If you read one book on ceramics history this year, or even just one book on ceramics, make it A. Brandt Zipp’s densely researched and richly illustrated book about Thomas W. Commeraw, Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottery Owner. Commeraw’s robust stoneware, his jugs and jars, the sure-handed cobalt decorations, have long been esteemed by collectors and connoisseurs of early American pottery, but little was known about the potter himself. It was assumed that, like his contemporaries working in the late 18th and early 19th century Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was white. The well-known ceramic historian William Ketchum even argued that he was of French extraction, a misconception that grew into myth and stuck for years.
Zipp, is a founding partner of Crocker Farm, the premier auction house specializing in historic, utilitarian American ceramics. He grew up steeped in knowledge and appreciation of early American pottery. While researching another potter, Henry Remmey, a contemporary and neighbor of Commeraw’s, he saw a B after Commeraw’s name in the 1810 census. At first perplexed, but looking further in the census records, he discovered that the B was for black. Commeraw was listed as black in the 1800 census with a household consisting of 6 people of color. Thomas Commeraw, the famous stoneware potter favored by collectors and museums, was not a white man of French heritage, but a free African-American.
After this startling and important discovery, Zipp spent almost two decades researching Commeraw’s life, sharing what he learned in lectures and essays. I believe there were some university presses who were interested in publishing the results of his work. However, Crocker Farm publishes wonderful catalogs of their auctions and so brought that sensibility to this project. They published the book with an astonishing wealth of illustrations. Turning the pages, looking at pot after pot, you feel an intimacy with the work. With Zipp’s guidance, we see Commeraw’s handles change, his efficiencies evolve. Zipp also shares his research journey, how and where he learned various details and facts. He includes illustrations of the primary sources he relied upon. The book is well documented with notes and, always a criterion for me, a good index
Even without Zipp’s research, Commeraw was known as an extraordinary and influential potter. He was one of the first, if not the first, to stamp his brand on his pots. He sold his wares well beyond New York. Other potters imitated him. But now we know that as a child he was enslaved by the potter William Crolius and received his freedom upon Crolius’ death. We know about his leadership roles in his community and his church, his abolitionist activism at a time when most blacks in this country were enslaved, his singing, his optimism when he and his family left to found Liberia, only to return to the US disappointed. And now we know that this enterprising potter, long assumed to be a white craftsman, was a free black man who made magnificent pots working for himself.
Do yourself a favor: Read this book. I will reread it before the year is out.