pottery
After the Pottery closed in 1876, a bark shed was placed on the site for the tannery of C. C. Smoot and Co., located across the street. A large manufactory in Pennsylvania, James Hamilton (later Williams and Reppert) of Greensboro, supplied stoneware to Alexandria merchant E. J. Miller. The Greensboro potters made stoneware with stenciled decoration and advertising for many stores throughout the Northeast. Stoneware from this Pennsylvania pottery can be distinguished from the work of the Alexandria potters in two ways: Miller’s name is stenciled in blue cobalt, rather than stamped into the clay; and a brown Albany slip coats the interior of the Greensboro pieces.
Learn More about Alexandria Pottery
The following publications can be read, by appointment, at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Most are also available at the Alexandria Library, Special Collections.
- Hunter, Robert, Kurt C. Russ, and Marshall Goodman, Stoneware of Eastern Virginia, The Magazine Antiques 167, no. 4 (April 2005): 126-133.
- Lloyd, Kristin B., From Potter to Pantry: 19th Century Stoneware. Catalog of the Exhibition at The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum. (Alexandria, Virginia 1991), number 35.
- Magid, Barbara H., An Archaeological Perspective on Alexandria’s Pottery Tradition, Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, XX1: 2 (Winter 1995): 41-82.
- Magid, Barbara H. and Bernard K. Means, In the Philadelphia Style: the Pottery of Henry Piercy, Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2003).
- Magid, Barbara H., A New Look at Old Stoneware: The Pottery of Tildon Easton, in Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004), pp. 249-252.
- Magid, Barbara H., Stone-ware of excellent quality, Alexandria manufacture, Part I: The Pottery of John Swann, in Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2012).
- Magid, Barbara H., Stone-ware of excellent quality, Alexandria manufacture, Part II: The Pottery of Benedict C. Milburn, in Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2013).
- Myers, Suzita Cecil, Alexandria Salt-Glazed Stoneware: A Study in Material Culture 1813-1876 (University of Maryland, M.A. Thesis, 1982), pp. 57-61.
- Myers, Suzita Cecil, The Potters’ Art: Salt-glazed Stoneware of 19th century Alexandria. (Alexandria, Va.: Alexandria Archaeology Publications, 1983, Second Edition 2003)
- Pogue, Dennis J., An Analysis of Wares Salvaged from the Swann-Smith-Milburn Pottery Site (44AX29), Alexandria, Virginia, Archaeological Society of Virginia Quarterly Bulletin. 34: 3 (1980): 149-159.
- Zipp, Brandt and Mark Zipp, James Miller, Lost Potter of Alexandria, Virginia, Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004) pp. 253-26