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Dorchester Pottery Works : Records, 1905-1961
Quantity66 file boxes
The Dorchester Pottery Works was founded by George Henderson (1863-1928) in 1895 to produce commercial and industrial stoneware. Mr. Henderson, a native of North Cambridge, sold his partnership at the S. L. Pewtress Pottery in New Haven, Connecticut, to come hack to the Boston area to start his own pottery works supplying local markets.(1) He chose a site for the pottery works and his home on Preston Street (later Victory Road) which bordered the prestigious residential neighborhood of Harrison Square, Dorchester, This site was convenient to Commercial Point for fuel sources and to the Old Colony Railroad for the shipping and receiving of goods and materials, The Dorchester Pottery Works operated as a family-run business on this site until its closing in 1979.
In 1897 Henderson advertised his new business in the Boston Directory: "Dorchester Pottery Works / Ceo. Henderson, Proprietor I Manu'r of Dip Baskets, Butter Pots, Jugs, Jars and Flower Pots I Clay Specialities and Large Pots I Promptly Made to Order 1 9 and 11 Preston St., Dorchester, Mass." Henderson attempted to produce and distribute a variety of wares in an effort to establish his market. He did not compete with art potteries, such as the local Dedham Pottery or Ohio's Rookwood and Roseville potteries, which brought out new lines of table and decorative ware annually. Neither did he compete with large manufacturers like the American Clay Products Company which could produce thousands of items from molds in a few weeks. He also saw that no advantage could be gained by trying to match manufacturers like General Ceramics that specialized in producing large industria~ pieces of stoneware. Henderson capitalized on the custom-made stoneware market, garnering industrial and commercial clients. He also produced standard items for these and retail buyers and purchased elsewhere those items that he could not produce more economically himself. His willingness to make, market and distribute items that were in demand gave him an economic advantage over competitors who produced for a more specialized market.
Henderson's products were well received. By 1905 he was selling custom-made cookware and serving and storage containers to Billings and Clap Co. , Walker and Pratt Manufacturing Co., the New England Blacking Co., and the Parker House among others.(2) In the first decade of the century most of his sales were to customers in the Boston area and, to a lesser extent, around New England.(3) During this period one of the most popular products of the Dorchester Pottery Works was the "Patented Henderson Footwarmer." The footwarmer was a ceramic hot water bottle or "porcelain pig." In 1912 Henderson patented an idea for a metal "Tap or Nipple for Earthenware Containers" which proved to be a significant improvement over the fallible rubber stopper used previously for the foot- warmer. The Henderson Footwarmer, with its new leakproof tap, became a great success for the Pottery Works. Henderson placed advertisements describing its merits in local newspapers and in many popular national magazines of the day including the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal. He also advertised the Footwarmer in professional journals for hospital managers. The Henderson Footwarmer accounted for 29% of cash received by the Pottery in 1919. By 1926, however, its popularity had waned and sales had shrunk to account for less than 5% of total income.(4) The Pottery did continue to manufacture and sell footwarmers through 1939.
While Henderson received a building permit for a new kiln in 1910, it was not until 1914 that he had accumulated the resources and demonstrated the need for the larger facility. Henderson's daughter-in-law, Ethel Hill Henderson, told the New Yorker's Berton Roueche in 1954 that Henderson "designed the kiln himself and it was built by specialists from Germany. "(5) The kiln that George Henderson built in 1914 is still standing. It is a beehive type, downdraft kiln built in a circular form. The interior dimensions, 22 feet in diameter and 10« feet in height allowed two to three freight carloads of pottery to be fired at one time.(6)
By 1921 Henderson employed twenty-three persons. Five or six were potters and at least three were salesmen. The workers were mostly Dorchester residents and largely of Irish and Italian descent. Using wheels and plaster molds, the potters could turn out hundreds of pieces a day, all made from Raritan clay which came from New Jersey. Regular items produced by the Pottery included jugs, pitchers, dips, jewelers' jars, bean pots, footwarmers, casseroles, and shellac jars and bowls. In addition to these standard items Henderson also filled special orders such as for the Thompson Spa pitchers and Park Pollard feeders.(7) Custom work was done on an order by order basis.
To the production of his own factory, Henderson added finished pottery purchased from other manufacturers for resale. This permitted him to expand quantity, variety and availability of products without significantly increasing overhead. Much of the pottery Henderson purchased for resale during the 1920's were earthenware items. These included flowerpots, bulb pans, pigeon nests and gallon jugs. Some of the finished goods he purchased were large quantity custom orders for his own clients including Joseph Middleby Jr. jars and containers and H. A. Johnson jugs.(8)
In this period Henderson also purchased individual custom-ordered industrial ware from other pottery companies. This may be because these pieces were larger or more specialized than those he was able to manufacture. Additionally, Henderson purchased stoneware products for commercial, wholesale and retail purposes from various Ohio companies. Although he occasionally ordered from the respected art potteries, he more frequently purchased pottery from lesser known manufacturers. Some of these items were "Rebecca", "Jewel", "W L", "Trilby" and "Pineapple" teapots and sets, blue banded bowls, casseroles, bean pots, blue banded butters, pails, pots, and cuspidors of various dimensions and quantities.(9)
The records give no conclusive evidence that Henderson acted as a distributor for any of his suppliers, although he at least broached the subject with the major ones: Pfaltzgraff (York, Pennsylvania) and American Clay Products (Zanesville, Ohio). Henderson complained to Pfaltzgraff that a Cambridge- based competitor, Hews Pottery Company which also purchased from Pfaltzgraff, was spreading rumors that the Dorchester Pottery purchased not from Pfaltzgraff but from Hews. The Cambridge company suggested that it had an exclusive relationship with Pfaltzgraff. Pfaltzgraff denied such an arrangement and offered a distributorship to Henderson. There is no record of Henderson's reply.(10)
His relationship with American Clay Products is less clear. Another Dorchester Pottery rival, Massachusetts Pottery Company (Lowell, Mass.), apparently purchased products from American Clay and proceeded to cut prices drastically. Henderson promptly wrote to American Clay, "You really ought to bring this matter up at once at one of your meetings and have it understood that only the old ones in the business would be allowed to represent you in this district, and cut out some of this slashing of prices, which is spoiling it for for everyone. "(11)
George Henderson died in 1928 and his son, Charles Wilson Henderson, assumed ownership. He discontinued his father's practice of large-scale purchase of finished products for resale. Gross profits for the Pottery Works increased as he sold off the inventory from his warehouses. By 1931, the Pottery could no longer depend on the sale of instock goods for income. Gross profits from 1928 to 1930 increased fifty per cent, but in the five years following gross profits fell to twenty per cent of the 1930 high.(12) In addition, the economic conditions of the Great Depression had begun to affect the Pottery's most important client, industry.
In 1931 Charles Henderson wrote to a creditor, "we have always paid your bills mostly through the money we received from acid factories and special work that we made up. As that business has decreased considerably in this vicinity, we have had to rely on the flowerpot business to pay our bills."(13) Times were hard. A Pfaltzgraff bill for items delivered in 1934 was not completely paid until 1940.(14) Some adjustments to the market had to be made.
By 1940 the Pottery began to manufacture tableware on a scale not previously attempted by them. The ware was fashioned on the wheel, hand-dipped and, in later years, hand-decorated. The production of dishes, tankards, casseroles, and custom tableware increased with every year. These items sold quickly. Until the 1960's, however, tableware formed little more than one-quarter of total production of the Pottery Works. Industrial and commercial ware was still an important segment of the business. Acid jars and dipping baskets were made for Connecticut watch, jewelry and silver manufacturers. Clay was prepared for New England schools and prisons and containers were shipped to the Winchester Rifle Co. Also, lab equipment was made for researchers at local universities.
The continued production of industrial and custom ware, together with the new line of tableware, brought a mild revitalization to the Pottery Works in the 1940's, however, the Dorchester Pottery never regained its pre-Depression levels of production, distribution and sales. The most profound difficulty for the Pottery Works, in terms of growth, was that sales were limited by production and in this period the number of trained workers was insufficient to expand the operation. Without enough skilled labor, the Dorchester Pottery Works could not be a thriving, profit-making organization. Sales paralleled production and declined steadily throughout the nineteen-fifties. H. A. Johnson Co., Joseph Middleby Jr. Co., Hayes Bickford Lunch Systems, Jones McDuffee and Stratton Co., Harvard University and other long-standing commercial accounts continued to buy their storage and serving containers and lab equipment from the Dorchester Pottery. Institutions, businesses and individuals from New England, Texas, Illinois, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, New York and the Republic of Panama ordered lab equipment, dishes, other tableware and special stoneware. More and more frequently, however, Charles Henderson's replies to inquiries for products were couched in terms such as: "We only have a few kilns of ware each year and mostly on order," "we are so oversold on our own ware that it is impossible for us to take on any new accounts." Henderson refused potentially profitable and prestigious accounts, like the repeated offers of the Sturbridge Village Shop director to exclusively carry Dorchester decorative ware.
The Pottery, regardless of demand and economics, continued to employ "old time methods of production" as noted by Lura Woodside Watkins in her book Early New England Potters and their Wares. The Dorchester Pottery, she reported, was alone in maintaining "the high standard of workmanship that characterizes the potteries of an earlier day."(16) The Pottery's anachronistic craftsmanship continued to attract attention. In 1954 the New Yorker published an article on the Pottery and its wares. The magazine's praises were repeated and elaborated in collectors' magazines and local newspapers over the next twenty five years.
The Hendersons fired the large beehive kiln for the last time in 1965, replacing it with a smaller gas kiln and later an electric model. Charles W. Henderson died in 1967 and a skeletal crew of his wife, Ethel Hill Henderson, her two siblings, Charles Hill and Lillian Yeaton, and an Italian potter, Nando Ricci, carried on the full time production of stoneware.(17) National attention and the quality of the traditional ware kept the demand high until the Pottery's closing in 1979. Collectors prize their Dorchester tableware and search for more. All the later tableware pieces "are signed by the potter and the decorator and with the name of the pottery. Designs are done in German cobalt blue," a distinctive bayberry and a gold morocco, "some by painting, some by sgraffito and some by scraping the design" on a fully covered item "before glazing and firing. "(18) Dorchester Pottery designs are largely traditional: pinecones, blueberry, scroll, ship and others. Collectors' enthusiasm was explained by a writer for the National Antiques Review in 1969: 'One may wonder what all the fuss is about. It is merely an expression of appreciation for fine handmade craftsmanship ... those who buy it today know that it is the antique of tomorrow."(19)
The early success of the Dorchester Pottery Works, which came from the production and sale of quality stoneware and from the distribution of finished products made by other pottery companies, was never equaled after the death of its founder, George Henderson. The Dorchester Pottery remained until it closed in 1979 a family owned and operated business aimed at supplying the needs of a small and specialized market. The introduction of its very appealing line of decorative tableware in the 1940's did not help the Pottery counter the reality of its gradual decline. Indeed, the reliance on a handcrafted means of production, which was the very source of the appeal of the Dorchester Pottery ware, guaranteed the eventual demise of this unique local industry.
Endnotes to historical note:
- Lura Woodside Watkins. Early New England potters and their wares. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950), p.91.
- PRODUCTION Instruction Sheets: Size Books, 1905-1919.
- FINANCE Ledgers: Sales Ledgers, 1906-1910.
- FINANCE Sales Books: Footwarmer Sales Books, 1919-1920 and 1923; Cost and Balance Books, 1916-1920 and 1921-1928.
- Berton Roueche, "Reporter at large: the last lap." New Yorker 30 (March 13, 1954), p.60.
- Boston Landmarks Commission. Report: Dorchester Pottery Works, 1980, p. 6 & 12.
- PRODUCTION Employee Records: Productivity Journals, 1921-1923
- PRODUCTION Inventories: Carbook, 1919-1923.
- ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, 1923, Geo. Henderson to Gus Pfaltzgraff.
- ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, 1110124, Geo. Henderson to American Clay Product.
- FINANCE Ledgers: General Ledger, 1928-1938(1960).
- ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, 11131131, C.W.Henderson to Gus Pfaltzgraff.
- FINANCE Ledgers: General Ledger, 1928-1938(1960).
- ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, 1954 and 1960-1961. 16
- Early New England potters.
- Boston Landmarks Commission, p.13-l4.
- "The Dorchester Pottery." National Antiques Review (October 1969), p.46.
Scope and Content
The Dorchester Pottery Works Collection, 1905-1961, contains correspondence, ledgers, journals, inventories and instruction sheets relating to the stoneware factory founded by George Henderson (1863-1928). The Pottery was in business from 1895 to 1979 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and produced industrial and commercial stoneware. After 1940 it also manufactured tableware for wholesale and retail purposes. The bulk of the records (1914-1939) corresponds to the period of the firm's greatest economic success. Little material relating to the founding of the Pottery Works or to its later redirection to the production of tableware is included.
The records contain information in the derivation of raw material used in production and finished goods purchased by the Pottery for resale, on the distribution of wares sold by the Pottery and on the machinery and materials available to pottery manufacturers in general. Little information about onsite production exists. No kiln journals, glaze or clay formulas, style books, design drafts or related records are included. Architectural plans or designs for the original construction, or records of later alteration or plant maintenance apparently do not exist.
The records were acquired by the University of Massachusetts I Boston Archives in 1982. It is unclear what portion of the records were discarded by the company during operation, or what portion were accidently destroyed after the cessation of operation. "We destroyed all the old books long ago," wrote George Henderson in 1920.(1) The remaining records were kept on Pottery property until 1980, just before the building in which they were stored burned. Regular company disposition practices, basement storage conditions, fire and multiple moves have resulted in the loss of pre-1905 records and subgroups of records that relate to process, construction and physical plant. In addition, many extant series are miscellaneous in nature. In several cases, complete records exist only for the nineteen twenties and thirties.
The collection consists of approximately 45 cubic feet of records. It has been arranged in functionally-derived subgroups: ADMINISTRATION, FINANCE, PRODUCTION and SALES. ADMINISTRATION includes correspondence relating to incoming orders and outgoing purchases. FINANCE records are executive accounting, sales and cash records which provide an overview of operations. PRODUCTION and SALES contain working records relating to personnel, purchases, sales and shipping. Records within subgroups are divided into series which are derived by type of record (i.e. FINANCE Ledgers, Cash Books, etc.). Internal arrangement of series is usually chronological.
There is a lack of depth in existing series. With the exception of ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, series are miscellaneous in nature. In certain cases, notably in the FINANCE and PRODUCTION subgroups, series are comprised of one or two examples of several different functional types of records. This variety of types has much evidential value and suggests the method of operation and the record-keeping practices of the business. Such shallow series, however, do not contain much information. The range of activity, the milieu of the pottery industry, the derivation of and distribution of Dorchester Pottery ware is best illustrated in ADMINISTRATION Correspondence series. It is the bulkiest and most complete series in the collection, spanning the years 1920 to 1939 and ten of the twenty years from 1940 to 1961. The correspondence contains clients' inquiries about custom and regular stoneware, and copies of the Pottery's replies, copies of the Pottery's outgoing orders for clay, pottery and machinery, and suppliers' replies. Infrequently, correspondence relates to legal, regulatory and physical plant matters. These involve debtors, requirements for shipping, shipping permits, building and machinery inspectors.
During the 1920's when sales were at their highest, two correspondence series were filed separately from the general correspondence described above. SALES Footwarmer Orders, 1920-1928, is comprised of incoming inquiries relating to footwarmer sales, price and maintenance, and copies of Henderson's replies. ADMINISTRATION Quotations, 1920-1928, contain copies of Mr. Henderson S outgoing inquiries to suppliers of clay, pottery and machinery, and incoming replies. The two ADMINISTRATION series present some difficulty to persons attempting to identify non-Dorchester Pottery sold by the Pottery from 1920 to 1928. The blueprint or description of the item that the client wished made may be included in ADMINISTRATION Correspondence attached to a copy of Henderson's reply, affirming the Pottery's ability to supply the item. Henderson's inquiries to his pottery suppliers, describing and requesting bids on the item, and their replies, are contained in ADMINISTRATION Quotations. Correspondence to and from the supplier Henderson selected was then filed in ADMINISTRATION Correspondence
The Dorchester Pottery Works sold goods to a geographically and occupationally diverse group of individuals and companies. Names, addresses and description of goods appear in Correspondence and in other series (see FINANCE Ledgers, etc.). Companies from whom the Pottery ordered clay, finished goods and machinery appear in Carbooks (PRODUCTION, Inventories) and elsewhere in less descriptive fashion, but the primary and most extensive source for this information is ADMINISTRATION Correspondence. The Dorchester Pottery frequently purchased earthenware, custom and common stoneware in bulk and by piece from the following pottery companies from 1906 to 1948: Zane Burley, American Clay Products, Crooksville (Crooksville, Ohio), Star Stoneware (Zanesville, Ohio), Pfaltzgraff (York, Penn.), Ransbottom (Roseville, Ohio), U.S. Stoneware (Akron, Ohio), D. E. McNichol (East Liverpool, Ohio), General Ceramics (New York City) and others.(2) Clay was purchased from Perrine Brothers (South Amboy, N.J.), Enterprise White Clay Co. (Woodmansie, N.J.) and others. Machinery was ordered from TriState Engineering (Zanesville, Ohio), Goulds Manufacturing (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and others.
Persons interested in the broader pottery industry will also find ADMINISTRATION Correspondence useful as George Henderson and his suppliers often touched, in regular business correspondence, on subjects such as the economic status of the market, competitors and the quality of goods. ADMINISTRATION Quotations may be a helpful source as well, this series includes cuts, catalogs and estimates from finished pottery manufacturers and machinery companies.
FINANCE records are less complete but are both diverse and refined as they allow an overview of the business operations. The records are of varying sophistication, from the Sales Books, daily transcriptions of orders, to the Cost and Balance Books, early cost-accounting records. FINANCE Cashbooks, 1918-1940, 1950-1953 and 1960, is the most extensive series. Cashbooks are daily records of receipts and expenditures, totaled monthly. Sales Books / Journals offer information relating to the distri- bution of Dorchester Pottery wares. Ledgers is not a complete series, but contains two major records: the alphabetical Sales Ledger, 1906-1910, and the General Ledger 1998-1938(1960). The General ledger reveals the frequency of purchases from pottery and clay suppliers, monies spent on labor, advertising, machinery and other expenses. The scarcity of general ledger entries after 1938 may be related to the declining scale of business rather than to the use of secondary records. Cost and Balance Books, 1914-1927, weekly and monthly totals of sales and expenditures, are early cost accounting records and are of particular interest. FINANCE records also allow researchers an opportunity to examine business records at the point of transition from the straight forward, nearly narrative, 19th century forms of bookkeeping to the highly derivative 20th century types.
PRODUCTION records are the most miscellaneous series of the collection. No extensive records of the production process have been preserved. Clay and glaze formulas, design drafts and blueprints, kiln journals and other records related to the production of stoneware were not created or have not survived. Inventories, (1906)1914-1944 include standard inventories, Stock Book, and Sales Quarterly Sheets. These all identify items sold by the Pottery Works. Carbooks, inventories of finished pottery in freight cars arriving from other manufacturers, identify items resold by the Pottery. PRODUCTION Instruction Sheets, 1905-1919, 1930 and 1933, include four different records. The Size Book, 1915-1919, is a permanent record of dimensions and other specifications for special orders made on a regular basis. Product Test Sheets, 1930, a record of the labor and materials used in making individual items, may have facilitated pricing decisions. Stock Orders, 1933, in-house requests sent to the shop for standard items, are related to Instruction Sheets, 1933. The latter are in-house requests for special orders, and include some description. Product Test Sheets, Stock Orders and Instruction Sheets identify wares made on the premises. The Size Book possibly includes items manufactured for the Dorchester Pottery by another company.
PRODUCTION Employee Records, 1921-1932, 1938, include attendance, payroll and other records. Productivity Journals, listing of items produced daily by each potter, may aid in identifying Dorchester Pottery wares.
SALES series are repetitive and have little inherent research value. Orders and Footwarmer Quotations and Orders have been sampled. Other SALES records are Commission and Address Books, working records which illustrate direct sales procedures, a small part of the Dorchester Pottery's business.
The minimal and dispersed personal correspondence and bank-related records have been destroyed. Copies of Dun and Bradstreet reports, used to determine credit risk rates, have also been discarded.
No complementary or supplementary collections have been located as yet. Records of local art potteries, such as the Dedham Pottery, or of commercial potteries, such as the Hews or Massachusetts Pottery companies, have apparently not survived. Records of at least three Ohio art potteries are being held by archival institutions but these collections may have little supplementary information to offer.(3)
Footnotes to collection note:
- ADMINISTRATION Correspondence, 1920. George Henderson to Fred Burke, 3/1/20.
- Finished pottery may have been purchased prior to that date but no records exist.
- The Rookwood Pottery collection is held by the Cincinnati Historical Society. Roseville Pottery collection is held by the Columbus Historical Society. The J. B. Ownes collection is at the Zanesville Art Center, Zanesville, Ohio.