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The Morgan/Van Wickle Pottery: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Don Carpentier | October 13th, 2013

This rare 1817 Bissett crock has been attributed to the Morgan-Van Wickle pottery for years. The blue flower on the reverse side of the crock and the coggle are identical to the decoration found on the Sim sherd in the Monmouth County Historical Association’s collection. Photographs of the crock are courtesy Glassworks Auctions, East Greenville, Pennsylvania.

This sherd from the Bissett pottery was collected by Sim in the 1940’s. It is shown on page 23 of his book Pages from the Past of Rural New Jersey (1949), the third object from the left in the foreground.

The reverse of Sim’s sherd shows the original label for Old Bridge, 2nd phase, Motif II, but there is no mention of Morgan-Van Wickle.

This sherd is from the Bissett well and identical to the coggle decoration found by Sim on the Bissett pottery site in the 1940’s.

In 1823 and 1824 the Bissett brothers made a series of dated pots with various forms of decoration. From the large number of dated sherds that Sim collected as well as some extant pots, it appears that one person was doing the decorating. Some of the pots have incised floral designs that are reminiscent of Remmey’s work. The storage jar with the 1823 date has a simple four-stroke blue flower on the back, but the other crock has a very large and well-executed incised floral sprig washed in blue. The Sim sherd and crock are in the collection of the Monmouth County Historical Association in Freehold, New Jersey. The sherd was found on the Bissett site and is attributed to Van Wickle. The photo of the 1823 jar is courtesy Crocker Farm.

This crock by David Bissett was made in the style of the Remmey potters with freestanding handles, a typical floral spray in cobalt, and his name and date incised on the side washed in blue. The inscription reads “made by David Bissett, December 4, 1819.” This is proof that the Bissetts were in business before 1823. Courtesy New Jersey Antique Bottle Club Web site, collection of Rick Hume.

Matching sherds from the Bissett well.

This early 1820’s incised Bissett jug has a similar floral design to the 1823 crock. This ovoid jug is a common form, but the details make all the difference. The sherds from the Monmouth County Historical Association were excavated on the Bissett site in the 1940’s by Sim. This jug was sold recently as Van Wickle based on the sherd. Jug photo courtesy Crocker Farm.

Here are some of Sim and Branin’s favorite sherds from the Bissett pottery site found in the 1940’s. Designs include the man in the moon, a man smoking a pipe, landscapes, birds, and flowers. Collection of Monmouth County Historical Association.

Images from Robert J. Sim’s book Pages from the Past of Rural New Jersey (1949). Sim gives a detailed description of the “dig” on the Bissett pottery site in the mid-1940’s. In the distance of the top image is the bridge at the east end of Main Street. In the lower image, sherd A is his sample of motif I, and sherd B is his sample of motif II from the Bissett site. The large crock in the center is dated 1848. The Bissetts liked to date their pots.

Map of Old Bridge, East Brunswick Township, New Jersey, 1878.

Current map of Old Bridge, New Jersey, showing both early pottery sites.

In the 1940’s the quest was on in Middlesex County, New Jersey, to find all of the early pottery sites and collect sherds from them as evidence. It was a period of renewed interest in American stoneware, and Middlesex County was one of the centers of stoneware production in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The land in that area was poor farmland, and many families bought up tracts because it was cheap. The Morgans, Van Wickles, Bissetts, Warnes, Prices, and many more moved to the area in the 18th century. They soon realized that under their farms was one of the richest veins of pure stoneware clay in the country. Many opened stoneware potteries, and some opened clay mines as well. Because of their access to cheap transportation by water, the clay was eventually shipped to stoneware potters all over the eastern United States.

One of the most aggressive researchers was Robert J. Sim, an entomologist with the state of New Jersey and amateur historian. He found the dump of Captain (later General) James Morgan’s pottery in Cheesequake and recovered many sherds with his friend Arthur W. Clement. The team of Sim and Clement also found the waster dump for the Warne/Letts pottery in Cheesequake and recovered many important signed and dated sherds. The sherds they found have proven to be invaluable to researchers for years, and most are now housed in museum collections and with private collectors.

About 1944 Sim set his sights on finding the James Morgan & Co. pottery run by James Morgan, Jacob Van Wickle and Branch Green in Old Bridge, New Jersey. This site was elusive; after all his searching he hadn’t been able to find it. But there was another early pottery in Old Bridge that was run by the Bissett family, and that site was found easily on River Road.

Asher Bissett Jr. and his brother David were the first from the Bissett family to take up potting. Asher Bissett Sr. had been a farmer living on land purchased by his father John Bissett in 1755. Asher Sr. and his family were very close friends for decades with a man named Jacob Van Wickle.

Branch Green had been a potter in Troy, New York, since the late 1790’s, and while there he had taken on an apprentice by the name of John P. Schermerhorn. By 1803 Green was living in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and had brought along his apprentice, who as it happened was from the family of Asher Sr.’s wife, Mary. She descended from the same Schermerhorn family.

John P. Schermerhorn was 15 in 1803 and only one year older than his cousin Asher Jr. and four years older than David. I would expect that these cousins would have grown up together for the seven years that he spent in Old Bridge, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his work at the Morgan/Van Wickle pottery had some influence on the direction their lives would take. John P. Schermerhorn moved to the Richmond, Virginia, area after living in Old Bridge and became a very successful potter there.

When Asher Sr. died in debt in 1807, his wife, Mary, and his good friend Jacob Van Wickle were the executors of his estate. Jacob asked the court to allow Asher’s land to be sold to satisfy the debts and allow Mary to buy back his land and her house. She did, and the next day she sold the bulk of the land to Jacob.

The General Morgan & Co. pottery was in business from 1805 to 1827. The Bissett pottery was in business from 1815 to 1865, so there was a 12-year overlap when they were both in business. Sim, it appears, wasn’t interested in finding the Bissett site; he was after the Morgan site, and that severely clouded his judgment of what he was finding on the Bissett site. Sim investigated the Bissett site for three years, collecting thousands of stoneware sherds.

In 1949 he wrote a book called Pages from the Past of Rural New Jersey. In the book he discussesW. Woodford Clayton’s History of Union and Middlesex Counties, New Jersey (1882), which talks about the two potteries, that the town had in early days. “Some time after the Revolution a pottery was started at Old Bridge by Gen. James Morgan and Jacob Van Wickle, which was in operation till about 1828. The building they had used went to ruin, and was torn down about 1840. About 1815 some of the Bissetts established a pottery on the wharf at Old Bridge, which was in existence as such until about 1830.” The closing date for the Bissett pottery is odd considering that it had appeared on county and town maps for decades before the 1880’s. But it seems very clear from his statement that the two potteries were on different sites. If they had been on the same site he would have stated that fact. If they were side by side, he would have said that. Clayton was interviewing people who had been alive to see the Bissett pottery in person, not recalling memories three or four generations later.

We also know from newspaper ads that the beginning date for the Morgan pottery is 1805 or a little before, and the closing dates are correct as well for the same reason. But Sim stated,  “The dates for the Bissett Pottery have been in question for years.” I can’t find a reference to anyone else questioning the dates except Sim. He recounted what Clayton said, but decided that there must have been an earlier potter on the site, because he thought that the wasters he found on the site were too early to have been Bissett. One might ask, if the two separate potteries were both in business during the period 1815-27, how could they both be on the same site at the same time without Clayton’s ever mentioning that fact? Thirty-nine years later in M. Lelyn Branin’s book The Early Makers of Handcrafted Earthenware and Stoneware in Central and Southern New Jersey, Branin took up Sim’s cross and went on for a page and a half talking in circles about the dates for the Bissett pottery. He did accept Sim’s premise that there might have been an earlier pottery on the site or at least “the Morgan Pottery may have deposited much of its refuse ware in the South River either at or near the point where the Bissett Pottery was set up around 1823.” He also talked about “the large collection of sherds found on the tidal flats along the west bank of South River, just off River Rd., in the northwesterly section of the village.” The Bissett site was in the northeast section of the village, not the northwest. The most surprising thing about Branin’s discussion of Sim’s work is that he never questioned Sim’s method of documenting the sherds from the Bissett site. I assume that Branin actually saw the sherds and the labels on them. Sim picked out the sherds he thought worthy of the Morgan/Van Wickle pottery and marked them “Van Wickle” or just “VW.” All the other thousands of sherds are marked “OB” or “Old Bridge.” Not one sherd that I have seen is marked with the site that they came from. Not one has the name Bissett on it! Careless researchers have assumed for years that Old Bridge is synonymous with Van Wickle and that any of the sherds marked “OB” are from Van Wickle. They are not. Sim considered them to be non-Van Wickle or the Bissett sherds. I guess he couldn’t bring himself to confuse the issue by giving credit to the potters who worked on that site for 50 years. What he did as a result of that decision has corrupted the history of stoneware pottery production in Old Bridge, New Jersey, ever since.

Sim had no documentation whatsoever, and he even stated that in the article in his book Pages from the Past of Rural New Jersey: “But in spite of all persistence and help, no piece of stoneware with the maker’s name on it ever turned up.” Well, it was known as the Bissett pottery site for over 125 years at that point; he just couldn’t find a marked piece from the Van Wickle pottery on the site. So in the end, the only site he was getting “Morgan-Van Wickle” sherds from was the Bissett site. In 1949, Sim admitted that he never found another site that might have been Morgan-Van Wickle. He stated in the same book,“If Morgan-Van Wickle had another factory somewhere in Old Bridge, the site of it has not been found.”

The widow Mary Bissett had to rely on her sons after Asher Sr.’s death. About 1820 the well in her backyard went bad, and it was filled up with wasters from the Bissett pottery that was about 200 feet away. The people who now own the Bissett homestead were very astute and realized how important the wasters were. They saved them for ten years, and when they heard that I was researching the Bissett potters they contacted me. It was a gesture that researchers dream of. They kindly let me take the wasters that I wanted for my research, and the kindness didn’t end there. The woman also helped me get immediate access to several local museums to look at the Sim sherds. That would have taken months to do on my own. The wasters have been a great help as they are from the Bissett home site and haven’t been tainted like the material that Sim collected. They are also readily available for study.

I wanted to see what a Bissett pot looked like so I used Google to search on line and found nothing. Then I tried Bing and found nothing. Eventually I found a section of the New Jersey Antique Bottle Club Web site that was for members to post their collections. There I found photos of an ovoid crock with freestanding handles, blue flowers on one side, and the inscription “Made by David Bissett, December 4, 1819” on the other. It was in the collection of Rick Hume. Other people researching early New Jersey pottery had seen the crock but failed to realize that the early style long S in the form of an f was actually an S. So they published it as Bisfeitt, which was no help at all in making the connection to the Bissett brothers pottery. I have wasters out of the well that are identical to that crock, and I have been able to match up many more pots to the decorated wasters from the Bissett well. I now know what Bissett pots look like.

At a recent stoneware auction a consignor put a Bissett crock up for auction. He wouldn’t let the auction house make the determination as to the provenance of the crock. He had done the research and had photos of the matching sherd from a New Jersey museum. He dubbed the pot as a rare Van Wickle crock because the coggle used around the upper rim in two bands was the same as the one in the Sim collection in the museum. I know the sherd very well, and I even have a photo of the label on the back of sherd put on by Sim. The label reads “OB” for Old Bridge, “2nd,” which means the second phase, and “Motif # II” (2). That exact sherd is pictured in the article by Sim in Pages from the Past of Rural New Jersey about the dig on the Bissett site. Sim didn’t label it as Van Wickle; he labeled it as Old Bridge, and it came from the Bissett pottery site. I also have a sherd from the Bissett well with the same exact coggling. It isn’t a Van Wickle pot, nor was the sherd even labeled Van Wickle by Sim. The consignor also stated that the letters M over W could be seen in the coggle design. If it was really anything other than a sawtooth design it would be a W over M. But considering the pot was made by the Bissetts, the consignor’s claim has no basis in fact at all. I bought the pot from the auction.

Another identical crock turned up several years ago in an auction, but with the date 1817 in blue on the front. It had the same coggle and same molded band between, and it, too, was dubbed to be Van Wickle, but it isn’t for the same reasons. I was thrilled to see another dated Bissett piece as it helps document the products from the early years of the pottery.

To justify his theories Sim made a system of categorizing the sherds into four different periods. In the description of period two he commented, “Encircling, impressed decoration on the shoulder and (or) collar often of complicated design made by a coggle wheel; four motifs found.” The four samples are identified with labels and are now in the collection of the Monmouth County Historical Association in Freehold, New Jersey. He categorized the sherds to prove that the oldest must be Morgan-Van Wickle, but in the end, he was completely wrong! All that theory and guessing is history now and doesn’t really matter.

In 1990 the New Jersey Department of Transportation had a project to repair the overpass and ramps at the intersection of New Jersey Route 18 and Main Street in Old Bridge. Because the money was being spent on a state highway, the laws of historic preservation kicked in, and as part of the project an archeological survey of the area was done. The Louis Berger Group was in charge of the project. The Route 18 overpass was built over Main Street, the railroad tracks, and the South River at Old Bridge in 1935. That was too early for Sim to be looking for sherds and would have precluded him from any access to the site during the 1940’s or ’50’s. Sim died in 1955.

The project was called “Archeological Monitoring, Route 18; Section 4E & 6E Bridge Replacement, Route 18 Bridge over South River, Conrail and Main St.” The area of work was in the southwest corner of the village mostly along Main Street. Five test sites were found to contain wasters from the Morgan/Van Wickle pottery, and it was half a mile west of the Bissett site, on the other side of the village of Old Bridge!

The report was available by 2000, and the sherds were placed in the Monmouth County Historical Association. But the report is hard to find, and I’m not sure how many people saw it. You might think that all the confusion of the years would be over, and finally we would have accurate information on both potteries, but no, the ­mistakes continued. The person who wrote the historical section on the Morgan/Van Wickle pottery used Sim’s research as the basis for the report. There wasn’t enough money or time to do original research, so the standard texts (which are inaccurate) were used. The researcher didn’t understand that all the sherds that Sim touted as Van Wickle were in fact Bissett sherds, and the mistake was compounded again.

This also explains why nobody made a big deal out of the discovery. The chapters on the 18,591 sherds discovered explained that “only 11,059 were salt glaze or kiln related.” From chapter 9.3.2 “Decorations,” the report stated, “Various collectors and amateur archeologists have acquired sherds and vessels from the Morgan-Van Wickle pottery. Decorations on the sherds and vessels that are presently in the collection of the New Jersey State Museum include the following: an incised circular mark or decoration with the profile of a man in a circle with a wavy line around the outside circle. This ‘man-in-the-moon’ mark…has been employed to attribute surviving objects to Van Wickle’s and Morgan’s pottery…One surviving jug is decorated with an incised sailing vessel partly colored with cobalt blue. It is attributed to the pottery on the basis of an identical excavated decorated fragment. Other incised decorative motifs include a circle with four hearts in it, a circle with a cross of loops, and flowers and leaves. The incised areas are always filled with cobalt blue [Mitchell 1973:327].” The report also quote Branin’s accolade of the virtuosity of Morgan-Van Wickle decorations. And then the report states that “Not all of these decorations are in the present assemblage, but several additional motifs, both incised and rouletted, are present (Plates 9-7 through 9-18). The ‘man-in-the-moon’ motif was not identified.”

The “man-in-the moon” motif sherds have as of yet been found only on the Bissett site. Again all those sherds referred to by Mitchell in 1973 are all Sim’s sherds from the Bissett pottery. There are several versions of this “man in the moon” design from the Bissett site. One is encircled by a wavy line and has additional details added by hand after the initial stamp is made, and the other simpler version has no wavy line surrounding it. This version is surrounded by two concentric circles, but often only a portion of the outer circle gets impressed with the rest of the design. That was when I realized that they all thought they had found some more Morgan/Van Wickle sherds to add to the pile, and they maybe were not as nice as the ones Sim found. It seems likely they didn’t know that they had made history and finally found the real thing.

Since the death of Sim, his work has taken on a larger-than-life aura that nobody has dared to question. All research ages and needs to be revisited eventually, and if it is solid and accurate it will stand up. If it doesn’t, it needs to be investigated and rewritten.

Early in my search into the history of the Bissett pottery I had learned that Sim had amassed many sherds from the factory, and I wrote to all the institutions in the state of New Jersey that might have collections. Most never returned my queries, and the ones that did respond did not have sherds from the Bissett pottery. They said they had Sim’s sherds from other sites, Morgan in Cheesequake, Van Wickle, and Warne/Letts, but none from the Bissett site. I eventually learned to ask for the Van Wickle sherds, not Bissett, and that got results.

Even though Sim’s conclusions were flawed, the fact that he did save the Bissett sherds is a great thing in itself. He worked tirelessly for three years to gather them, and current research would be much more difficult without them. The Bissett site was cleaned up after Sim’s dig with a retaining wall against the South River and tons of fill to make a useable lawn. Nothing is visible from the pottery today.

While the “new” material is great news for researchers, one has to consider that there was probably a period in the very beginning when the Bissett brothers were learning from Jacob Van Wickle, probably at his shop, and that their pots were made to his designs and standards. They probably made very similar pots for the first year or so in their own shop until they developed their own style and acquired new tools. Sherds from the “four hearts in the circle” motif were found in the wasters from both the Van Wickle and the Bissett potteries. Several coggles identified on the real Morgan-Van Wickle sherds were being used by them, the Bissetts, Warne/Letts, Paul Cushman, and Jonah Boynton, the latter two both of Albany, New York. The patterns are the same, but the size varies between potters. The only common denominator among all of these potters is Captain Morgan. Maybe he was supplying not only clay but coggles, stamps, and tools, too? After all, he was a businessman and sold materials to many potters.

By 1817 the Bissetts had arrived at their own style. They began to abandon the earlier style of Van Wickle and began to use several specific coggles that I have not been able to identify with any other pottery so far. The Branch Green style of neck and handle attachment also disappeared from their pottery.

By late 1819, other stylistic changes appeared, and the Bissetts adopted a style of decoration similar to the Remmey family. Branin suggests this in his book. After he discussed statements by Edwin Atlee Barber and W. Oakley Raymond concerning Joseph Henry Remmey’s coming to South Amboy between 1818 and 1820, he wrote, “One might ask, if Joseph H. Remmey wasn’t associated with the Warne & Letts pottery during the early 1820’s, what other pottery in South Amboy Township could he have gone to? Possibly Morgan-Van Wickle pottery at Old Bridge, in nearby North Brunswick Township, if it were still active at that time. He could not have become associated with Asher and David Bissett in 1820, for their pottery was not constructed until 1823 or 1824.”

We now know that that statement is not accurate. Remmey could have been associated with them, and that may explain the new shapes and incised decoration reminiscent of Remmey’s work. Or the Bissetts simply may have come in contact with Remmey or his work and decided to copy his style.

As far as I can tell, none of these institutions that have collections of Sim sherds realize that all their sherds marked Morgan/Van Wickle pottery or Old Bridge by Sim are in fact Bissett, which means that a lot of currently labeled Van Wickle pottery based on Sim’s research and sherds are Bissett pots.

But this isn’t bad news. We have a chance to correct Sim’s mistakes and finally work with the actual Morgan/Van Wickle sherds to build an accurate file of their work. Studying the characteristics of the material from the 1990 dig  will allow us to match sherds to extant pots. It is hoped that scholars will begin to write articles on the new finds, and, just think, we will have two distinct potteries from Old Bridge to collect now.

The full text of Branin’s accolade concerning the “Van Wickle” pottery based on Sim’s work, sherds, and related pots reads, “This pottery is said to have shown a greater virtuosity in the use of freehand designs, including scratch-blue figures, than any other pottery in the area at that time. Included in such designs were the man in the moon, a man smoking a pipe, landscapes, birds and probably many others.” All these sherds that are mentioned are all from the Bissett site, and the accolade should have been aimed toward the work of the Bissett potters. The Bissetts were very accomplished potters, and with the exception of Branin’s book, their legacy of 50 years of pottery making has been reduced to maybe a few sentences in books on early potters, and most of the time they are not mentioned at all. Their skillful potting and artistic legacy was handed over by Sim to the Van Wickle potters without so much as a thought for them. Remember, Sim recovered thousands of sherds from the Bissett site, but he never found the Morgan-Van Wickle site. And I do have a personal interest in seeing that this “mistake” is corrected, because Asher Bissett is my great-great-great-great-grandfather!

I would like to thank Susan Luczu, Brandt Zipp, and Meta Janowitz for their help while I was researching this article.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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