For nearly two centuries, scholars had assumed that, like many other master potters in early 19th-century Manhattan, Thomas Commeraw was white. For one, Commeraw made salt-glazed stoneware, a technique brought to New York by German immigrants, and his first appearance in the city’s records, a 1795 directory, misspelled his name as “Commerau,” which made scholars speculate he was of French descent. (His surname might, in fact, be a variant of the common West African surname, Kamara.)
“Early pottery historians simply assumed that he was white,” said Margi Hofer, a co-curator of an exhibition dedicated to the artist that recently opened at the New-York Historical Society. “Later historians, curators, and collectors did not think to question that assumption.”
In 2003, however, A. Brandt Zipp, an auction house specialist in ceramics, uncovered a Federal Census from 1800 listing Commeraw, who was active from 1797 to 1819, and the seven members of his household as Black. This important correction rightfully returns him to history as one of the few—if not only—Black master potters recorded to have been active in New York City during the early 19th century, as well as one of the few Black business owners at that time.
Commeraw’s stoneware stands apart visually for its high stylization, which incorporated stamped swags and tassels, at a time when his competitors were still ornamenting their jugs with flowers and birds. Of the thousands of stoneware jugs and jars Commeraw made two centuries ago, hundreds survive as a testament to his technical skill. His is the largest body of work by a free Black potter working during the antebellum period.
Commeraw’s stoneware pieces often resided in the kitchens of those who bought them. “We don’t know precisely who purchased his standard jars and jugs, but they were essential tools for preparing and storing foods,” Hofer said. “One large fragment in the exhibition was excavated from the site of a boarding house not far from his shop. Other archeological finds reveal that his pots traveled as far as Guyana and Norway.”
Around 20 of these stoneware pieces, along with 20 others by his contemporaries and archival documents illuminating his life as a craftsman, entrepreneur, family man, and activist, are included in the NYHS’s “Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw,” the most comprehensive presentation of his work to date. Several of these are loans from institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of American History, while five come from the NYHS’s permanent collection, including one that was purchased from modernist sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola, among a cohort of folk art collectors who took a renewed interest in Commeraw in the early 20th century.
Born around 1771 in New York, Commeraw and his family were enslaved to potter William Crolius, who manumitted the Commeraws in his will in 1779. A young Commeraw was likely first exposed to his craft by the Crolius family, although no documentation survives about his training. Decades later, Clarkson Crolius Sr., a descendant of Commeraw’s former enslaver, was one of his direct competitors; they were roughly the same age and may have even trained alongside each other.
After first appearing in a 1795 New York City directory as working at 29 Augustus Street (present day City Hall Place), Commeraw had, by 1797, set up his own pottery studio and kiln at Corlears Hook on the East River (just south of the present-day Williamsburg Bridge). That address soon became synonymous with his brand of vessels, used to store things like beer, molasses, cider, preserves, milk, butter, or salted meats. He proudly stamped it onto his inventory, reminding clients where and to whom to go to for more.
“He was one of the first—possibly the first—New York potter to stamp his name and location on the face of his vessels, which quickly became a standard feature,” said Hofer.
The stamp he used to impress COMMERAW’S STONEWARE on his pieces was both innovative and idiosyncratic—the ‘A’ had a pointed crossbar, and the first ‘S’ and the ‘N’ are inverted. The stamp “exudes a kind of charm that belies the skill and physically demanding labor that went into producing the vessels,” Hofer said.
Producing his vessels in standardized sizes on a potter’s wheel, Commeraw first incised his decorative motifs freehand, with a stylus, but by 1800, he transitioned to the more efficient method of stamping the decorations. Crescent and bellflower stamps were placed in different configurations so his pieces were visually cohesive but with subtle variations that made each piece unique. When the width of the stamps didn’t line up perfectly with the circumference of his vessels, Commeraw would adroitly pivot, filling in the gap by using the stamp sideways. These embellishments were then painted with cobalt oxide.
Apart from showing a range of Commeraw stoneware, “Crafting Freedom” also touches on the artist’s active advocacy for the Black community, working with various abolitionist, religious, political, and mutual aid organizations. By 1810 the majority of Black New Yorkers were free but the following year, state legislature passed a law that suppressed free Black voters by requiring them to submit a Certificate of Freedom, including testimony from a third party confirming the voter’s status as a free man, as well as payment of a filing fee. Commeraw’s signature as a witness for Peter Johnson, attesting to his status as a freedman, appears on one such certificate in the exhibition that is preserved in the New-York Historical Society library.
Two of Commeraw’s bespoke oyster jars for Black oystermen are also on view, made for Daniel Johnson and George White. At the time, New York’s oyster trade was dominated by the free Black community. By branding the Johnson and White’s names onto the stoneware jars they used to store and transport their pickled oysters, Commeraw was also branding and promoting their businesses, as he had already done his own.
Toward the end of his life, and after years of not receiving full US citizenship, Commeraw promoted the emigration of Black Americans to Sierra Leone. He and his extended family were on the first voyage of the American Colonization Society, in 1820, hoping to help found a free Black republic. The voyage quickly turned tragic, and Commeraw’s wife and niece died there of malaria. He returned to the United States in 1822 and died the following year in Baltimore.
Commeraw’s story is an individual one that speaks to the challenges of free Black Americans during the antebellum period who were not yet equal citizens—and one that still resonates today. “We hope that by highlighting Commeraw’s story we will not only bring long overdue attention to one man’s extraordinary accomplishments,” Hofer said, “but also inspire people to recover and shine a light on the accomplishments of other Black craftspeople whose stories have been lost to history.”