Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New York State History Month: A Pilgrimage to Niagara Falls

The final stop on our trip through New York on transferware brings us to the western part of the state. These pieces from the Alice’s collection feature two great marvels of the early 19th century: the Erie Canal, a man-made technological triumph, and Niagara Falls, a natural wonder of sublime beauty. It was the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 that for the first time allowed large numbers of Americans to visit the Falls, and made Niagara the premier tourist attraction of the age.

Ralph Stevenson, Erie Canal at Buffalo
 This plate, manufactured by Ralph Stevenson between 1830 and 1840, is one of many ceramic items produced in the 1820s and 1830s featuring towns and other scenes along the Erie Canal. This one depicts the canal’s end at Buffalo, showing both canal boats and sailing ships on Lake Erie. 

By connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal revolutionized the transportation of goods and people. American farmers had started exporting food crops to Europe on a large scale during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). However, even as international exports increased, it remained very expensive to transport goods within the United States. In 1816, $9 could move one ton of goods across the Atlantic, but only 30 miles across land. The construction of the Erie Canal, which began in 1817 and launched a canal-building boom, would change all that. Now farmers who had previously grown crops for their own families began growing for the market. They earned cash and purchased goods they had previously made themselves—or gone without. 

Canals were accompanied by other improvements in transportation—the continuing development of steamboats, new roads offering swift stagecoach service, and, by the 1830s, railroads. New York City, as the port of entry to the Hudson River, secured its position as the largest and most economically important city in the nation. The flourishing steamboat industry turned St. Louis and Cincinnati into centers of trade, and Chicago would ultimately become the railroad hub of the Great Lakes region.

Map of the Niagara region from
The Northern Traveller, 1831
The revolution in transportation made tourism possible. The development of urban commercial centers created a population of prosperous middle-class Americans with the means to travel. Tourists could travel with relative comfort and safety, and there was a growing body of travel literature that told people how to be tourists and what they should look for. For most of the first half of the 19th century, Niagara Falls was the place to go. Indeed, it took on an almost sacred status, with some visitors referring to themselves as “pilgrims.”

Travel to Niagara from places outside Canada had been difficult through most of the 18th century, because it involved crossing through the territory of the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy. In the early 1800s, there was not much in the way of accommodation for those travelers who did make it—just a small village at Lewiston, with slightly more on the Canadian side. The disruptions of the War of 1812 also hindered growth in the area. 

The first tourist guidebook
published in the U.S.
However, the War of 1812 also decisively settled the boundary between the United States and Canada, which allowed for rapid expansion of trade. The powerful Indian nations of the region were displaced, and emigrants, businessmen, and tourists began to flood westward.  Even before construction began on the Erie Canal, there were enough travelers along the route between Albany and Buffalo to create an infrastructure of roads, stagecoach routes, and inns. And indeed, long before the canal was complete, its construction led to huge improvements along the route, as roads, bridges, and ferries were needed to transport workers and supplies.

The development of Niagara as a tourist destination was also closely linked to the Hudson Valley. As noted in my previous post, the Hudson Valley became a tourist spot in the 1810s. As travel and facilities in the valley improved, access to destinations beyond the valley improved as well. The Hudson Valley, Saratoga Springs, the Erie Canal, Niagara, Montreal, Quebec, and Boston all became linked in a standard tourist itinerary known as the “Fashionable Tour.”

Enoch Wood, Niagara from the American Side
Niagara’s first genteel tourist hotel, built by William Forsyth, opened in 1822. Within a decade, Niagara Falls had become such a common destination among tourists that it was already something of a cliché. Visitors came to the falls already having seen and read countless depictions and descriptions of them—perhaps on a piece of transferware like this platter made by Enoch Wood. They knew they were supposed to feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of the experience, but many found themselves disappointed by the reality. Besides, it was hard to appreciate nature with so many other tourists around, not to mention the souvenir-sellers, entertainers, tour guides, and hucksters of
Niagara Falls from under the Table Rock
John Hill after William James Bennett, 1829-30
various types that surrounded the falls.

Still, many visitors did find that Niagara lived up to, or even surpassed, their expectations. The English writer Frances Trollope, who was highly critical of the United States in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), had only praise for Niagara Falls:

“Wonder, terror, and delight completely overwhelmed me. I wept with a strange mixture of pleasure and pain, and certainly was, for a time, too violently affected in the physique to be capable of much pleasure; but when this emotion of the senses subsided, and I had recovered some degree of composure, my enjoyment was very great indeed. To say that I was not disappointed is but a weak expression to convey the surprise and astonishment which this long dreamed of scene produced.”

Two excellent sources on the history of early American tourism are John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)

If you’re interested in the later history of Niagara Falls as a tourist destination, check out Karen Dubinsky, The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls (Rutgers University Press, 1999).

Much more on the Erie Canal can be found at eriecanal.org

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New York State History Month: Picturesque Views of the Hudson River Valley

Picturesque Views, ca. 1829-1836
The plates and platters featured in this week’s journey through New York State on transferware are part of the “Picturesque Views” series by James Clews (who brought us Lafayette’s landing last week). These three pieces depict towns on the Hudson River: West Point (sepia), Newburgh (blue), and Fishkill (black). The source for all the “picturesque views” (twenty in all) is a series of prints engraved by John Hill after watercolors by William Guy Wall, called the Hudson River Port Folio, issued between 1821 and 1825.

Clews, Near Fishkill, Hudson River

William Guy Wall was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1792 and came to the United States in 1818. He studied art with John Rubens Smith, and in the summer of 1820, the two took a trip up the Hudson River, reaching as far north as Luzerne. In 1821, a prospectus appeared in newspapers in major American cities, offering readers the chance to subscribe to the Hudson River Port Folio, “containing twenty-four views of the north river, selected by W. G. Wall, during a tour in the summer of 1820, and painted by him in his best manner, and with a faithful attention to nature. To be engraved by J. R. Smith, in aquatint, in a manner peculiarly adapted to represent highly finished drawings.”

W. G. Wall, View Near Fishkill
The Port Folio was to be issued in six volumes of four prints each, “carefully coloured under the immediate inspection of Mr. Wall.” The prints would be enhanced by descriptions of the scenes, written by the novelist John Agg, who had accompanied Wall and Smith on their tour. Whenever possible, “this literary accompaniment will be enriched with historical narrative, so that the scene and chronicle of glorious achievement will be transmitted, side by side, to posterity.”

Clews, West Point, Hudson River

Smith began the engraving process, but was soon replaced on the project by John Hill, a London-born engraver who had achieved fame for his work on Joshua Shaw’s Picturesque Views of American Scenery, the first large-format color-plate book printed in America (1820). The sixth number of the Port Folio was never produced, making a total of five parts with four prints each, issued once per year. Each number cost $16.00, making it well beyond the reach of most Americans—indeed, it’s likely that many more people would have been familiar with Wall’s views through their reproduction on ceramics than through the original prints.

W. G. Wall, West Point
The Hudson River had played an important role in American life since colonial days, when it supported the fur trade and brought grain and timber to New York City. In 1807, water transportation was dramatically changed when Robert Fulton introduced the first steamboat, the North River (popularly known as the Clermont), which could make the trip from New York to Albany in 36 hours. Then, when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes, river traffic experienced a second boom.

Clews, Newburgh, Hudson River

W. G. Wall, Newburg
In the 1820s, the Hudson River became a destination for tourists from both the United States and Europe. Visitors traveled on it en route to Saratoga Springs, the Adirondacks, and Niagara Falls, but it was also a destination in its own right. The resort hotels of the Catskills and the Revolutionary War sites around West Point were popular tourist spots, but the biggest draw was the region’s natural scenery. The sight of majestic mountains as backdrops to the bustling and prosperous river towns was particularly pleasing to 19th-century viewers. All of Wall’s views combined elements of civilization and commerce (sawmills, steamboats, wagons, churches) with natural wonders like mountains and waterfalls.

Many artists and writers found themselves drawn to the Hudson River as they searched for ways to create a new cultural identity for the nation. The role that the river had played in New York’s unique Dutch history, the Revolutionary War, and the opening of the Erie Canal, all provided exciting subjects for historians and writers of fiction like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. The English artist Thomas Cole traveled by steamship up the Hudson River in 1825 and painted his first Catskill Mountain landscapes. Cole and the other artists who were inspired by the natural beauty of the region came to be known as the Hudson River School. Like Wall (who might really be seen as the pioneer in this area), these artists tended to juxtapose the pastoral beauty of the cultivated landscape with more rugged, sublime manifestations of nature. Hudson River School artists also saw the hand of God in nature, and believed that the beauty of the American landscape was a sign of divine favor.

For the final leg of our journey through New York State, we’ll be visiting another natural wonder—Niagara Falls—and a man-made marvel—the Erie Canal.


Philip J. Weimerskirch, “Two Great Illustrated Books about the Hudson River: William Guy Wall’s Hudson River Port Folio and Jacques Gérard Milbert’s Itinéraire pittoresque du fleuve Hudson,” in Adirondack Prints and Printmakers: The Call of the Wild.

Ellouise Baker Larsen, American Historical Views on Staffordshire China, 3rd. edition (Dover Publications, 1975)

A Hudson River Portfolio, a New York Public Library online exhibit

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New York State History Month: New York City Scenes on Transferware

Did you know that November is New York State History Month? To mark this occasion, Alice News will be highlighting pieces of transferware from the Alice’s collection that feature New York’s history and scenery. We’ll start in New York City, then move into the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains, and end our journey out west in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Patriotic Americans in the years after the War of 1812 could choose from a wide variety of ceramics that depicted national heroes, military victories, public buildings, scenery, and important happenings, such as the opening of the Erie Canal. Most of these pieces were made in England, in the Staffordshire District. The potteries used the transfer process to create these American commemoratives. The design would be engraved on a copper plate, much like those used for making paper engravings. The plate was used to print the pattern on tissue paper, then the tissue paper transferred the wet ink to the ceramic surface. The ceramic was then fired in a low temperature kiln to fix the pattern. This method was a much less costly alternative to hand-painting, making these ceramics accessible to a wide range of Americans.

J. and W. Ridgway, New York City Hall
Our first piece is a dinner plate that shows New York’s City Hall. This plate is part of a series illustrating the “Beauties of America,” made by the English pottery company of John and William Ridgway. John Ridgway came to the United States in 1822, and traveled throughout the eastern states in search of suitable views of major American cities, as well as to establish business relationships with American ceramic merchants. Ridgway selected 22 buildings, including almshouses, hospitals, churches, and banks, to feature on a wide range of tableware—tureens, platters, gravy boats, tea sets, dinner plates, soup bowls, even a baby’s bathtub!

Ridgway chose just two New York places for the Beauties of America: the Almshouse (later Bellevue Hospital) and City Hall. The building depicted here was actually New York’s third City Hall. The first one was built by the Dutch in the 17th century on Pearl Street, the second in 1700 on Wall and Nassau Streets. That building was renamed Federal Hall when New York became the capital of the United States in 1789. The City Council chose the site for a new City Hall on the old Common at the northern limits of the city, and held a competition to design a new building in 1802. The prize was awarded to Joseph-François Mangin and John McComb, Jr. Disagreements over the design and costs, labor disputes, and a yellow fever outbreak delayed construction, but the building finally opened officially in 1812. 

City Hall in 1919
City Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Parks Service historian Charles E. Shedd, Jr., in his report for the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, summed up its importance:

“Since its completion in 1811, New York City Hall has been the heartbeat of the bustling seaport which became the capital of the Free World. The Hall has watched American armies passing in review, going to battle or coming home from the Nation’s wars, from 1812 to Korea. For more than a century and a half it has greeted the great of this and other nations; Lafayette and Lindbergh, Garibaldi and Eisenhower; and it has welcomed to these shores the humble and unknown. Before it have passed generations of immigrants, trudging toward their new homes in the teeming city or in the cities, farms, and plains which stretched westward to the Pacific. The Hall tells the colorful and significant story of civic administration in an American metropolis and preserves the deeds of good men and bad who shaped the American political tradition: DeWitt Clinton, father of the Erie Canal; ‘Boss’ Tweed, the evil genius of machine politics, and the able and flamboyant ‘Little Flower,’ Fiorello La Guardia, among scores of others no less memorable.”

James and Ralph Clews, Landing of Gen. Lafayette
Shedd’s mention of Lafayette brings us to our second item: Pieces depicting General Lafayette’s arrival at Castle Garden on August 16, 1824, made by James and Ralph Clews. I’ve chosen a platter as illustration so you can get a good look at the image; the Alice’s collection includes a pitcher, large washbasin, and a plate. It’s hard to express just how important Lafayette’s visit was, and how absolutely wild Americans were about him. Lafayette was the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War—he had first come to the colonies as a 19-year-old, and now, almost 40 years later, he was back. 1824 was also a presidential election year, and the first one in which none of the members of the old Revolutionary generation was a candidate. During this time of change, Americans joyfully looked back to the heroes of the Revolutionary era.

Lafayette as a young lieutenant general, 1791
Lafayette traveled to the U.S. on the American merchant vessel Cadmus, along with his son, George Washington Lafayette, and secretary, Auguste Levasseur. When the ship arrived in New York Harbor, it was met by two steamboats, the Chancellor Livingston and the Robert Fulton, and escorted with great fanfare to Castle Garden.

Castle Garden had originally been built as a fort, known as the West Battery, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Troops were stationed there during the War of 1812, though it saw no action. It was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815, in honor of New York State’s first governor, George Clinton. However, the army abandoned it in 1821, and by the time of Lafayette’s visit, it had become a place of public amusement, offering concerts, a beer garden, and other entertainments.

Castle Garden was the site of one of the massive public receptions held for General Lafayette during his American tour. The author of the book Memoirs of General Lafayette, published in 1824, described the occasion:

“The most splendid scene exhibited in this proud city, was the fete at Castle-garden. This was an evening party and ball, at which six thousand ladies and gentlemen were present. It was the most brilliant and magnificent scene ever witnessed in the United States. Castle-garden lies at a very short distance from Battery-street, which is a spacious and elegant promenade, on the south westerly part of the city. It was formerly a fort and is about one hundred and seventy feet in diameter, of a circular or elliptical form. It has lately become a place of great resort in the warm season of the year. Every thing which labor and expence, art and taste could effect was done to render it convenient, showy and elegant. An awning covered the whole area of the garden, suspended at an altitude of seventy-five feet; the columns which supported the dome were highly ornamented, and lighted by an immense cut glass chandelier, with thirteen smaller ones appended.

Perhaps some of the ladies at the fete wore
commemorative gloves like this pair in the Alice’s collection.
“The General, made his appearance about 10 o’clock, when the dance and the song was at an end. The military band struck up a grand march, and the Guest was conducted through a column of ladies and gentlemen to a splendid pavilion. Not a word was spoken of gratulation—so profound, and respectful, and intellectual was the interest which his presence excited....In front of the pavilion was a triumphal arch, of about 90 feet span, adorned with laurel, oak, and festoons, based upon pillars of cannon fifteen feet high.—A bust of Washington, supported by a golden eagle, was placed over the arch as the presiding deity. Within the arch was a symbolic painting nearly 25 feet square, exhibiting a scroll inscribed to Fayette, with the words:—‘Honored be the faithful Patriot.’

“Soon after the General entered, the painting just alluded to was slowly raised, which exhibited to the audience a beautiful transparency, representing La Grange, the mansion of La Fayette. The effect was as complete as the view was unexpected and imposing. Another subdued clap of admiration followed this tasteful and appropriate and highly interesting display.”

Castle Garden in its Aquarium days, early 1900s
Though this was undoubtedly a highlight of its existence, Castle Garden went on to have a long and varied life. In 1855, it became the Emigrant Landing Depot, New York State’s first immigrant processing facility, and served this purpose until Ellis Island opened in 1890. Over 8 million immigrants (and maybe as many as 12 million) passed through Castle Garden. Between 1896 and 1941, it was the site of the New York City Aquarium. It was designated a national monument in 1946, and is once again known as Castle Clinton.

If you are interested in learning more about American historical Staffordshire, Patriotic America, a site created by the Transferware Collectors Club, Winterthur Museum, and Historic New England, is a great place to start!