City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 5, 2013 2:14 PM
Alexandria Stoneware: The Wilkes Street Pottery
“Its wares are well known throughout the country, and considered the very best of their kind.”
The Wilkes Street Pottery is the modern name given to Alexandria’s most successful stoneware manufactory, which operated on the 600 block of Wilkes Street from around 1810 to 1876. The beautiful decorative wares of the Wilkes Street potters were indeed well known throughout Alexandria and the surrounding countryside, and are still sought after today.
Ceramics in America, 2012 includes the fully illustrated article, "Stone-Ware of Excellent Quality, Alexandria Manufacture” Part I: The Pottery of John Swann, by Barbara H. Magid. Swann's early stoneware appears in the cover illustration.
The Virginia Research Center for Archaeology conducted rescue excavations on this site on four weekends in 1977, recovering thousands of pottery fragments, pieces of kiln furniture used to stack the pottery, and a fragment of a brick interior arch from a kiln.
Historical records, together with the makers’ marks, shapes and designs found on sherds from the archaeological site and surviving pieces of stoneware in museums and private collections, help to tell the story of Alexandria stoneware and the potters who made it.
Alexandria’s first stoneware was probably made by potter Lewis Plum around 1799. In 1803, Plum took an apprentice named John Swann for a period of seven years. After his apprenticeship ended, Swann opened his own manufactory on Wilkes Street, where he concentrated on the manufacture of stoneware.
John Swann’s earliest stoneware consisted of large bulbous jugs and jars, usually dipped to the shoulder in a brown iron-oxide wash, which dripped down the surface of the pot. The jugs have ringed necks, and jars have round or angled rims. The earliest vessels do not have a maker’s mark, but the distinctive rims and the use of iron wash help to identify them.
In 1819, Swann advertised “a great improvement to his ware,” and began to decorate his stoneware with simple blue floral and foliate designs, usually made up of very short brush strokes.
All or most of Swann’s decorated stoneware was stamped with a maker’s mark or merchant’s mark. His own mark, J. SWANN / ALEXA, may have only been used until 1821, when china merchant Hugh Smith agreed to purchase all of Swann’s “sound and merchantable stoneware.” After that date, most or all of Swann’s wares were probably marked with the Smith company name.
China merchants Hugh Smith and his sons owned the Wilkes Street Pottery from 1825 until 1841. Swann manufactured stoneware stamped with Hugh Smith’s name at least by 1821, and potter B.C. Milburn continued to make stoneware for the Smith company until it closed in 1851.
Swann probably used the mark HUGH SMITH & Co. on pieces he manufactured for Smith from about 1821 until 1825. The designs in this period are still very simple with leaves made of short dabs of color, but the central round flower, which has come to be known as the “Alexandria Motif,” reaches its mature form in this period.
The H. SMITH & Co. mark was first used in 1825, when a new partnership was formed with that name. The company foreclosed on its mortgage on the Swann Pottery and purchased it at auction. The earliest wares with this mark are identical to those marked HUGH SMITH & Co.. Soon, however, the designs reach a new level of sophistication, with more abundant leaves and more complicated designs. In this period, we also begin to see the work of different potters and decorators working at Wilkes Street. This includes the work of a free black potter named David Jarbour. Jarbour made a huge, 27” tall jar, inscribed on the bottom “1830 / Alexa / Maid by / D. Jarbour,” which is in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, NC.
Hugh’s son, Hugh Charles Smith, took over the business in 1831. His mark, H. C. SMITH /ALEXA DC , was used until Alexandria’s retrocession to Virginia in 1847. Potter B.C. Milburn worked for H.C. Smith at the beginning of this period. After Milburn purchased the Pottery in 1841, vessels with the Milburn and Smith marks were probably made concurrently. In this period, new rim and handle shapes were developed and the designs became more crowded on some vessels.
The mark H. C. SMITH / ALEXA was used after Retrocession, until J.P. Smith took over the family’s retail business in 1851. Just a few pots are known with the mark J.P. SMITH, used from 1851-1854. Stoneware with these marks, made by Milburn and his staff, is similar to ones with his Milburn’s own mark.
Benedict C. Milburn came to Alexandria from St. Mary’s County to apprentice with a potter, as did his predecessor at Wilkes Street, John Swann. Milburn may have worked at Wilkes Street with Swann as early as 1822. He took over operations by 1833 and purchased the business in 1841.
Swann had struggled with the business, but Milburn was very successful. His stoneware has been found as far away as West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.
The earliest of the Milburn marks, B. C. MILBURN ALEXANDRIA D.C., was probably used from 1841 until Alexandria’s retrocession from Virginia in 1847. Only a few vessels are known with this mark, as most of the stoneware made in this period probably still advertised the Smith Company. From 1847 until his death in 1867, Milburn used the marks B. C. MILBURN, and the more common B. C. MILBURN/ ALEXA. Some of the designs used with these marks were quite elaborate, and similar patterns were executed in brushed cobalt and using a new slip-trailing technique. Clearly, two or more decorators were at work in this period. Many of the vessels have sophisticated artwork, while others have surprisingly primitive designs.
Very little decorated stoneware was produced at Wilkes Street after the Civil War. The use of cobalt may have been all but discontinued due to the cost of labor and materials. Similar undecorated jars and jugs were made with the B. C. MILBURN / ALEXA mark, and with those of his sons S. C. MILBURN/ALEXA (1867-1873) and W. LEWIS MILBURN (1871-1876). The Milburns also made similar wares with the mark of Alexandria merchant E. J. MILLER / ALEXA (1865-1876).
After the Pottery closed in 1876, a bark shed was placed on the site for the tannery of C. C. Smoot and Co., located across the street. A large manufactory in Pennsylvania, James Hamilton (later Williams and Reppert) of Greensboro, supplied stoneware to Alexandria merchant E. J. Miller. The Greensboro potters made stoneware with stenciled decoration and advertising for many stores throughout the Northeast. Stoneware from this Pennsylvania pottery can be distinguished from the work of the Alexandria potters in two ways: Miller’s name is stenciled in blue cobalt, rather than stamped into the clay; and a brown Albany slip coats the interior of the Greensboro pieces.