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-Fran├žois 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!






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