Antiques: Adam Caire - Poughkeepsie Crocks info


In this age of glass containers and tin cans it is hard to realize what an important part stoneware jugs, and crocks once played in the American domestic scene. Yet even fifty years ago no family was without its molasses jug, its bean pot, its small vase-shaped crock for home-cultured yeast. These were of stoneware, as were the smug rows of varied-sized crocks for storing bread, cookies, doughnuts, pound cake, and dry groceries, not bought in barrel quantities, that once lined the shelves of the well-appointed pantry. In those days the average citizen lived in a house, large or small, according to his position and purse, and took a well-stocked larder as a matter of course.

Delicatessen products and commercially baked bread and pastries were unknown to him. That a day might come when a cellar would be just another playroom for the children or serve to stable the family car was mercifully hidden from him. His cellar was designed and used to store food against the frosts of winter and the heat of summer. In addition to its bins of potatoes and other root crops, its barrels of apples and cider, it was a veritable museum of jugs and crocks. These held food and drink, pickles and spiced relishes, dozens of eggs preserved against the winter shortage, salt meats, and the like.

The jugs of one- and two-gallon size were interesting for both shape and content, since they often held good homemade wine, and occasionally a jug of whisky or rum would be found hobnobbing with those of weaker spirits, designed, of course, to be used solely "in case of sickness."

But whether in pantry, cellar, or springhouse, these jugs and crocks of grey or fawn colour with a bold, if sketchy, ornamentation in cobalt blue all bore witness to an eye for line and a sense for artistic decoration. They were craftsman-made and showed it. From the middle of the eighteenth century down to nearly the close of the nineteenth demand for these jugs and crocks grew constantly and every section had its pottery for their making. A few, such as the Crollius pottery in New York, those of Norwalk, Connecticut, and Bennington, Vermont, have long been known to collectors. But there were scores of others as yet ignored. What they made and who operated them are all part of the story of American folk art. It is not, however, always easy to retrieve them from local history. Frequently, a piece or two or a brief mention of a man's name is all that can be uncovered. Sometimes the surviving examples do not show enough originality to warrant unearthing the story.

A four-gallon crock, decorated with a rooster pecking corn, attracted my attention some years ago in an antique shop. It bore the mark "Adam Caire, Po'Keepsie, N.Y." All that the dealer could tell me was that he often saw jugs and crocks bearing this name at farm sales in the back country of Columbia and Dutchess counties, New York. When the designs were "good" he bought them, as there was a ready market for such pottery if the decoration was vivid. He knew nothing about Adam Caire and cared less.

To me the unusual design, the name Adam Caire, the Hudson River town, seemed to contain the proper ingredients for an interesting story: Poughkeepsie, New York, renowned in the past for at least three things, the ale that so enriched Matthew Vassar that he could found Vassar College; those brothers Smith, still known as Trade and Mark, who won fame and fortune with a cough drop; and the conductor's cry dimly echoing from the past, "Poughkeepsie! Ten minutes for lunch!" As a footnote to these, perhaps Caire and his pottery might add some local colour worth recording. And so it proved. Curiously enough, the search for Adam and his pottery disclosed how sketchy is the recorded local history of this important Hudson River town. A New England community of equal size and age would have at least two or three books containing a wealth of detail regarding local industries and the men who headed them.

Poughkeepsie, evidently, has been too busy living and striving for anyone to take time out to write a thorough history of its past performances. But copies of C. P. Luyster's directory for the village of Poughkeepsie, files of the Poughkeepsie Eagle, and talks with members of the Caire family, still living there though no longer concerned with pottery, revealed the story of jug potting in that town. It starts in the late eighteenth century and ends on a day in the year 1896 when Adam Caire dropped dead in his pottery and the business was discontinued.

A map of about 1780 shows a pottery located on the river front. No one knows who the potter was or just when he or one of his successors moved the kiln to the site it occupied by 1840 when, according to record, "Mr. John B. Caire decided to settle at Poughkeepsie and purchased the pottery at No. 141 Main Street." This and other references during that half century of nameless potting indicate that not only did the fires in the kiln burn fairly steadily but that the existence of the business was so much a matter of course that "The Pottery" seemed quite designation enough. However, just what sort of jugs and crocks were made remains a matter of conjecture down to die time when the Caire family came to Poughkeepsie to live and work.

In 1839, John B. Caire, an Alsatian from Strasbourg, who had been drafted into the Napoleonic Army when hardly more than a boy, left a nameless town in Bavaria where he had learned the potter's trade and migrated to America. With him he brought his Bavarian wife and several children. By 1840 he had acquired the Poughkeepsie pottery that occupied the block bounded by Main, Mill, Bridge, and Bayeaux streets. This was several blocks farther from the river front than the location of the eighteenth century pottery, and its site remains unchanged today except that Bayeaux has become North Perry Street and the pottery kilns have given way to other commercial buildings.

Here, according to the Luyster directories, the elder Caire continued in business through 1851. During part of this period his son, Jacob, was listed as a potter at the same, address. In 1852 the name of John B. Caire disappears and Jacob is listed without any occupation. The following year two potters are noted. They are Jacob Caire, located at the Main Street address, and the firm of Gideon L. Crisman & Co. In 1854 the latter had disappeared. Jacob Caire had become a grocer and his pottery was in the hands of Louis Lehman. The following year Philip Reidinger joined Lehman and the next year saw Lehman replaced by Adam Caire, thus ending the brief and only period when the pottery was out of Caire hands.

Adam Caire was born in Bavaria in 1833. He grew up in Poughkeepsie and learned the trade in his father's pottery. He must have begun his apprenticeship very early, for by 1851 he had left home and during the next six years worked in potteries at Amboy, New Jersey, and Hartford, Connecticut. Then he returned and bought out the interest of Louis Lehman and so formed the partnership that was to last over twenty years and be dissolved only by the death of Reidinger in 1878. After that, Adam Caire took over the entire business and conducted it, under his own name, with enterprise and vigour literally up to the minute of his death.

The firm of Reidinger & Caire were consistent advertisers in the Poughkeepsie Eagle, then a weekly newspaper. In the issue of February 26, 1857, appears the following:

Reidinger & Caire
Manufacturers of
Stone and Earthenware, Fire bricks, drain pipe, flower pots, etc. etc., 15 I Main Street, Poughkeepsie N. Y.-The subscribers continue at the well known establishment at x5 x Main Street where they are manufacturing all kinds of earthen and stone ware to suit the wants of the public.
But in addition to the usual wares they are of late paying particular attention to the article of drainpipe which they are manufacturing upon a large scale, and of all the sizes and in any quantity, furnished at the shortest notice and at the most reasonable terms.
Po'keepsie, Feb. 26, 1857.

This appeared week after week and year after year without the change of so much as a comma. No latter-day juggling of words or invention of catch phrases to make a jaded public jug, or drainpipe, conscious. Readers of the local paper knew what they wanted anyway and swell-worked-out advertisement was, like the wares it listed, good for a lifetime.

The reference to drainpipes (vitrified tile is the present-day designation) bespeaks the advent of household plumbing. Making them was for years an important part of the pottery output. In the Souvenir Number of the Poughkeepsie Eagle, "Issued on the Occasion of the Opening of the Through Line from New England to the Coal Fields and The West by way of the Poughkeepsie Bridge, October, 1889," a biographical sketch on Adam Caire states that his pottery produced the pipes "for the new state capitol at Albany, the Hudson River Hospital, and other important buildings." It notes that flowerpots are among the various articles made and that the bulk of the pottery's output "goes to New York, Jersey City, and Brooklyn," as well as the fact that the two thousands tons of clay used yearly come from Woodbridge and Amboy, New Jersey, and that the works "employ 40 men steady, consume about 600 cords of wood and between 300 and 400 tons of coal."

All this indicates that Caire was an excellent businessman who adapted himself to changing times. Toward the end, as the jug and crock demand fell off, he turned to the making of small earthenware items for the Woolworth five- and ten-cent stores, then just getting under way. Whether Caire-made flowerpots were merely utilitarian or of the ornamental glaze variety once so popular when potted plants lined the sunny windows of homes during the winter months has not yet been established. None bearing the name of Reidinger & Caire or Adam Caire has been found in or around Poughkeepsie.

I had better luck with the jugs, crocks, and bottles. Not only was I able to assemble a representative group of containers made in the Caire kilns, but through interviews with members of the family and others who knew the pottery when it was in operation I secured descriptions of the two chief items missing from my assortment. Perhaps the most interesting was the brownish bottle holding over a pint made for the ale from the Vassar Brothers' brewery. It bore no Caire mark and probably had only a paper label branding its contents. A number of elderly Poughkeepsie residents remembered it well, though no example was to be found. Doubtless this type was treasured no more than its present-day descendants of glass.

The other missing sample was an undecorated grey bottle shaped much like one of the flasks from the Pitkin glassworks in New Hampshire. One was shown to me at a long-established farmhouse a dozen miles outside Poughkeepsie. Its owner, a woman past the threescore-and-ten mark, was positive it came from the Caire pottery. Her cellar still had about three dozen crocks and jars all bearing the Caire marks. These flasks, she explained, were generally known as shot bottles because of their popularity with hunters for holding bird shot or gunpowder. It was, of course, a secondary use. She did not remember the original one.

"They were just bottles that the menfolks appropriated and used when they went hunting because they were of a good size and handy shape."

My assortment has but one unlabeled piece. It is a brownish cylindrical bottle with conical top marked in bold, blue letters "Post." These were made by the thousands at the Caire pottery for a now-forgotten local product that was once a great favourite, Post's Root Beer. The other items are crocks and jugs of two types, straight-sided and curving. The latter probably reflects the earlier working ways when forming was done entirely by the potter's wheel. The introduction of simple machinery must have taken place before 1878, however, since one of the straight-sided jugs bears the mark of Reidinger & Caire.

Adam Caire's son-in-law, W. J. Dayton, who knew the pottery from about 1870, provided some interesting sidelights on the way it was operated and the methods of distributing its output. Most of the pieces bearing the Caire name were sold locally. Those for the New York market were stamped with the name of the purchaser. The Caire-marked pieces were sold chiefly to peddlers, who loaded their carts at the pottery and then went forth to sell their wares through the countryside. This explains my rooster crock that was found somewhere in the farming country lying east of Poughkeepsie.

The practice of marking pieces with the purchaser's name explains two jugs with local marking and makes them readily attributable to the Caire pottery. One, of the curving jug form reminiscent of Biblical times, bore the name "Orcutt & Thompson, P'Keepsie." This, and a jug picked up years ago in Vermont, bearing the name "Orcutt, Humiston & Co., Troy N.Y." and decorated with a crudely executed corkscrew, led me to suspect that this Orcutt organization was a chain of grocery or liquor stores.

Certainly there never was a Poughkeepsie pottery of this name. Still another jug found in Poughkeepsie, was marked "M. J. Madden, Rondout, N.Y." Remembering that Rondout was once the great canal boat harbour of the Hudson River where tows, bound to and from New York, were assembled much as cars are gathered in the freight yards of a railroad terminal, I again suspect that this jug was marked with the name of a liquor dealer and was Poughkeepsie made.

Richard Caire, a grandson of Adam, knew the pottery well as a boy. When the day's work was done, he said, the potters were at liberty to make little things for themselves. These included banks, pitchers, and the like which were decorated and fired, then brought home to members of their families as presents. They were offhand pieces akin to those of the early nineteenth century American glass houses.

I found an offhand piece, made very late, the year before the kilns ceased to operate. It is a grey mug with ample handle and holds a quart. In bold incised letters touched with blue is the legend: Vassar '95 Commencement. There are fifteen signatures, presumably of members of the graduating class and the young men there as their guests. The signature on the bottom of the mug is Eleanor Gedney, 349 Mill St., Po'keepsie. Remembering that the Caire pottery extended from Main to Mill streets, the inference is that one of the young women in the class of 1895, living not so far from the pottery, took her friends down there and had this, and perhaps other mugs of the same sort made as a Commencement souvenir.

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