City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated May 4, 2012 2:10 PM
Alexandria Earthenware: The Piercy Pottery
The ongoing study of Alexandria’s potters is an important aspect of Alexandria Archaeology’s research. The potters themselves have interesting histories. Some, like Alexandria’s first potter Henry Piercy, were successful businessmen and prominent citizens. Others, like stoneware potter John Swann were struggling to make ends meet. The study of their pottery kilns, kiln furniture and potsherds tells us about manufacturing techniques and stylistic preferences. The study of the distribution of their pottery throughout the town and throughout the region, and of newspaper advertisements for their wares, tells us about trade and distribution networks. And discovery of their pottery on archaeological sites helps us to date the area of the site in which they are found, and to determine what activities took place there.
The earliest earthenware manufactured in Alexandria is linked both stylistically and historically with Philadelphia, 150 miles to the north. Henry Piercy was born in Saarbruchen, a traditional German pottery-producing region. He and his family moved to Philadelphia in 1769, when he was 13. Piercy learned the trade from his older brother, before serving with Washington in the Revolutionary War. In 1792, now 36 and an accomplished potter, Henry moved to Alexandria. He opened his own pottery, where he continued to produce slip-decorated earthenware in the Philadelphia style. His pottery of the 1790s continued to look very much like Philadelphia pottery of the 1770s. This style of slip decorated earthenware was also produced by other Alexandria potters in the 1790's and early 1800's, as Piercy's techniques and style were passed on through various apprenticeships and short-lived partnerships. If not for the Smithsonian’s 1968 excavation of a test pit at Piercy’s kiln site, at the corner of Washington and Duke Streets, we would surely identify slipware and plainer utilitarian earthenware in our collection as Philadelphia imports.
Several more sites related to Henry Piercy have been excavated over the past thirty years. Some of his pottery was found at a house on the 100 block of South Royal Street, where he lived in 1796. More than 80 vessels were recovered from a brick-lined privy shaft behind a shop on the 400 block of King Street. These also date from 1796, when Piercy closed his china and glass shop in this building after only six months of operation.
In addition to pottery manufacture, Piercy was involved in retail ventures. At first, he sold "a large assortment of China Queesn’s Ware and Glass" from his house on Prince Street (Alexandria Gazette, November 1, 1792). Then in 1795, he advertized a new shop on the 400 block of King Street, where the Hotel Monaco now stands:
PIERCY AND GRAHAM Have Just Received and Now Opening for Sale Opposite Mr. McNight’s Tavern, King Street, a neat and general assortment of DRY GOODS … Amongst which are a beautiful assortment of NANKEENS … Also an Assortment of China and Glass. (Alexandria Gazette, June 20, 1795)
This shop only operated for ten months. A well behind this shop was excavated in 1974, during the Alexandria Urban Renewal project, and eighty earthenware vessels of Piercy’s manufacture were recovered from the site. Many of these vessels were nearly complete, and were able to be restored.
The most recent Piercy discovery was made in 1999, in the backyard of a house at 211 S. St. Asaph Street, when a back-hoe hit a huge cache of kiln furniture and potsherds from a waster dump associated with Piercy’s nearby kiln site. This site yielded a ton of information, and about 1 ½ tons of artifacts. Most of the collection consisted of heavy clay saggers used to protect the more delicate pottery in the kiln during firing. Also found were thick tiles and rectangular fire bars to steady the big pans and pots, and small placed on the pot-rims to separate them in the kiln. Larger pieces with heavier rims were stacked one upon another, separated and steadied as needed with kiln furniture and small wads of clay.
Huge quantities of wasters, or fragments of pottery which are too badly damaged to use, were thrown away at all pottery sites, and provide insight into the products made. Most of the fragments recovered from Piercy’s waster dump were utilitarian jars and milk pans, and brown glazed jugs, jars, pitchers and bowls. These are all identical to forms made in Philadelphia, as are the more elaborate and decorative slipwares. Sloping sided pans with everted rims are glazed in orange (really a clear glaze), and decorated with spirals of trailed slip. Chargers, or big platters, have a shallow rounded shape, pie-crust rim, and combed slip decoration. Bowls have a yellow slipped interior, usually with brown splotches. The most unusual find was a dated punch bowl, with the date and lettering executed in slip. This important bowl is the only known piece of Alexandria earthenware with a date or inscription. However, only part of the bowl was found, with just tantalizing fragments of the writing, spelling out "..Company.." and the partial date "17..." Does this advertise a local business or organization, or does it invite tavern goers to drink "In Good Company"? We may never know.
The following publications can be read, by appointment, at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Most are also available at the Alexandria Library, Special Collections. The Potter’s Art is available for sale at the Museum and through our online shop, and Ceramics in America can be purchased from online booksellers.