Image: No. 4115 Dorchester Pottery Building, photograph circa 1960.
The Dorchester Pottery Works kiln and its building have been designated a Boston Landmark. The wooden building attached to the right of the kiln’s brick building has been re-built by Bay Cove Human Services and is used by them.
Slide show about Dorchester Pottery Works
Founded in 1895 by George Henderson, Dorchester Pottery Works successfully produced commercial and industrial stoneware for many years. Henderson came from New Haven, Connecticut, where he had been a partner in the S.L. Pewtress Pottery since 1884 in the production of Henderson and O’Halloran wares.
Dorchester Pottery’s wares evolved over the years from primarily agricultural products to decorated tablewares. Mash feeders and chicken fountains were cast from molds for the farmer. Acid pots and dipping baskets were in demand by jewelry manufacturers, and Henderson’s popular foot warmer was known as a “porcelain pig.” In 1940, Dorchester Pottery’s line of distinctive gray and blue tableware was introduced. It was shaped on the potter’s wheel. It is called slipware with a so-called Bristol glaze.
In 1914, Mr. Henderson built an enormous beehive kiln 28-feet in diameter of his own design made of unmortared bricks. When it was carefully stacked with two or three freight car loads of unfired pottery , the opening was sealed and the kiln was slowly heated with 15 tons of coal and four cords of wood to a temperature of 2500- 3000 degrees Farenheit. After days of cooling, the door would be opened, brick by brick, and the fired pieces removed. The entire process took about one week to complete.
In the 1920s, Henderson purchased finished pottery from other companies, such as containers by Joseph Middleby, Jr., jugs by H.A. Johnson, and household items including bean pots and casserole dishes from other suppliers. At its peak in the 1920s the Dorchester Pottery Works employed 28 potters. By the 1950s when the Pottery turned out 1,700 distinct items twenty-five percent was tableware, and by the 1960s tableware was one hundred percent of the production.
Twenty three people were employed by the pottery works in 1921, mainly from Dorchester. When Henderson died in 1928, his son, Charles, and daughter-in-law, Ethel Hill Henderson, took over the business. George died in 1967, and Ethel continued until her death in 1971 with the help of her brother, Charles Allen Hill, and her sister, Lilly Yeaton. Ethel had been a clothing and design teacher at Dorchester High School. She became superintendent of the kiln, and her two children, George and Lillian, assisted in the family business. But the Great Depression took its toll, and the sales of commercial stoneware suffered. Ethel began to decorate the stoneware with motifs of old New England, and her brother, Charles, added new mixing color techniques from his experience in an earlier career as a chemistry teacher. Decorators whose names may be found on the pottery include Charles Hill, Nando Ricci, Joseph McCune, Phil Spear, Ronald Brakee, Robert Trotter, Jackie Burn Callder, Rhoda Ricci and Knessseth Denison. Ethel died in 1971, and some pieces after that date are signed I.M.E.H.H. (In Memorial Ethel Hill Henderson).
Although the handcrafted pots continued to attract attention, they could not compete in the commercial market. The last firing of the big beehive kiln took place in 1965, and after that smaller gas and later electric kilns were used until the pottery works closed in 1979. Yet the diversified production of the Dorchester Pottery Works and the fact that it was a family-run operation helped it to stay open longer than other commercial New England potteries such as Bennington, Dedham and Hampshire. Some if its products were: storage jars from 5 to 75 gallons, beanpots both for restaurant and home use, cheese jars, foot-warmers, plates, platters, pitchers, pots, planters, bowls, casseroles, cuspidors, vases, flower baskets, bird baths, Toby jugs, cookie jars, steins, mugs, demitasse cups and saucers as well as special-order custom designs.
Some of the common designs of the Pottery included: blueberry, cherry, pear, plum, clematis, cow, codfish, colonial lace, lily of the valley, pine cone, pussy willow, ships, stripes, scrolls, sperm whale, and sponge patterns. These designs were painted with the blue and white slip, and sometimes shallow scraffito work was added. Special orders sometimes used Bayberry green or Morocco gold slip. All these pieces received a clear seal coat of the Bristol glaze. Most of the Pottery’s pieces bore some kind of identification, either a paper label or a stamp in the slip.
Until 1971, all the clay used at the Pottery Works came from South Amboy, NJ, and the cobalt used for the blue slip decoration came from Germany. From 1972 the clay came from Ohio. For more than 80 years the company used the same apple wood drying boards to stack greenware in the drying room. These were the same boards used by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company on Cape Cod, a defunct company that Henderson bought in whole. The method of production changed very little over time. It was a small factory whose products were handcrafted. Even the jiggering of forms utilized older labor-intensive technology that other commercial potteries had long since abandoned for automated machine jigger units. Pieces were mostly hand-formed, handles were applied individually, pieces were hand dipped in glazes, and shapes were developed to meet custom orders.
Fire destroyed the family residence and main production building in 1980. What remained of the pottery works was for nearly twenty years a single boarded up building with a tall smoke stack at the intersection of Mill Street and Victory Road. Soon after the Pottery Works closed, members of the Clam Point Neighborhood Association organized to buy and preserve the kiln building and to create a Dorchester Pottery Museum at the original site. When that endeavor ended without success, the organization’s records were presented to the University of Massachusetts, and the Dorchester Pottery exhibit was given to the care and maintenance of the Dorchester Historical Society. In 2001 Bay Cove Human Services acquired the property and renovated the building for its own use, keeping the kiln room and the kiln itself intact for community exhibitions.
Dorchester Pottery Exhibition, Joseph Carriero Gallery. Boston, 1981. Presented on website www.johnbaymore.com effective 11/4/2002.
Duffy, Mark and Elizabeth Mock. The Dorchester Pottery Works, 1895-1979. Dorchester: Dorchester Pottery Museum, 1983.
Michael, George. The Treasury of New England Antiques. New York: Galahad Books, 1969.
Royka, Paul. Fireworks: New England Art Pottery of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
Simpson, Richard V. “Dorchester Pottery.” In Antiques & Collecting, v. 98, no. 11, January, 1994, p. 34-37, 44.
The Archives and Special Collections Department, Healey Library, University of Massachusetts at Boston has records of the Dorchester Pottery Works for the period 1906-1961 and, for the period of 1980-1983, has records of the Dorchester Pottery Museum, Inc., an organization of Dorchester residents who were interested in the preservation of the site and history of the Dorchester Pottery works. While this group was successful in obtaining a Boston Landmarks Designation for the building, they were not successful in purchasing the site for a museum. The group then turned its efforts to preserving the history of the Works, and financed the processing of the records of the Works, mounted an exhibition at the Library of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and sponsored a permanent display of Dorchester Pottery, both decorative and industrial, at the Dorchester Historical Society. The Archives and Special Collections Department at Healey Library also has photographs in addition to those seen on this website.