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COWDEN & WILCOX AND THE MAN IN THE MOON

THE WILSON BROTHERS AND JOHN YOUNG

THE STORY BEHIND THE BUILDING OF HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA'S MOST FAMOUS 19TH CENTURY POTTERY, STARTS PERHAPS WITH THE DECLINE OF ANOTHER. 


RED WARE POTTERIES WERE STARTED ACROSS COLONIAL AMERICA IN THE EARLIEST OF THE NEW COUNTRY'S HISTORY. KILNS WERE BUILT FOR THE MOST PART ON FARMS TO HELP MAKE GENERAL WARE FOR USE IN THE HOME. IN THE 1700'S, WITH THE DISCOVERY OF STONEWARE DEPOSITS NEAR AND AROUND NEW YORK CITY, CAME THE DEMAND FOR MORE DURABLE CHURNS, CROCKS AND JUGS, MADE FROM THE MORE STURDY AND LESS POUROUS  STONEWARE CLAY. RED WARE POTTERIES WERE OUTFITTED TO MAKE STONEWARE AND SOME KILNS BECAME BUSINESSES, FEEDING THE NEED FOR THE NEW PRODUCTS. THIS "NEW TECH" FRENZY WAS A GOOD INVESTMENT FOR ENTREPRENEURS.


IN THE STATE CAPITAL OF HARRISBURG, TWO BROTHERS, THOMAS AND DANIEL WILSON, BUILT A COMMERCIAL STONEWARE POTTERY ON FILBERT ST. IN 1852. ALTHOUGH, NEVER HAVING HAD EXPERIENCE WITH MAKING POTTERY OR SELLING POTTERY OR EVEN IN THE BUSINESS PROCESS OF A POTTERY, THE TWO BROTHERS ENDED UP PRODUCING SOME REALLY BEAUTIFUL STONEWARE! THEY RELIED ON WORKERS TO DO THE ACTUAL MANUFACTURING AS THEY HAD MOST LIKELY DISCOVERED, THAT THE POTTERY BUSINESS, WAS A LABORIOUS AND DIFFICULT UNDERTAKING.


THREE YEARS LATER AROUND 1855, THE BROTHERS TOOK AN EMPLOYEE NAMED JOHN YOUNG AND MADE HIM A PARTNER. YOUNG MANAGED THE POTTERY WHILE THE BROTHERS WENT ABOUT THEIR OTHER BUSINESS. YOUNG NEEDED HELP AND THEN MADE WHAT WOULD BE AN HISTORIC DECISION AND HIRED THE SUBJECT OF OUR SHORT STORY, A TALENTED POTTER FROM NEW YORK STATE,  NAMED SHEM THOMAS.



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SHEM THOMAS N. Y. STATE STONEWARE

PENN YAN AND LYONS ARTISTRY

YEARS BEFORE COMING TO HARRISBURG, SHEM THOMAS BEGAN HIS DOCUMENTED HISTORY IN LYONS, NEW YORK, WORKING FOR STONEWARE LEGEND, THOMPSON HARRINGTON. WE HAVE NEVER SEEN EXAMPLES OF LYONS POTTERY WITH THOMAS' NAME INCLUDED IN A MAKERS STAMP, AS THOMAS STRICTLY "WORKED FOR" HARRINGTON AND WAS NOT INVOLVED IN THE OWNERSHIP OF THE POTTERY.


THE STORY CONTINUES WITH SHEM THOMAS (AGE 47) LEAVING LYONS IN 1854 AND GOING TO PENN YAN, NEW YORK, AS PARTNERS WITH ANOTHER LYONS EMPLOYEE, JAMES MANTELL. THERE ARE VERY FEW (AND QUITE VALUABLE) MANTELL & THOMAS MAKER STAMPED PIECES. THESE ARE MOSTLY WORKS OF ART MORE THAN COLLECTIBLE STONEWARE, SUCH AS THE ONE PICTURED ABOVE. ONE OF THE REASONS THIS MAKERS STAMP IS SO SOUGHT AFTER, IS NOT ONLY THE RARITY OF THE MAKERS STAMP ITSELF (DUE TO THE SHORT LIFE OF THE PARTNERSHIP), BUT RATHER THE ARTISTRY OF THE PIECES. SIMPLY PUT, THE TWO MEN MADE EXQUISITE STONEWARE. THEY ARE ALSO BOTH LEGENDS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.


IN THE BACKROOMS OF DINGY STONEWARE HANGOUTS, THERE IS MUCH DEBATE ABOUT WHO DID WHAT AND WHY AND WHEN. THAT WOULD BE... WHO WAS THE ARTIST IN LYONS AND AT PENN YAN, WHAT PIECES DID THEY DO THE WORK ON AND WHEN DID THEY DO IT. THIS IS NOT UNCOMMON TALK IN STONEWARE CIRCLES. THE DECEDENTS OF MOST 19TH CENTURY POTTERS ARE STILL WITH US, AND SOME QUITE ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT COLLECTING BACK THEIR FAMILY HERITAGE. WE WERE BLESSED TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH THE DESCENDANTS OF SHEM THOMAS. THEY SUGGEST STRONGLY THAT HE WAS THE ARTIST, THE MASTER OF THE BRUSH STROKE, IN ALL THREE PLACES, LYONS, PENN YAN AND HARRISBURG. THEY CONTEND THAT HIS WORK IS TRACEABLE THROUGH EACH OF THE POTTERIES AND THE TIMELINE OF HIS WORK IS CONSISTENT WITH ALL APPRAISAL OF THE STONEWARE ITSELF.      


OUR OPINION IS, THAT THEY ARE QUITE CORRECT.


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SIMPLE CLUES LEAD TO FANTASTIC RESULTS

SHEM THOMAS IN HARRISBURG

AMERICA WAS MOVING WEST. SHEM THOMAS HAD WORKED IN NEW YORK STATE IN LYONS ALONG THE ERIE CANAL. HE HAD WATCHED THE INFLUX OF SETTLERS MOVING WEST AND THE OPPORTUNITY FOR INVESTMENT AND BUSINESS IN THEIR PATH. 


IT'S NOT KNOWN HOW THOMAS HEARD OF THE WILSON POTTERY, 200 MILES AWAY IN HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA, BUT SOMEHOW HE DID. THE FACTS ARE THAT THE WILSON'S, AS MORE INVESTORS THAN POTTERS, NEEDED PRACTICAL HELP AND THIS MAY HAVE PRESENTED THE OPPORTUNITY. JOHN YOUNG AS THEIR MANAGER NEEDED QUALITY HELP MAKING STONEWARE AND WHETHER THEY DRAFTED THOMAS OR HE SOUGHT THEM OUT IS UNKNOWN. SOMEHOW YOUNG AND THOMAS END UP FORGING A PARTNERSHIP IN 1856 AND PURCHASE THE POTTERY FROM THE WILSON BROTHERS, AND THE BUSINESS OF "JOHN YOUNG & CO." OF HARRISBURG, PA. WAS FORMED.


BACK TO THE DINGY BACKROOMS OF THE STONEWARE WORLD THERE WAS ALWAYS SPECULATION THAT THE WILSONS HAD SOUGHT OUT THOMAS, FOR HIS KNOWLEDGE OF SLIP TRAILING, A PROCESS OF DECORATING STONEWARE POPULAR IN NEW YORK STATE. WE BELIEVE THIS TO BE SPECULATIVE AT BEST. WHY? BECAUSE THOMAS HAD "OTHER TALENTS".


THOSE "OTHER TALENTS" INCLUDED A BRUSH AND ARE DISPLAYED IN THIS SIMPLE PIECE OF LYONS, NEW YORK STONEWARE SHOWN ABOVE AND HUNDREDS MORE LIKE IT. PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THE BRUSHED DESIGN AND NUANCES OF THE WORK. UP UNTIL WE SPOKE TO THOMAS'S FAMILY SOME YEARS BACK, WE HADN'T NOTICED THE SIMILARITY BETWEEN THIS EARLIER LYONS EXAMPLE AND LATER PIECES OF ENORMOUS IMPORTANCE FROM THE COWDEN & WILCOX POTTERY.




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SHEM THOMAS AT COWDEN & WILCOX

THE MAN IN THE MOON

IN AROUND 1858, SHEM THOMAS FINDS HIMSELF DISSOLVING THE PARTNERSHIP WITH JOHN YOUNG AND SELLING THE POTTERY BACK TO THE WILSON'S AFTER ONLY TWO YEARS. BETWEEN THAT MOMENT AND A MOMENT AROUND 1860 WE ARE NOT SURE OF THOMAS'S WHEREABOUTS BUT WE DO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THAT.


THOMAS MEETS WITH NEW POTTERY OWNER JOHN COWDEN SOMETIME AFTER 1859 AND BEGINS WORK AT THE LEGENDARY STONEWARE POTTERY. COWDEN & WILCOX BEGIN PRODUCING STONEWARE WITH FLAMBOYANT FLORALS, AMAZING PIECES DEPICTING BIRDS AND THIS DESIGN WE SEE HERE, WHICH QUICKLY TAKE THE MARKET BY STORM. THE ARTISTRY IS BEYOND IMAGINATION AND THE WORKMANSHIP, COMBINED WITH GREAT MARKETING, MAKE THE NEW POTTERY THE LARGEST AND MOST SUCCESSFUL STONEWARE POTTERY IN CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA. SHEM THOMAS WAS A GREAT PART OF THE OUTSET OF THE COWDEN & WILCOX LEGACY AND WE NOW KNOW HE WAS INVOLVED WITH DECORATING SOME OF IT'S MOST VALUED AND CHERISHED PIECES.


THE SMALL LYONS CROCK YOU SAW IN THE LAST SEGMENT SOLD FOR $150 AT AUCTION NOT LONG AGO. THIS IS COMMON EVALUATION FOR A CROCK WITH A SIMPLE DESIGN AND A MAKER STAMP THAT SIMPLY READ "LYONS". WHAT THE BUYER DID NOT MOST LIKELY KNOW WAS, IT WAS SHEM THOMAS WHO DID THE BLUE COBALT GLAZE WORK.


THE CROCK YOU SEE ABOVE RECENTLY SOLD FOR OVER $5,000. THIS IS AFFECTIONATELY CALLED THE "MAN IN THE MOON" DESIGN, MADE FAMOUS BY THE COWDEN & WILCOX POTTERY. WE BELIEVE THAT BOTH PIECES, THE LYONS CROCK ON THE PREVIOUS PAGE AND THIS MAN IN THE MOON CROCK, WERE DECORATED BY SHEM THOMAS. THE FAMILY BELIEVES THAT AS WELL. WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A $150 CROCK AND ONE WORTH A SMALL FORTUNE? THE MAN IN THE MOON.


WHEN IT COMES TO STONEWARE ARTISTRY, IT'S DIFFICULT TO SAY THE WHO, WHERE AND WHEN. THANKFULLY, IN CASE OF SHEM THOMAS WE NOW KNOW THESE DETAILS AND IT JUST MAKES THE COLLECTING OF THESE PIECES EVEN MORE GRATIFYING.


THOMAS HAD SONS WHO FOLLOWED HIS PATH MAKING STONEWARE AND LEFT US HIS FURTHER LEGACY TO ENJOY. STONEWARE LEGEND SHEM THOMAS.

A SIDE BY SIDE COMPARISON

THOMAS AT LYONS N.Y.

THOMAS AT HARRISBURG, PA.

THOMAS AT HARRISBURG, PA.

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HERE IS A CLOSEUP OF THE LYONS N. Y. BLUE COBALT WORK

THOMAS AT HARRISBURG, PA.

THOMAS AT HARRISBURG, PA.

THOMAS AT HARRISBURG, PA.

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HERE IS THE WORK DONE AT COWDEN & WILCOX YEARS LATER