Reviving an Industry: Research Restores Info About Charlestown Pottery

While the Battle of Bunker Hill was a feather in the cap of Charlestown patriots, it was also the absolute death of the famous and burgeoning Charlestown pottery industry – an industry that disappeared after the battle and has only recently been rediscovered through detailed research.

Author and researcher Justin Thomas – with the help of Boston Archaologist Joe Bagley – has now brought back to life the famed industry that once brought Charlestown renown up and down the coast of Colonial America. Using resources unearthed in Charlestown during the Big Dig – and never really catalogued yet – Thomas found other examples in other parts of the country and was able to trace trade routes and fine examples of the lost industry.

“There were other endeavors in Charlestown before 1775, but this was the big industry Charlestown was known for,” he said. “Because of the Battle of Bunker Hill decimating the area, that industry was lost to history. I was surprised it took 35 years for people to research and find this and bring it back…It disappeared in 1775, and was unearthed in the 1980s. It had disappeared from history for 200 years.”

Thomas presented his message, and his book, ‘The Dawn of Independence, the Death of an Industry: The Pottery of Charlestown, Massachusetts’ in an online program of the Charlestown Historical Society on Nov. 19, to great interest.

Bringing back the industry involved a labor of love over a period of eight years, Thomas said. He first got permission from Bagley to catalog and photograph thousands of pieces of pottery unearthed in the Big Dig, and heretofore, unexplored by researchers. Thousands of boxes of historical artifacts still exist at Bagley’s office and have yet to be fully explored. Thomas set out to find examples of Charlestown pottery, which he did, noting that “this stuff was pretty distinct.”

Then he was able to get a log book from the most famous maker in the Town, John Parker. He was able to use the log book to track the locations of the pottery kilns, what was being made and where it was shipped. The log book covered 14 years of business and was very telling of the export routes that Charlestown pottery traveled.

“I was able to document pottery going to Nova Scotia and down to South Carolina and all points in between,” he said. “Most of the stuff was destroyed in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Because of the archaeology records we discovered, we were able to identify pieces elsewhere that actually survived.”

Charlestown actually was originally laid out in an English fashion to accommodate a major pottery industry. Kilns were hot and so they were spaced out from one another and from residences. Most of the pottery industries were located along the waterfront in the Navy Yard and Paul Revere Park. In the Town were stores where they would sell the pottery locally, including in City Square near the Three Cranes Tavern – which is where a lot of the unique pieces of pottery were found during the Big Dig.

“There were dozens of pottery businesses in Charlestown and all had their own docks to ship it,” he said. “It was going all over New England. Parker’s was the biggest operation. It is noteworthy that he did use African American and Native American slaves to make his pottery.”

What was mostly made were items of utility in a distinct style with a red and yellow glaze and wavy markings with circles. The items most commonly found were chamber pots, pans, jars, pitchers and crocks.

Thomas said the pottery has now become known as Charlestown Redware, and there has been a find recently in the North End. That said, he said Charlestown is unique because people in the Town find the pottery in their backyards all the time.

“It’s hidden beneath the ground all through Boston,” he said.

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