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.