American stoneware production had several prominent hubs from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. Two hubs really stand out for the quality of the pottery itself, the creativity and beauty of its decoration, the volume produced, and availability today: Bennington, Vermont, and Rochester, New York. Potteries in these two cities had access to good quality clay and skilled potters, the stability of pottery dynasties, artistic decorators, and strong markets for their wares. In many ways, the best pieces produced in these two cities provide the gold standard pieces for stoneware collecting today.
Rochester stoneware had humble beginnings with Micah Porter and his sons, William and Samuel. Their pottery was up and running as early as 1820 and continued into the early 1830s when the Porters may have moved to the Pleasantville-Oil City, Pennsylvania area. Few marked pieces by this potter remain and are stamped, “M. Porter, Rochester.”
The Porter pottery was then captured by the ambition of Nathan Clark of Athens, N.Y. He had two satellite potteries in New York, one at Lyons (established in 1822) and the other at Mount Morris (established 1835). In 1839 he bought the old Porter pottery in Rochester and ran it until 1851 as a third satellite pottery. This new venture produced pottery for Clark under the stamps, “N. Clark & Co., Rochester” and “Clark & Co., Rochester” until 1851 when it was purchased by John Burger and Thompson Harrington. John Burger had owned a third interest in the Rochester venture under Clark and partnered with Harrington for 3 years. During this time the pottery stamp was “Harrington & Burger, Rochester.” Harrington sold Burger his interest in 1854 and Burger ran the pottery from 1854 on under the stamp, “John Burger, Rochester.”
The quality of the decoration on Rochester stoneware was increasing under Clark’s ownership as some brilliantly decorated survivors attest, and that trend continued under John Burger. Moving to elaborate and artistic decoration was a trend in the entire stoneware industry in the decade before the Civil War, most notably at Bennington. With the opening of many more potteries due to the availability of clay made possible by the Erie Canal which brought clay up from New Jersey, competition for stoneware markets intensified. Decoration was one way to create an edge over the competition. Given the option, would you buy a plainer crock with a simple flower or a crock with an elaborate bird? These items were part of the decoration of the home and hearth, especially the kitchen and pantry. Decoration was everything in this Victorian era.
Competition may have spurred Clark and Burger decorating on to greater excellence. In 1849, a German potter named Frederick Stetzenmeyer started a rival pottery in Rochester; a pottery which he ran until 1860. Extant pieces of Stetzenmeyer’s pottery attest to skilled decorators rivaling those in Bennington and Rochester. Very fine flowers, birds, and lions were executed with precision using a slip cup. Many of these decorations have accent striping at the edges that gives them a nearly three-dimensional effect.
In 1867, John Burger turned the business over to his sons, John Burger, Jr. and George Burger. Early on the pottery was known as “Burger and Lang” (1870-1876). George Lang married John Burger’s daughter, Mary, and joined the business in 1870. He left the company in 1877 and the Burger’s two sons continued as “Burger and Co.” (1877-1880). John Burger, Jr. was in control during the final decade and marked his wares, “J. Burger Jr., Rochester, N.Y.” (1880-1890). The quality of the stoneware under the administration of the sons of John Burger was still of great quality as far as its composition, but the decoration never exhibited the same skill. It became a bit wooden and one dimensional--stylized if you will. Part of the reason was that as competition for the stoneware markets continued to increase, it was not economical to continue elaborate decoration.
Rochester stoneware is attractive today, not only because of its decoration but because it is still plentiful. There are pieces to be found quite regularly in all price ranges from local shops to prestigious shows and auctions. Also, there are a lot of collectors keeping the market vibrant and prices strong. We all want to be able to regularly add to our collections and have others with similar interest with whom to share our stoneware finds, and Rochester stoneware provides this for its enthusiasts
For more information, see William C. Ketchum, Jr., Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650-1900. 2nd edition. Syracuse University Press, 1987, pp. 360-385.