Thomas Commeraw: African American Potter in New York City, 1797-1819
The study of decorative arts is not a static discipline – what scholars knew years ago is frequently revised by new research. The life and work of potter Thomas Commeraw have recently come into focus due to some remarkable findings. While Commeraw's work has resided for years in the collections of many museums, including The Henry Ford, much more about the rich and textured story behind these pieces is now known. Once thought to be French or French Canadian, research has uncovered that Thomas Commeraw was a free African American potter and entrepreneur working in the Corlears Hook neighborhood of New York City.
Through the pioneering research of two independent scholars, Mark Shapiro and Brandt Zipp, Commeraw's origins, creative output and impact are now better understood. Mark Shapiro is a noted potter, historian and biographer of ceramic artist Karen Karnes. He is co-curating an exhibit on Commeraw, opening in 2023 at the New York Historical Society. Shapiro discussed Commeraw on this episode of the podcast Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. Brandt Zipp is a principal in one of the largest ceramic auction houses, Crocker Farm, in Maryland. He recently wrote a biography of Commeraw.
The Rise of Salt-Glazed Stoneware in 18th-Century America
Europeans arriving in North America in the 17th century brought with them familiar, traditional red earthenware. This was “redware,” named for the red clay used to make it. The rural Connecticut home of Samuel Daggett and his family, now in Greenfield Village and interpreted to about 1760, is full of redware. Fired at low heat and relatively simple to make, redware was used for food storage, meal preparation and serving. In many instances, potters glazed the interior and exterior of redware with a slip, or watered-down clay, to make the pieces more durable. But unfortunately, redware was water soluble, so it leaked, and even worse, it easily chipped and broke. For middle-class folks like the Daggetts, this was the best they could afford – imported European or Chinese porcelain was too expensive. The Daggetts likely bartered other goods or services for redware from a potter nearby.
Redware in the Daggett farmhouse pantry and kitchen, Greenfield Village / Photograph by Charles Sable
By the middle of the 1700s, potters in urban areas, such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Charleston, began making salt-glazed stoneware. Immigrants from German-speaking areas of Europe had brought with them the salt-glaze tradition. Dating back to the 1500s, this technique requires a much higher firing temperature than redware and makes the vessel harder after firing — hence the term stoneware. During the firing process, salt is thrown into the kiln. It fuses with silica in the clay to form a glassy, orange-peel-like coating, which resembles a glaze. Vessels could be colorless, colored in shades of brown or sometimes decorated in blue or purple. You can browse examples of salt-glazed stoneware from The Henry Ford’s collections in this expert set.
Salt-glazed and decorated stoneware crocks used for food storage in the Firestone farmhouse cellar, Greenfield Village / Photograph by Charles Sable
By 1800, salt-glazed stoneware had become the preferred method of storing food. Utilitarian stoneware containers were used over and over in the era before tin cans, glass jars, Pyrex storage containers or single-use Ziploc bags. They were kept in cool cellars, icehouses (in rural areas) or anywhere the cold would help preserve their contents in a time before electric refrigeration.
The Crolius and Remmey Family Potteries
The demand for stoneware was widespread. Immigrant German craftsmen and their descendants established bustling businesses in coastal American cities, supplying their geographical regions and even exporting stoneware to the Caribbean and South America. Among the most prominent were the Crolius and Remmey families, whose potteries began in New York City and later spread to New Jersey, Philadelphia and eventually to Baltimore. In the 1730s, they built the first stoneware kilns in colonial America in what is now Tribeca in Manhattan. The area was called Potter’s Hill, and the families' potteries here were continued by later generations into the 1850s.
This piece, signed by Clarkson Crolius (1773-1843), is typical of the wares produced by the Crolius pottery in New York City. It is a large, two-handled jar, sometimes called an “Oyster” jar, as these were used by oystermen in the East River (long before it became polluted!). Clarkson Crolius was a grandson of the pottery’s founder. / THF191243
While the Crolius and Remmey families were the proprietors of the potteries, wills and other primary sources reveal that the workers were mostly enslaved African Americans in the colonial period and, after the American Revolution, freemen. A tantalizing bit of evidence may be seen in the 1778 will of Willem Crolius, of Middle Brook in Somerset, New Jersey, where the Crolius family owned a pottery. It states: “With a proper recognition of the pending struggle of the American people to secure their own freedom, I provide that my slaves Tom and his wife Venus and their children should be freed.” (The source for this information is an article by genealogist Pearl Duncan, quoting Commeraw biographer Brandt Zipp’s research.)
Was the Tom referred to in Crolius’ will Thomas Commeraw? Or was it Thomas Commeraw’s father? Or someone else? Likely we will never know. What we do know is that Thomas Commeraw operated a pottery at a place called Corlears Hook, located near the East River and the African burial ground (now a national monument) in Manhattan. He stamped all of his pottery with "Corlears Hook," and many pieces were also stamped “Commeraw.”
Thomas Commeraw and the Crolius and Remmey Families
According to the article referenced above, it is highly likely that Thomas Commeraw trained at at least one of the Crolius or Remmey family potteries. By the late 1790s, as reported by researcher Mark Shapiro, Commeraw’s name appeared in New York City directories. All sources indicate that Commeraw's Corlears Hook pottery opened in 1797. It is also clear that it was an outgrowth or expansion of the Crolius and Remmey families' businesses. This may be confirmed when we compare a signature Corlears Hook jar with the one above, made at a Crolius pottery:
Jars stamped “Corlears Hook,” 1797-1819, and “C. (Clarkson) Crolius,” 1800-1820 / THF191148 (explore a 360-degree view in our Digital Collections) and THF191243
The shapes are nearly identical; however, the decoration is different and telling. The Crolius jar is undecorated, other than the stamped label. The Corlears Hook jar is decorated with blue swags separated by tassels, a motif that appears on many of the Corlears Hook pieces — and many of those signed by Thomas Commeraw. While we cannot definitively attribute this jar to Thomas Commeraw, we know that his firm made it. Shapiro suggests that another potter, David Morgan, was associated with the Corlears Hook pottery from about 1805-1807. Is this his work? All we can say is that it was made at the Corlears Hook pottery and looks an awful lot like wares made at Crolius potteries.
Thomas Commeraw, His Wares and His Business
The jar below is typical of Thomas Commeraw’s vessels. Like the “Corlears Hook” jar above, it is decorated with swags and tassels around the neck of the piece. Unlike the other, it says “Commeraw’s Stoneware" — interesting that Commeraw promoted himself, like Clarkson Crolius did with his jar.
Jar stamped “Commeraw’s Stoneware,” made at Corlears Hook pottery, 1797-1819 / THF191108
Commeraw clearly spelled out that other pieces, such as the jug below, were made at his pottery in New York. Commeraw’s wares were not only sold locally, they were used on ships departing the port of New York City and have been found at archaeological sites along the East Coast and as far away as the Caribbean and South America. Was this example destined for some faraway place?
Jug stamped “Commeraw’s Stoneware Corlears Hook N. York,” 1797-1819 / THF191112 (explore a 360-degree view in our Digital Collections)
After 1800, New York became the largest city in the new United States of America. It was home to the country’s largest port and the place to be for economic opportunity for diverse peoples. African Americans constituted about 10 percent of New York City's population, split between enslaved and free and including refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804. The Corlears Hook pottery was established within this diverse population.
Besides artifacts, a paper trail survives that tells Commeraw's story through city directories and the censuses of 1790, 1800 and 1810. Thomas Commeraw appears in all of these, starting in 1797 as a business owner — extraordinary in the African American community at that time. Scholar Shapiro suggests he may have catered to the African American community, possibly supplying oyster jars (like the examples pictured above) to the predominantly African American oystermen in New York City.
Commeraw was also active in his community and belonged to an African American church that celebrated the abolition of the international slave trade beginning in 1807. According to surviving documents, Commeraw participated in these events annually.
The End of the Corlears Hook Pottery
Scholarship strongly suggests that Commeraw was a successful businessman throughout the first decade of the 1800s. Shapiro uncovered records of court cases indicating that as time went on, Commeraw faced a more difficult economic environment. These cases involved promissory notes that Commeraw had signed to help raise capital. As Shapiro has noted, business capital was difficult to obtain during this period. By 1819, Commeraw ended up losing his pottery to his creditors.
Shapiro speculates that the American Colonization Society-sponsored opportunity of starting anew in Africa might have appealed to Commeraw. The American Colonization Society was a public/private partnership that sought to return African Americans to their ancestral homelands. It was based on a model used by the British government to relocate loyal African Americans from Nova Scotia following the American Revolution. In 1820, Commeraw and his family left New York City for an ill-fated venture to Sierra Leone, along with a group of 20-30 others.
Whatever his motivations, Commeraw and his family arrived in a marshy, malaria-infested area in 1820. It was a tragic disaster — several of Commeraw’s family members died of malaria. He came back to the United States in 1822 and, according to current research, did not return to making pottery. We do not know Commeraw’s fate — not even the date of his death.
Commeraw’s fascinating story is an important part of the history of American craft. Too often in the study of decorative arts, the contributions of Black Americans and other marginalized people have either been neglected, as was the case with Thomas Commeraw, or completely ignored. Ongoing, evolving research can shed light on these crucial stories, enriching and broadening our understanding of the American experience.
By Charles Sable, curator of decorative arts, with contributions from Aimee Burpee, associate registrar, special projects, and Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.