Crolius Potters

I’ve collected many things over the years: baseball cards, trains, decoys, cookie jars, and much more. In the 1980s, I went through a stoneware phase. Stoneware was the tupperware of the late 18th century and most of the 19th century: an all purpose storage container. It could hold liquids and solids. American stoneware is a fascinating product–each piece created and decorated individually.

Pottery-making is one of America’s most ancient crafts. For many potters, making stoneware from clay, then firing it in a kiln, was a business that required little start-up capital, but often resulted in a business that quickly died. However, for those rare successes, the pottery-making business often was passed from generation to generation. And there were few, if any, stoneware families more prominent than the Crolius family. In 1730, William Crolius, a German immigrant from the Rhineland, which itself had a rich tradition of pottery-making, established his stoneware business on Pot Baker’s Hill in Manhattan. You might have guessed: the Crolius family of potters are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Pot Baker’s Hill was  a marshy and undeveloped area in Manhattan, just north of today’s City Hall, and just east of Broadway. It was on the outskirts of the 18th-century city.

The Maerschalk Plan of New York City was published in 1755. This detail shows the "Negros Burial Ground" (rediscovered, starting in 1991, and now known as the African Burial Ground) at top right. Note the two "Pot Baker(s)" marked nearby; one of them was William Crolius's kiln. The Commons (labelled on the map) later would become City Hall Park. Broadway has yet to appear in this part of the map, although the building line above the Commons shows where it would be. Note also the "Palisades," marking the end of the fortified city.

In fact, some of the earliest lots at Green-Wood–lots 46 and 59–were sold to Crolius family members. Crolius was an unusual 19th century name in America: checking the American Civil War Research Database, which lists 4.2 million men who served in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, 4 entries are for men named Crolius who served in the Union Army; the Confederate forces had no man named Crolius. But Green-Wood lists 68 people named Crolius in our interment database. In all, there were 15 Crolius potters, including 6 named William, five Johns, one George, and two Clarksons. Green-Wood has 6 Williams, 4 Johns, 7 Georges, and three Clarksons–the bulk of the Crolius potters.

The first Clarkson Crolius (1774-1843) was the grandson of William Crolius, the founder of the family business, and the son of John and Maria Clarkson Crolius. He was involved in politics, serving as an alderman in New York City’s Sixth Ward for many years, as an assemblyman, and in 1825 was elected Speaker of the New York State Assembly. By 1811, he had risen to be Grand Sachem of the Tammny Society; he laid the cornerstone for the Old Tammany Hall that was built on Frankfort Street. He was also active in the military; during the War of 1812, Clarkson served as major of the 29th New York State Militia, then entered U.S. service, and rose to colonel. This mix of politics and military service was no accident. There was a spike in new American potteries around 1805; these were early American manufacturers, started in an effort to establish economic independence from England. Federal legislation from 1806 to 1809, and the Embargo Act of 1807, prohibited trade with England, and English imports fell by two-thirds; American manufacturers, including potters, had little competition from imports, and thrived.

Clarkson was in the stoneware business by 1794; he later moved the family pottery business to Bayard Street, but continued to live on Reade Street, near where the pottery had been.

This painting of Clarkson Crolius, Sr., by Ezra Ames, is at the New-York Historical Society. An inscription on the back notes that it was painted in Albany in 1825, when Crolius was Speaker of the Assembly.

The Crolius Pottery produced stoneware, typically light gray or tan, that was salt-glazed and often decorated with die-stamped and/or incised patterns colored with a cobalt blue glaze.

I have just purchased the Crolius piece below on behalf of The Green-Wood Historic Fund. It is in rough shape–shattered into pieces, it has been crudely glued back together. It also has a substantial chip along its rim, and the surface is rough at the outside bottom, likely from the extended storage of a liquid. But it is a rare piece: according to Donald Blake Webster, in his landmark “Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America,” published in 1971, “marked pieces by Clarkson Crolius of New York City are among the rarest examples of stoneware . . . .” And, this piece’s design is really quite exceptional. First of all, not all of Crolius’s pieces were marked. Note the maker’s mark pressed into the front and highlighted with a cobalt blue slip:

The Green-Wood Historic Fund's recent purchase, a stoneware crock, marked with the stamp of Clarkson Crolius, Sr. It was produced some time between 1794 and 1815.

And note the very nice die-stamped design below the maker’s mark–what looks like the center of a flower pressed into the soft clay before firing in a kiln.

Now take a look at the back of this crock:

The back, with quite a nice design.

Note that the same decorative stamp that was used on the front, below the makers mark, has also been used here, to create the pistil of the flower, with flower petals then incised around it. And here is the same stamp in use again on another piece of stoneware:

This jar, decorated with four stamped rosettes, is unmarked, but was attributed to Clarkson Crolius by Donald Blake Webster in his seminal book, "Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America." Webster comments, "The hand stamp itself was probably formed of clay rather than metal or wood. Such a rosette, though standing alone here, could easily have been used to form the center of a much larger incised flower." Indeed, the crock that Green-Wood just purchased shows both a decorative use of the stamp and its use as the center of a larger incised flower. Webster's surmise is confirmed.

Clarkson Crolius’s son, the second Clarkson Crolius (1801-1887), went into business with his namesake, and continued the family’s pottery business until his retirement in 1870. The New-York Historical Society owns Clarkson Crolius, Jr.’s maker’s stamp and many of his tools. He also is interred at Green-Wood.

The stamp of Clarkson Crolius, Jr. He used it repeatedly to impress his mark into soft clay before it was fired. Note the incription here: "C. CROLIUS/MANUFACTURER/NEW-YORK." It is later than the inscription that appears on our recently-purchased piece, which includes "Manhattan Wells," an earlier place description.
The wonderful Crolius crock that we have just purchased will help us tell the story of New York City, its early years, and its early potteries. It will help The Green-Wood Historic Fund interpret the lives of the Crolius potters. It is a great addition to our collections.

17 thoughts on “Crolius Potters”

  1. Very nice little article about the Crolius family of potters. I was wondering if you could confirm the material from which Clarkson Crolius’ name stamp is made. Is it a cast brass plate that is screwed to the turned wood handle?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Thanks!

    That would be my guess from looking at the photograph–wood with a brass plate stamp. It is at the New-York Historical Society; I visit it whenever I am there, up in the Luce Center. If you call there, they should be able to confirm the materials.

    Reply
    • I descended from the youngest John in civil war. I believe he married Jane Morgan. Am interested in learning family history. Visited Brooklyn just this summer for Prospect park wedding, but unfortunately did not know of green-wood. Will visit next time. We did visit the African burial grounds. Other than Internet searching, do you have suggestions about how to learn more while visiting NYC area?

      Reply
  3. Jane Morgan was likely from the Morgans of Cheesequake, NJ also a very important family in the stoneware community. For a long time most of the best stoneware clays were mined from the Morgan bank on Raritan Bay

    Reply
  4. My mothers maiden name was Crolius and her father was Clarkson ,mother Mary ,sisters Jennie ,Mary and Kate,brothers George ,Vincent to the best of my knowledge he was born in 1854.I attended his funeral in 1947

    Reply
  5. Hi. I love this piece and am actually related to the Crolius family. My great great grandmother is Lydia Crolius, daughter of Clarkson Crolius Sr. We’re just tracing our family tree and love what we’re finding.

    Reply
  6. I live near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in south Stafford County. In the winter of 1862-63 Union troops were camped all around our property, including from some New York units. I dug-up a NY National Guard uniform button just outside our back door, ironic since my fresh of the boat from Germany great-great grandfather joined the NY Guard a few years after the War. Anyway, while preparing a plot for potatoes I uncovered a large piece of stoneware with most of the C.Crolius logo intact (wish I could attach a photo). Many other shards have presented themselves, probably about one-fourth or so of a complete crock. Pity the lads were not more careful with it and buried it whole. But thank you for your history, gives life to these pieces of the past.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to William Liebeknecht Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.