Competition for the American market during the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War was fierce among England’s Staffordshire potters who dominated the ceramic trade. Struggling to find new commerce, the potters took advantage of the lull between American military conflicts by shipping wares on consignment—and glutting the American market. Above and beyond what American importers had ordered, the abundance of wares had a backlash effect. In a market where supply was greater than demand, ceramic prices fell dramatically. For example, the trade discount from the standard Staffordshire pricing agreement jumped from 25 percent in 1816 to 45 percent by the 1840s.
In an effort to best their competitors, the Staffordshire potters introduced hundreds of new designs with the hope of finding one that would become popular. So eager were they to gain an edge, they even copied each other’s successful patterns.
The recent identification of two artifacts provides a firsthand look at the jockeying for position in the Staffordshire empire. The artifacts—a simple blue-and-white soup plate and an American-bound letter—tell the story of intense rivalry not only among potters but also among kinsmen vying for the lucrative favor of the American merchants.
The ten-inch soup plate manufactured by Job and John Jackson of Burslem, England, is printed in the light blue version of Florentine Villas, a commonly produced pattern in the 1830s. Less common, however, is the underglaze inscription on the plate’s reverse. The inscription reads:
J. Greenfield Esqr.
as a small
TESTIMONY OF ESTEEM
from his friends
JOB & JOHN JACKSON
At first glance, this modest remembrance appears to be nothing more than a friendly gesture from the Jackson brothers to Mr. John Greenfield, a well-known ceramic importer operating out of New York City. When coupled with a letter that has reemerged almost 170 years after it was posted, however, it takes on a more sinister slant.
Potters James and Ralph Clews of Cobridge, England, wrote the letter to New York merchants Ogden, Ferguson & Co., colleagues of Mr. Greenfield, to complain about the shady business practices of their nephews, Job and John Jackson. The Clews wrote:
Cobridge, 31st December 1830
To Messrs Ogden, Ferguson & Co.
It is now a length of time since we had thy pleasure—and our motive in now writing you is we are informed that one of our nephews [the Jacksons] are leaving thus[?] Per the Packet Ship of tomorrow for New York purposely to establish a connexion [sic] in our line of business—they have been in our Manufactory under our bringing up, consequently all well acquainted with the names of all our customers, and to our very great surprise and disgrace have sent to each [or] nearly so small consignments of their ware to introduce it. We are not afraid of their doing us harm as they are of no extent. About 25£ to 30 is all they can make weekly. And what business they have to go with the America Trade astonishes us much.
It is not at all improbable that he may make use of our name to the Dealers as a passport to introduce himself to their notice, therefore should this be the case be good enough to apprize them that their [sic] is no connexion [sic] betwixt us in anyway; when we have no doubt they will act accordingly. We regret exceedingly that our Spring orders already received are not more extensive, but hope we shall very shortly have a further supply. We have had the pleasure of a visit from your Mr. Ogden whose personal acquaintance we were very much please to make and the arrangements we have made, in conveying on our future business we are induced to think will be the means of keeping us going with a plentiful supply of orders. How is it Messrs Greenfield have been doing, so little of late, and as yet we have not our spring order from Mr Garretson—or Messrs Webb—but hope shortly to receive both.
Wishing you the Complements of the Season—requesting to kindly remembered to your Mr. Jno. Ogden Junr.
Yours very Truly
R. & J. Clews
As detailed in their letter, the Clews brothers were incensed that the Jacksons had absconded with their American customer list. The Clews also were aware that their nephews had sent an introductory consignment of their own products to some of the Clewses’ most important clients. Clearly, John Greenfield was an important customer for the Clews brothers; examples of their wares survive bearing “J. Greenfield” importer marks.
The inscribed soup plate reflects the well-calculated attempt by the Jacksons to woo John Greenfield away from their uncles’ business. “We are not afraid of their doing us harm as they are of no extent,” assured the Clews. Brave words, perhaps, from potters whose rise to or fall from fortune depended heavily on the patronage of merchants more than three thousand miles and a continent away. Unfortunately, the Jacksons’ collusion apparently had already taken its toll, as the Clewses’ letter also laments: “How is it Messrs Greenfield have been doing, so little of late, and as yet we have not our spring order from Mr. Garretson—or Messrs Webb.”
The long-term success of the Jackson brothers in soliciting the business of their uncles’ customers appears to be moot, however. As indicated by the records of the Staffordshire Advertiser, both Jackson brothers are listed as bankrupt by 1835. The uncles, James and Ralph Clews, did not fare any better. They declared bankruptcy for a second time in 1834. Perhaps these lessons helped James Clews decide that it was better to switch than fight. By 1836 he had come to America to establish a new earthenware pottery in Indiana.
The authors wish to thank Nancy Dickinson for her research with the Clews correspondence.
Editor, Ceramics in America
George L. Miller
Soup plate, Florentine Villas pattern; Job and John Jackson, Burslem, ca. 1830. White earthenware. D. 10". (Private collection; photo, Gavin Ashworth.)
Detail of the printed inscription on the reverse of the soup plate illustrated in fig. 1. (Photo, Gavin Ashworth.)
For a summary of English ceramic price history, see George L. Miller, “A Revised Set of CC Index Values for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from 1787 to 1880,” Historical Archaeology 25, no. 1 (1991): 1–25.
For example, Ralph and James Clews had an agent in America who would purchase examples of their competitors’ wares that were selling well and ship them back to Staffordshire for the Clews brothers to have copied. In 1833, they wrote a letter asking their agent to send a plate of the latest Ridgway pattern if he thought it worth copying. This practice is described in George L. Miller, Ann Smart Martin, and Nancy S. Dickinson, “Changing Consumption Patterns: English Ceramics and the American Market from 1770 to 1840,” in Everyday Life in the Early Republic, edited by Catherine E. Hutchins (Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, 1994), p. 232.
This soup plate was illustrated in the The Transfer Collector’s Club Bulletin (Spring 2000).
The New-York Historical Society, Record Group 1420, Ferguson & Day and Successors, Merchants in New York City, commission merchants, 1796–1849. Ca. 100 feet of documents. 1820–1825: Ogden, Day & Co.; 1825–1841: Ogden, Ferguson & Co.; 1825–1841: Jonathan Ogden.
Ellouise Baker Larson, American Historical Views on Staffordshire China (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1975), p. 58, lists the following mark on a Clews table service of the Landing of Lafayette at Castle Garden New York, August 1824 pattern: “j. greenfield’s / china store / no. 77 pearl street / new york.”
Rodney Hampson, “Pottery References in Staffordshire Advertiser 1795–1865,” Northern Ceramic Society Occasional Publication no. 4 (2000), 29, 66.
See Diana and J. Garrison Stradling, “American Queensware—The Louisville Experience, 1829–37,” in this issue of Ceramics in America.