Saturday, May 12, 2012

Discovering the Swasey Solution

Much of my research over the past thirty years has been devoted to discovering who made America’s pre-Prohibition whiskey jugs, particularly those with “fancy” exteriors. As a result I have been able to identify and write about the attractive ceramics of the Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, New Jersey; Knowles, Taylor and Knowles of East Liverpool,Ohio, Thuemler Manufacturing of Pittsburgh, and Sherwood Bros. of New Brighton, Pennsylvania.

The identification of Sherwood Bros. was of particular interest because of its ability to design and execute elaborate underglaze transfer labels of quality equal to those of a number of potteries in Great Britain. Now it is clear that there were at least two American potteries with those capabilities -- the second right under my nose.

It was the E. Swasey & Co Pottery of Portland, Maine, a company that once was among the most productive in New England but today is all but forgotten. As the letterhead shown here indicates, the firm was an importer and jobber (selling for other potteries) but also a manufacturer of ceramic items. Despite its size, the company is not mentioned in most pottery books, including Lehner’s presumably comprehensive “Encyclopedia of U.S. Marks.”

Eban Swasey was a potter who apprenticed in Exeter NH in the mid-1800s. In 1875 he and his partner, Rufus Lamson, moved to Portland ME and established the Portland Earthen Ware Manufactory, producing redware. Swasey and Lamson eventually went their separate ways, and in 1890 Swasey established E. Swasey & Co. at 273 Commercial Street in Portland. Shown here is a photo of the pottery circa that time. In 1897, Swasey's youngest son Perley joined the company, which became a sizable enterprise by the turn of the century. Eban died in 1906, but the business carried on until finally sputtering out of business during the Depression.

Swasey became known for the array of pots, crocks, jug and other items that bore the company’s elaborate logo design, best seen on its footwarmer. The elaborate nature of the mark and its prominence on many items has intrigued me but, again, my earlier research yielded nothing about its origin or meaning.

Among the array of Swasey products shown here, I once owned a the pint-sized jug shown at the far right. That is an embarrassing revelation because it never gave me an inkling that Swasey might be behind many of America’s most attractive whiskey jugs. Other writers had portrayed the company as principally importers and jobbers and I had not investigated much further.

My ignorance was revealed in a flash recently when a E. Swasey & Company catalogue was put up for sale on eBay. It advertised “Light and Dark...Glazed Bristol Ware, Decorated Ware and Fine Glazed Stoneware.” As I turned the pages (electronically) there were surprise after surprise. An illustration appeared labeled “Bonnie Castle,” a jug for Scotch that many have felt was U.S. made because of the way “whiskey” was spelled on the label. It is a common bottle but one whose maker had never been identified.

A following page showed a jug that was listed “kornschnapps,” a kind of liquor that was popular among German Americans and often bottled in the U.S. Neither drawing proved conclusively that Swasey designed either the Bonnie Castle or kornschnapps jugs. As a jobber the company simply could have sold the shapes to other outfits for printing. The solution came on a following catalogue page. Displayed there were illustrations of three whiskey quarts with elaborately printed underglaze labels, all of which I have owned at some time in the past. Among them were the drawing of a Nordhausen Kornschnapps jug, not just the shape but the actual design. A photo of the actual jug, a fairly common item, confirms the identification.

There too was the illustration of a “R.H. Parker Old Style” whiskey. This is one of America’s most elaborate and attractive jugs, featuring cherubs, heads of grain and a banner type label. The liquor was produced by N.M. Uri of Nelson County, Kentucky, brother-in-law to the Bernheim Brothers of “Old Harper” fame. Again the catalog picture and the photo coincide. Swasey stands revealed as another American pottery able to produce underglaze transfer printed ceramics of a high quality.

Alan Blakeman, a British expert on whiskey containers, has long contended that several American potteries had the capacity to produce ceramic jugs of a quality rivaling those of more than a dozen Scotch and English manufacturers. Well, Alan, we are now up to two -- and still looking.


  1. While I agree that Swasey was at one time a manufacturer of pottery, specifically salt glazed stoneware (I own an example marked Lamson & Swasey) the ubiquitous brown and white pottery of Swasey was clearly made by someone else, in all likelihood Sherwood Bro. in New Brighton. When Swasey first came to Portland, he had a pot shop on Green Street in the same neighborhood as Benj. Dodge Sr. and Jr., but by the time of that they were selling the brown and white pottery, they were located on Commercial Street and there is no evidence of kilns associated with the site. Further, besides pottery, they sold china, glassware, etc., so my guess (without actually seeing their records) is that they were supplied by jobbers. Also, looking at the various landings at the port of Portland, Swasey is receiving a considerable number of crates of pottery on a regular basis. It's a great topic and one that I am going to be spending more time researching.

  2. DanaT: Sorry to be so long in replying. My old computer crashed in April and it has taken some time for me to recover. I agree that Sherwood Bros. may have been responsible for some of the "fancy" jugs. But why go to Swasey when it was possible to go directly to to Sherwod? I hope that you with share your research about this issue.
    All the best. Jack

  3. Hi Jack,
    No worries on the delay in replying since I'm just as guilty. I only stumbled in here today while doing some further research on this very question.

    I think the most compelling evidence is that Historic New England has in their collection a typical Swasey Crock that, however, is stamped on the side "SHERWOOD BROS./ POTTERY/ NEW BRIGHTON, PA."

    In addition, Fred Swasey is listed as one of the directors of Sherwood Brothers in Poor's Manual of Industrials: Manufacturing, Mining, and Miscellaneous Companies for 1913.

    In the January 4, 1912 New Brighton Daily Times it mentions that Fred Swasey is in town "on business with the Sherwood Brothers Pottery."

    At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, Sherwood Brothers Pottery wins a gold medal for glazed stoneware as does "collaborator" E. Swasey.

    In The Country Gentleman and the Rural New Yorker magazines of 1911-1912, E. Swasey & Co. is advertising "full barrel lots of slightly damaged stoneware" to be shipped directly from the New Brighton pottery for $1 (what a deal!!!!).

    Lastly, by the time E. Swasey & Company set up shop on Commercial Street, there is no evidence that they had kilns at the site (it would be in the tax records for one thing) and the only kilns in town belonged to the Portland Stone Ware Company which made salt-glazed stoneware, not the type of ware Swasey was selling. As a result, Swasey would have had to have gotten his wares elsewhere.


    Dana T

  4. Jack,

    Just checked a couple of sources, including Branin, and it would seem that Swasey leased the Brattle Street factory to a Joseph Gilliatt of Portland who started the Portland Pottery Company. This was at the same time that Swasey opened E. Swasey & Company at 273 Commercial Street. Branin then goes on to cite the 1898 Portland Directory where E. Swasey & Company has their manufactory at E. (sic) Brighton, PA, but incorrectly assumes that was for glassware. I do stand corrected on the statement that the only kilns were at Portland Stone Ware, but I have yet to flesh out how long Gilliatt's Portland Pottery Company remained in business; Branin suggests until 1896 or 1900 but that the Brattle Street address, the former site of Swasey's Portland Pottery Works, was not used after 1893. No other successors at Brattle St. are mentioned.

    Hope this information helps.

  5. My mother was a Swasey and these are distant relatives so I am enjoying finding out the history. Please keep researching.

  6. My mother was a Swasey and these are distant relatives so I am enjoying finding out the history. Please keep researching.

  7. I found an E Swasey bean pot with no lid.
    It’s a #3. Are you interested in buying it?
    Leslie or

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  10. Just got an E. Swasey 4 gal crock. Interested in learning more. Live in Maine so will check out 273 Commercial.