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The Signature of a Stoneware Artist


At one location I found a piece of Cortland, New York stoneware which had a design similar to a tornado. From that point forward the unique design was one to look for. Many auctions, shops, and internet purchases later we have a small collection of these pieces, and as I am wont to do, I became curious about the design and its artist.

First, is the design. It begins with a horizontal flourish – a loop that turns into a slide, then a closing loop. Underneath an inverted conical, looping design, similar to a tornado. In looking at various books, and auction catalogs, including Crockerfarm, which does a very good job providing background information about many of their pieces, I found in one catalogue a ‘bird’ design by the Farrar stone works in Geddes, New York (near Syracuse). The piece had copious cobalt in the design, a script number indicating gallonage, and beneath the number a small but familiar tornado ‘signature’.



Going back into other Crockerfarm and Waasdorp stoneware catalogs I found similar signatures on a number of crocks, some small, but others having the tornado signature as the only design on the face of the piece.

On Antiques Roadshow a piece of stoneware was appraised several years ago and in bold view was what appears to be the tornado signature and the piece was identified as coming from A.O. Whittemore from Havana (now Montour Falls), New York, The piece was dated 1863 – the initial year of this company.




As a researcher, these various “puzzle pieces” led me down the path to try to find out who this stoneware designer was. The tornado signature is found on two, possibly three central New York stoneware manufacturers' works – William Farrar – Geddes, NY; Madison Woodruff – Cortland, NY; and possibly A.O. Whittemore – Havana, NY. Using William Ketchum’s “Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650-1900” one can determine that the stoneware decorator started with William Farrar who was active between 1840 and 1870.


Sometime during this period, the artist moved down to the Madison Woodruff works which were active between 1849 and 1885. He was apparently very active during this time as most of his signature stoneware works are from Cortland, and his artistry is quite good these examples indicate he was a primary decorator for Woodruff. Some of these designs can also be traced back to Farrar's pieces.

Then, possibly, he moved to the A.O. Whittemore works which were active from 1863-1893. If he did work in Havana it was for a short period of time.

With the expert assistance of the Cortland County Historical Society and supporting assistance of the Onondaga [County] Historical Association and the Schuyler County Historical Society, we now have a likely name for the tornado signature and an approximate itinerary of where and when he worked in central New York.

The artist is likely Moses A. Dickinson (Dickenson), who was born about 1823, birthplace unknown. In the 1850 Federal census, his name appears as a border with employment as a potter, age 25, in Geddes, New York. In the 1855 New York census his name appears as a potter in Cortland, New York, age 31, and had several children who were born in various upstate counties – an apparent itinerant artist at the time. His name also appears in the 1860 Federal census, 1865 New York census, and again in the 1870 Federal census – all in Cortland. Of note, one of Moses’ sons also appears as a potter in the 1865 New York census, age 15. In the 1875 New York census Moses Dickinson is not listed, although “Ancestry” lists him as a potter and his two sons as stonemasons. Between 1875 and 1880 Moses disappears from the written record, although the 1880 Federal census indicates he moved back to the Syracuse area and worked as a night watchman, possibly with one of the operating stoneware companies (Hubble and Chesebro)? Finally, Moses’ death notice appears in the Cortland newspaper indicating that he died at the age of 50 on 26 August 1883. [The math doesn’t work so it might have been a typo and he died at age 60.] The notice states “he was a former long-time resident of Cortland having worked 23 years in the Tioughnioga Pottery” – the name of the nearby river at which the Woodruff pottery was located.

Most of our Dickinson stoneware has been found at auction in central New York, although pieces have been found “downriver” in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River, of which the Tioughnioga River is a northern tributary. The larger rivers of New York were the primary shipping means to distribute their wares to a wider market than central New York in the mid-1800s—William Ketchum states in his book “…wares from Cortland and Homer were sold by wagon and riverboat throughout the Southern Tier (New York), Pennsylvania and even as far south as Delaware” (p. 316-317). A few pieces have been found in western New York at auction and antique stores, and on the internet, but the origin of these pieces is more difficult to determine.

While this research is not fully extensive, the stoneware decorated by Moses A. Dickinson does appear to coincide with the period of time that various stoneware manufacturers were in operation and as corroborated by the Federal and New York State census records. The one-piece from Havana is still a mystery as the date on the crock does not coincide with the census records, unless……. Moses or his son might have worked for a short time at the Whittemore works? To date though, we have not seen any other Whittemore pieces with the Dickinson ‘signature’, either as a central theme or as a small embellishment.


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