|Note: This article has updated from the printing of The Tree of Life.|
Written and researched by Kevin Wright
In a broad sense, pottery is any object made of clay and hardened by heat. Since prerecorded times, clay deposits along the Hackensack River have supplied native craftsmen with the material for everyday wares from bricks to dishes. In a river area, an overgrowth of cattails has traditionally indicated a good underlying clay bed.
Earthenware pie plates are counted among the most treasured heirlooms of the Jersey Dutch. They were part of a woman’s Outset, that is to say, the basic set of household furnishings and equipment, which her parents provided her in preparation for her marriage. For this reason, many are decorated with a bride’s name or initials, or possibly a wedding date. Others are known to have political slogans, historic memorials or simply bold, abstract designs. The decoration is done with a liquid, buff-colored clay called slip that was applied from a cup through a goose quill, much in the manner that cakes are decorated. The body of the plate is formed from local clay, usually mixed with sand, rolled into a sheet, then formed into a plate over a wooden template. The pie plates range from 5 to15 inches in diameter, and sold accordingly for 5 to 15 cents apiece. Two celebrated Hackensack Valley potters, Henry Van Saun and George Wolfkiel, produced these pie plates at their pottery bake shop, situated between Old Bridge (River Edge) and New Bridge.
Henry Jacob Van Saun, carpenter, purchased 11 acres between Kinderkamack Road and the Hackensack River (on the site of Kenneth B. George Memorial Park in River Edge) from Jacob Bogert in December 1811. Here he opened a brickyard and pottery, utilizing glacial clays that mantle the Hackensack Valley. There is supposedly archaeological and photographic evidence of a kiln and clay pits on the east bank of the river in New Milford. Potshards indicate that this clay deposit has been worked since aboriginal times. Several fragments are of a quality similar to Van Saun's known work and local tradition says that he operated at this spot. He resided upon 34 acres, extending from Kinderkamack Road west to what is now Van Saun Park, and bounded south by Howland Avenue, which he had purchased from his father, Jacob Van Saun, in 1802.
When Henry Van Saun died in 1829, his estate included $116 worth of brick, $189.23 worth of “pottebakers ware,” and “pottery mashinery, Cart and Sundries” valued at $37.50. His Schooner Fanny Mariah (named for his two daughters) was appraised at $500 and his Sloop John Henry at $1,500. He also owned an oxcart, a “1 horse slay,” three wagons, three horses and one ox. In 1836, his “House, Lot of land and premises,” were sold to John Lozier.
Henry Van Saun made earthenware pie plates with embossed medallions of Washington (in a halo of thirteen stars) and Lafayette, probably in 1824-26 to commemorate Lafayette’s visit to Hackensack and the 50th Anniversary of American Independence. He may also have produced the pie plate with a Proud Hen in slip decoration.
George Wolfkiel (1805-1867) of Franklin Township, Pennsylvania, purchased the Van Saun Pottery in April 1847 and manufactured earthen and stoneware there until his death in March 1867. Some of his slip inscriptions read: Sally, Molly, Ginny, and 1848. A stylized W may be his trademark. The characters placed on the plates of George Wolfkiel include initials, names, dates, bird forms and abstract designs. Although no signed example of his work has yet been located, his signature may be seen in the personally stylized characteristics of his script, particularly his "y" endings in the names Sally, Molly or Ginney, archaeological dig at site, c. 1902. (see below)
Wolfkiel came to the Hackensack area from Franklin County, Pennsylvania, perhaps as early as 1830. For about thirty-five years, he turned out earthenware and stoneware at his "Pottery Bake Shoppe." At least some of his wares were sold locally. Today, Wolfkiel is best known for his slip decorated pie plates.
He is believed to have manufactured a set off our cups and saucers for the wedding of Mrs. Zabriskie in Ramsey in 1830. A flowerpot with attached saucer, inscribed with a man's name and dated 1831, has also been attributed to the New Bridge potter. A bacon plate inscribed "Hard Times in Jersey," now in the Wadsworth Atheneum at Hartford, Conn., is said to have come from his shop. Abraham Auryansen purchased a slipware pie dish (now on display at the Steuben House) at the Wolfkiel
pottery in 1840. The only dated pie plate (1848) belongs to the Bergen County Historical Society's collection.
In 1855, George Wolfkiel bought land on New Bridge Road in Schraalenburgh, now Bergenfield, from Ralph and Catherine Vanderlinda. An 1860 map shows G. Wolfkiel residing on this tract. Two other lots were also conveyed to Wolfkiel at the same time, all lying within old Schraalenburgh. Completing the limited picture of this craftsman is the burial marker beside Old South Church, Bergenfield, memorializing his death March 29, 1867, at 62 years of age.
Wolfkiel worked in both traditions of pottery manufacture: earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware is highly utilitarian and was commonly used on the east coast before the Revolution. It is a low-fired, porous, brittle clay body, made non-porous by the use of lead glazes. After 1800, more utilitarian pieces were made out of stoneware clays. Large deposits of this clay were and still are found in New Jersey. Stoneware is relatively high-fired, heavy, durable and non-porous. For these qualities, it was commonly used for the storage and preservation of food and liquids. Stoneware was often salt-glazed, not only to enhance its appearance, but also to further render it watertight and acid resistant.
These utilitarian vessels enter the realm of folk art only when ornamentation is added.
A loan exhibition, which Frances A. Westervelt, curator of the Bergen County Historical Society organized in 1920, included fifty pieces attributed to Bergen's own potter. She mentions Wolfkiel's "salt glaze (grey) crocks decorated in blue with the American flag and his signature..." in her 1923 History of Bergen County, Vol. 1.
Henry Van Saun and George Wolfkiel are the best known of several potters who worked along the Hackensack River. Other documented potters were Isaac V. Machett and his son, Jacques Mirgot and Peter Peregrine Sanford. Like Wolfkiel, they signed very few of their pieces. Oral tradition, archaeological digs and the study of stylistic elements are used to identify the pieces that remain for our admiration.
The Tree of Life: Selections from Bergen County Folk Art by Kevin W. Wright
Betty Schmelz, Charles B. Szeglin and Irene Fitzgerald were also involved in the project.