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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dorchester Pottery Works by Anthony M. Sammarco

The Dorchester Pottery Works was established in 1895 on Preston Street (now Victory Road,) and was to produce hand decorated stoneware of distinctive New England motifs until its demise in 1979. Founded by George Henderson (1863-1928) on land adjoining the prestigious Harrison Square neighborhood of Dorchester, the pottery works initially produced stoneware for commercial use. Henderson, a native of North Cambridge, had been a partner since 1884 in the firm of S.L. Pewtress Pottery in New Haven, Connecticut, under the style of Henderson and O’Halloran. The decision to sell his partnership and move from New Haven to Dorchester may have been of a family nature, but when he relocated in 1895 he established a family business that would strive for old fashioned, well made stoneware.

From 1895 to World War I, the Dorchester Pottery Works produced such items as mash feeders, chicken fountains, cheese crocks, as well as acid pots and dipping baskets for plating and jewelry companies. Also, the patented “Henderson Foot warmer,” the clay pig and the forerunner of the rubber hot water bottle, went on to compromise twenty nine percent of the pottery works’ total annual sales by 1919. Adjacent to the Dorchester Pottery Works was Harrison Square, a neighborhood designed and laid out by local architect Luther Briggs, Jr., and named after President William Henry Harrison (1773-1841.) The area, now referred to as Clam Point, is near Dorchester Bay and the former Old Colony Railroad, which passed through the square. This transportation route enabled Henderson to receive his clay from South Amboy, New Jersey and cobalt from Germany and to ship his finished products, thus allowing his business to increase and to thrive. As the business grew, Henderson obtained a permit in 1910 to construct a new beehive kiln. Designed by him personally, the downdraft kiln was built four years later by specialists from Germany. Measuring twenty two feet in diameter, and ten and a half feet in height, the new kiln allowed for up to three freight car loads of pottery to be fired at one time.

The concept of stoneware is an important one, as it requires three thousand degrees of heat for firing, whereas earthenware only requires fifteen hundred degrees. The stoneware Henderson produced required two weeks of attention. The kiln was fired with a combination of wood and coal for forty eight hours or until the necessary temperature was attained. Once reached, the shutters to the fire holes were closed, and the kiln was allowed to cool slowly for five days before the unloading process could begin. The door to the kiln, composed of bricks and mortar, then had to be carefully dismantled. However, before the kiln could even be loaded, the potters had to produce pieces from clay. With wheels and molds, bean pots, casseroles, dishes, jugs and mixing bowls took shape along with the industrial goods being produced. By 1925, there were twenty eight employees with six potters and three salesmen.

Charles Wilson Henderson, the founder’s son, and his wife Ethel Hill Henderson assisted the family business from World War I until the death of George Henderson in 1928. The couple reevaluated the Dorchester Pottery Works at this crucial time, adding new lines of decorative tableware to augment those already in production. The Great Depression caused the business to suffer, as the pottery works’ most important customers were the factories affected by the harsh business decline. To compete with other pottery companies, Ethel Hill Henderson began to decorate her stoneware with motifs of old New England. Before her marriage in 1919, Ethel had been an industrial arts teacher at Dorchester High School and had designed fabrics and Colonial Revival motifs in her spare time. By adding to the stoneware decorations of pinecones, blueberries, strawberries, lily of the valley, pussy willow, the Sacred Cod and spouting sperm whales, Ethel Henderson revolutionized the Dorchester Pottery Works, breathing new life into the business. The stoneware~ fashioned on a wheel, hand dipped in sealer, and then hand decorated~ was produced through a time consuming and labor intensive process. However, the result was stoneware that literally said “Dorchester Pottery.”

Whereas the commercial ware lines so important in the early years of the works were undecorated and purely functional pieces, the decorative pieces could hold their own when compared to the well known Dedham Pottery, another Boston area pottery business. Charles Allen Hill, Ethel’s brother, also came to work for the business. Hill had been a chemistry teacher prior to joining the Dorchester Pottery Works, and his color mixing was of superior quality. This family affair was further augmented by Ethel’s sister, Lillian Hill Yeaton, who assisted in the sales end of the business. Charles and Ethel Henderson began a series of stoneware lines that made the pottery a veritable museum of design. After World War II, Ethel traveled to Mount Vernon, where she recreated an 18th century hanging herb pot like one used by President George Washington. Glazed, but undecorated, it was supplied to the gift shop at Mount Vernon for many years, as were stoneware mugs for Radcliffe College and the Tufts Dental School. Roommates at the colleges were given identical mugs, with handles of different scraffito designs, which allowed their use without confusion. The decorative stoneware grew to make up the majority of production revenues, while the manufacture of commercial ware dwindled.

In the 1960’s, the labor intensive business was recognized as one that still employed “old-time methods of production.” Lura Woodside Watkins, a noted authority on American decorative arts, wrote that the Dorchester Pottery Works “alone maintained the high standard of workmanship that characterized the potteries of an earlier day.” With the last firing of the huge custom built kiln in 1965, the final decline of the Dorchester Pottery Works began. The beehive kiln was replaced by a smaller gas-fired one which proved more efficient and economical, but took some of the charm of workmanship away at the same time. The death of Charles W. Henderson in 1967 struck the death knell of the business, as for the next twelve years his survivors simply produced enough pottery to keep the works going. Carried on by his widow, her brother and sister, and ably assisted by the last potter, Nando Ricci, the Dorchester Pottery Works was one of the few stoneware factories founded in the 19th century that still remained.

After Ethel Hill Henderson’s death in 1971, the showroom was only open on Thursdays, for however long the pottery lasted, and still later only on the first Thursday of the month. Collectors would line up at the door at dawn to await opening. The pieces available were few, and the demand was fierce. The Dorchester Pottery Works truly represented a specialized market for people who appreciated fine stoneware of a distinctive design. The closing of the business was sparked by an arson fire, which in 1979 gutted the pottery works and showroom. In 2001 Bay Cove Human Services acquired the property and renovated the former pottery works for its own use, keeping the kiln room and the kiln itself intact for community exhibitions.

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