May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
The elegant pitcher across the page represents the first flowering of the porcelain industry in America. It was made at the Philadelphia factory of William Ellis Tucker. There’s an irony in the fact that Tucker and his family made their mark as manufacturers of this most delicate kind of ceramic: the business they ran between 1826 and 1838 was a rough one, involving constant struggle and iron dedication. The pitcher is not only a handsome American artifact: it is also an emblem of the most dogged American entrepreneurship—and of the risks of premature innovation. It’s a miracle, in retrospect, that the enterprise survived for twelve years.
Tucker wasn’t the first American in this line. There had been attempts to produce domestic porcelain as early as 1738, and the Philadelphia firm of Bonnin & Morris had made a try around 1770, but since making porcelain is more expensive and demanding in every respect than making other ceramics, they failed quickly. In the 1820s, Philadelphia, and the States in general, seemed ready to try again. A wave of patriotism had developed after the War of 1812 and civic leaders were eager to exploit those feelings in promoting economic independence. “Buy American,” they urged. Prominent among them was Benjamin Tucker.
Benjamin is the shadow figure behind his son William. A schoolmaster, Benjamin fathered twelve children and dabbled—probably of necessity—in commerce and real estate. A china shop was one such sideline; it was here that William began to experiment with ceramics. He soon outgrew the backyard kiln, however, and in 1826 father and son took a lease on factory space in the old city waterworks.
William had some things going for him that Bonnin & Morris hadn’t. An extensive local stock of raw materials, for one. The backing of a generous, if somewhat acerbic, father, for another. Benjamin wrote to a friend in early 1827 that “William is at present engaged with his resources & my own in an laborious & expensive experiment upon the formation of Porcelain….”
In fairness to the elder Tucker, it was clear from the start that the business would have no easy time. Costs were high—more than fifteen thousand dollars was expended in the first eighteen months—and William could not beat the prices of the British and French porcelain then in vogue. Before 1826 was out, he was forced to take the first of three partners.
Government assistance seemed like a good idea for a time. In 1831 father and son wrote to President Andrew Jackson offering to sell their secrets for twenty thousand dollars, enclosing a sample piece as a gift. Jackson turned them down but kept the porcelain. A later round of letters to Pennsylvania legislators was also unsuccessful, although it did have the effect of bringing into the business Tucker’s last and most influential partner, Judge Joseph Hemphill.
Hemphill had traveled widely and brought to the firm a knowledge of European styles. He brought as well the conviction that more output and a bigger factory were called for, and his seven-thousand-dollar investment financed a move to a new location. William’s younger brother Thomas, a talented painter, also came into the firm around this time, and Thomas is credited with many of the decorations on Tucker porcelain.
The pitcher seen here is a good example of what the Tuckers could accomplish. Although most of their designs were direct copies of French Empire porcelain, the vase shape of this vessel was uniquely theirs. The decoration represents another memorable aspect of the Tuckers’ output: although romantic landscapes were part of the standard decorative vocabulary of the time, Tucker was the first domestic manufactory to picture American scenes. Pitchers were among the Tuckers’ most popular pieces, and a large quantity survives today. They are sought after by collectors and bid for regularly at auction.
Sadly, any optimism that may have seemed justified under Judge Hemphill was soon dimmed. When William Tucker died in August 1832, Hemphill assumed legal control and named Thomas Tucker as superintendent. Benjamin Tucker, perhaps because of grief alone, seems to fade from the picture at this point. Hemphill suffered reverses in the national financial upheavals of 1830s and in 1835 was forced to bring in new partners and to reorganize the business as the American Porcelain Company. But the prodigious financial pressures on the business never eased, and in 1838 the firm discontinued the manufacture of porcelain.
In the 1840s and 1850s, as costs dropped and a middle-class market emerged, porcelain manufactories opened in Vermont, South Carolina, New York, and New Jersey. At last Americans seemed ready to choose domestic porcelain over European. By then, of course, William Tucker was dead and Thomas had gone into the cotton business. They had come along just a few years too soon to flourish.