The Union Porcelain Company

Porcelain was one of the five black arts and it was the first industry in Greenpoint, predating shipbuilding. The first pottery works in Greenpoint was established in 1848 by Englishman Charles Cartlidge, near Freeman and West Streets on what was then called Pottery Hill. Trained as a potter in England, he served as the agent for an English pottery firm before opening his own factory, Messrs. Charles Cartlidge 6c Co. The firm manufactured tea sets, pitchers, bowls, door knobs, buttons, cameos, and busts, and Cartlidge’s work was exhibited at the New York Crystal palace in 1853 and won a prestigious award. Many of the firm’s pieces were painted with colors over the glaze. Of particular renown were glossy glazed pitchers with acorns and oak leaves as a decorative motif.2? Porcelian busts had also been made, sculpted by Josiah Jones, of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Joseph Hughes, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, Senator Daniel Webster, and President Zachary Taylor.28 A singular item was a small bust of Henry Clay to be used as a cane handle. Jewelry, too, was created —small medallions with Cartlidge family portraits. The Brooklyn Museum has a numberof examples of the firm’s work including an exotic piece that was part of the family’s collection — a porcelain cast of Cartlidge’s daughter’s hand.29 Unfortunately, the venture was not financially successful and the year following- the company’s reorganization in 1855 under the name of the American Porcelain Manufacturing Co., the business closed.
Greenpoint became the home of the first commercially successful hard porcelain company in the United States, The Union Porcelain Company located on Eckford Street. The Company thrived because of its amazing founder Thomas Smith. By the time he was twenty one he had completed the requirements to be a master builder, but working so many hours outside damaged his health and he had to return home again to recuperate. When he regained his health, he returned to New York and got a job as the city’s Superintendant of Buildings. Smith overworked himself and eventually had to go to Europe to recuperate. Smith became a very successful architect and builder , designing and building the Edwin Forrest house in the Bronx, which resembles an English Castle. He also designed the beautiful Manhattan Episcopalian “Little Church around the Corner with fieldstone. He started one of the city’s most famous construction firms and it seemed certain Smith would become famous as a builder. He became a wealthy man at a very young age with money to invest.

One of his investments was a porcelain factory in Greenpoint. It was a small establishment, with one small kiln, was started by a family of Germans. Smith would later expand the factory to cover a whole block. The factory manufactured doorknobs and other small practical porcelain items as early as 1854. They were made with a mixture of kaolin and phosphate of lime, after an English formula. They proved unsuccessful, and the works passed into the hands of a stock company, who succeeded in inducing Smith to loan them considerable sums of money. The Civil war broke out and the company failed because there was no demand for porcelain production. Smith found himself obliged to take the factory to recoup his debt. Many people warned Smith that the factory was a bad investment and that he should write off the debt, but Smith had a vision of the factory as a financial success.

Full of faith and patriotism, even in that dark hour of civil war in his country’s success in the near future, he decided to manufacture porcelain,despite having no experience in porcelain production. Smith began to consider some way of utilizing this factory in the prosperous times that he believed were to come at the end of the war. Smith decided to study the process of making porcelain thoroughly.Smith had an iron will, a mechanical genius and a great understanding of chemistry, even though he had little formal schooling and he was determined to succeed.

In 1863 since he was in Europe to restore his health Smith embraced the opportunity to visit the porcelain factory of Sevres, in France, and some of the English potteries in Stoke-on-Trent. He also visited Staffordshire in England and so engrossed himself in the minute details of making porcelain that soon he became an expert on its production. The Europeans laughed at the idea that Smith would be able to produce quality porcelain in America because the process required expensive raw materials, machinery and expert production knowledge, but Smith was not a man to give up his vision. When he had returned home he had fully made up his mind to undertake the manufacture of hard porcelain in the greenpoint works. The factory was put in thorough repair, new buildings erected, machinery and materials procured; and after two years of experiment and spending much of his personal fortune, he put upon the market a small quantity of genuine porcelain. He began the process of trial and error in producing high quality hard porcelain. It took Smith two years of experimentation,but Smith succeeded in producing high quality porcelain. He called the new company the Union Porcelain works and it paid good wages.

He was shrewd enough to realize that he could not immediately produce high quality China, but he was able to produce doorknobs, insulators, caster wheels and other hardware trimmings that allowed the firm to pay its bills and for Smith to continue his experimentation. Finding a ready market, he increased his productions each year, and by the application of new and improved machinery overcame the numerous and formidable obstacles which beset every step of his pathway.Nowhere else, either in France or Germany, in China or Japan, had the manufacture of hard porcelain been successful without government aid and patronage. He was not only fighting his battles without assistance from his government, but was threatened, at the very start of the firm’s market entry with the reduction of American tariff duties on European and Asiatic porcelain; Smith, however, would not give up his venture and risked his whole fortune expending over $250,000 on buildings and the plant, buying a quarries of quartz and feldspar to be sure of the best; quality. He built and furnished a machine shop where he could produce his own machinery and tools; when he found a need for a machine which would do his work better than it was done, inventing and manufacturing it; When the time came for producing decorated china, Smith resolved to use only original designs, as he had already done in the forms of his vases and dishes.however people advised him to copy European designs, but Smith wanted to create uniquely American patterns. He avoided copying European motifs and produced uniquely American themed China that is still collector’s items. Soon the firm was able to produce high quality china, vases and more delicate porcelain pieces. His work compared favorable with the European pieces of Limoges, Meissen and Berlin in design, delicacy and tastefulness of their decoration. Each year the quality and quantity of his production improved. Even the White House purchased its China from Smith’s Greenpoint firm.

Soon he procured the services of an eminent artist and sculptor to aid him and his son in this part of his work. In 1874 he hired a first rate German sculptor and painter Thomas Muller. The German was famous for his decoration and for his porcelain images of famous Americans. Two years later Muller’s work would win prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and put Union Porcelain on the map. The porcelain won prizes in competitions at home and abroad. Every year has witnessed material progress, till his establishment is known all around the word. Connoisseurs paid high prices to acquire the firm’s creations The Union Porcelain works grew to become a vast enterprise.

Some of his vases are of such exquisite design that they are in the collections of major museums Like the Metropolitan or the Brooklyn Museum. One of the pieces shown by Union Porcelain at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the Keramos Vase, which commemorated Longfellow’s poem of the same name and was embellished with raised designs depicting the history of ceramics. Soon after exhibiting the Keramos Vase, Smith constructed Keramos Hall as a commercial building and exhibition area with space for civic organizations (Greenpoint Hebrew Civic Club, the Progress Club, the Young Mens Republican Club, Greenpoint Taxpayers and Citizens’ Association, etc.) and professional trades such as attorneys and engineers . In fact, the risers of the front steps of Keramos Hall are faced with original pieces Union Porcelain tiles from Smith’s factory.

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