By Justin W. Thomas
Chelsea Keramic Art Works is one of the first American ceramic companies to designate itself as an art pottery company. Located just north of Boston in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the company was started by the Robertson family in 1866, all of whom had worked in the ceramics industry in England before working in Chelsea. Although Hugh Robertson (1844-1908) was the real driving force behind the success of the company (and later the Dedham Pottery in Dedham, Massachusetts), creating a variety of earthenware inspired by classical designs, as well as styles conforming to British production at the time. Wares made by this company can be found in art museums throughout the United States, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. , including other museums.
Today, however, less is known that the New England Pottery Company was probably equally important, operating at the same time only a few miles away in East Boston, Massachusetts. Frederick Meagher originally established the company in 1854, manufacturing an assortment of yellow enamel and domestic Rockingham tableware; however, in 1876 Thomas Gray and Lyman W. Clark, sons of Decius W. Clark of Bennington, Vermont, purchased the East Boston business and founded the New England Pottery Company.
Clark had very useful experience preparing clays and glazes in Bennington, then for a short time in Kaolin, SC, and later in Peoria, Illinois. The first wares made under his direction in East Boston were utilitarian in nature. From the company’s advertisements, we learn that white granite and running crockery, tableware and toiletries were the only production.
Of all the wares produced in this company, it is notable that from 1886 to 1895 Thomas H. Copeland of the famous English potting family modeled most of the pieces. JW Phillips is responsible for many of the designs used in the printing process, although many were also decorated by hand, with Doulton and Royal Worcester products being the inspiration.
Copeland is responsible for creating some of the company’s best shapes and decorations, one of which is a bold blue glaze adorned with gold. Some of the decorations introduced by Copeland were considered advanced for American manufacturers. Copeland also helped sell the goods.
American archaeologist and author Edwin Atlee Barber (1851-1916) wrote extensively about the New England Pottery Company when American Potters Marks was published in Philadelphia in 1904, documenting all of the company’s various marks based on his personal relationship with Lyman W. Clark. According to Barber, “The first mark employed by the company was the Great Seal or Arms of the State of Massachusetts, which was used from 1878 to 1883 on ironstone china or white granite ware.
“A special order of goods for a private buyer was marked with a flying eagle. This has been printed in black under the glaze. A diamond-shaped device with meandering border, enclosing the company name monogram and owners’ initials, was used on stone china from 1883 to 1886. Cream-coloured tableware was marked in black with a similar design and a scalloped, circular outline, during the years 1886 to 1892, when its manufacture was discontinued. In 1886, the company began to manufacture semi-porcelain tableware in colored pastes, artistically decorated. To this product they gave the name “Rieti” tableware. This was first marked in black underglaze, with a chained hand holding a dagger. The design was modified in 1888, and until 1889 the mark “Rieti” was a shell bearing the name, also printed in black under the glaze. From 1889 to 1895, when the production of “Rieti” ceramics was discontinued, the hallmark was a combined crown and coat of arms, printed on the glaze in red. The last punch, used on articles and special shapes, in “white of Paris” ceramic, was adopted in 1897.
Without a doubt, the most notable and aesthetically pleasing wares made in East Boston were those made under the “Rieti” line. These types of products can be found in museums across the United States today, including the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Historic New England. These objects were often decorated by hand with ornate gold designs, as well as a variety of other decorative techniques.
Forms documented from East Boston include vases, pitchers, chocolate pots, teapots, sugar bowls, oyster plates, cracker jars, vegetable dishes, sauce boats, water pitchers and basins, pots ginger, mugs, potpourri and other shapes as well.
Interestingly, in the Historic New England warehouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts, there is a group of large samples of semi-porcelain flat sellers of the “Rieti” line, which company agents carried to show them to potential customers. These are the only surviving examples like this currently known to exist today and they are much larger than the actual products. Historic New England has in its photographic collection photos of the New England Pottery Company product lines that were donated to the museum in 1931.
Although the origin of the name “Rieti” is a mystery today, it may have something to do with the reproduction of ancient Greek pottery, as it was a popular style with pottery makers in the Boston area. at the time; the product line may have been named after Rieti, an ancient town in central Italy.
Perhaps the most significant archaeological artifact of this society is the remains of a dish recovered a few years ago by Boston City archaeologist Joe Bagley as part of an archaeological dig at the Washington Garden. of the Old North Church in the North End neighborhood of Boston. Bagley’s research with historical documents leading up to the dig revealed that Washington Garden was the previous location of two 19th-century apartment buildings and their outbuildings or restrooms.
The recovered white granite shard represents the remains of a dish; based on the mark, it was made at the New England Pottery Company around 1880, which would have included it with the first line of wares produced by Thomas Gray and Lyman W. Clark in East Boston after 1876.
The New England Pottery Company is a business that deserves more attention today, especially its “Rieti” line and the wares that were made during Thomas H. Copeland’s years of employment. Copeland left the company in 1895 when the “Rieti” line was discontinued.
New England pottery was a major business in Boston. Although much of his production was cast, the best pieces were beautifully decorated by hand in bright colors, some of which have attracted the attention of major museums. Unlike anything made in the Boston area, the best pieces were probably also shipped to other major US cities and should be included when reviewing the best pottery makers in the Boston area at the end of the 19th and early 20th century.