Today, Greenpoint abounds in artists and artisans, but few people recall that the first commercially viable porcelain factory in the United States began in Greenpoint, or that it produced some of the most gorgeous pieces of American porcelain ever. Many pieces of Greenpoint porcelain still grace America’s finest art museums.
Porcelain was Greenpoint’s first industry. It began on an area around Freeman and West Streets known as Pottery Hill where Englishman Charles Cartlidge opened the first local factory, Messrs. Charles Cartlidge and Company in 1848. Trained as a potter in England, Cartlidge had served as the agent for the English pottery firm of Ridgeway’s. His Greenpoint plant manufactured tea sets, pitchers, bowls, doorknobs, buttons, cameos, and busts, which were exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853, winning a prestigious award. The firm excelled at sculpting porcelain busts of famous figures, including John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Senator Daniel Webster; and President Zachary Taylor. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of its work they, the venture was not financially successful, and in 1855 went bankrupt.
A German family also tried to set up a local pottery, but again the business failed. One of the family’s creditors was architect Thomas Smith who gained ownership of the factory, but was advised simply to write the debt off. However, Smith decided that he would try his hand at making pottery, even though he had no training in its production and the Civil War had decimated the market. Smith visited Europe to study porcelain production, but the Europeans laughed at the idea that an untrained Yankee could ever make quality porcelain. However, they did not know Smith. He returned to Greenpoint and decided to make a go of the failed local pottery.
Smith had an iron will, a mechanical genius, and a great understanding of chemistry, even though he had no formal schooling in chemistry or mechanics. Finally, after two years of experimenting and spending much of his personal fortune, he put upon the market a small quantity of genuine porcelain. It took him two years of experimentation, but Smith eventually succeeded in producing high quality porcelain.
Smith set up the Union Porcelain factory on Eckford Street at the end of the Civil War. Eventually, he was ready to produce decorative china, a much harder task than producing the simpler porcelain goods he had first made. Resolved to use only original designs in the forms of his vases and dishes, Smith was advised to copy European designs, but he wanted to create uniquely American patterns. Aided by local artist Charles Falconer, the firm was able to produce high-quality china, vases, and more delicate porcelain pieces. Even the White House purchased its China from Smith’s Greenpoint firm. The firm continued producing china until the start of the First World War and wrote a proud, but largely forgotten chapter of local history.
Geoffrey Cobb is the author of the new history of Greenpoint, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past.