Dedicated to my friends Joe Jostes and Sue Skinner of S&J Pottery, with wishes for a safe and successful move.
There are any number of reasons why a potter would move away from a perfectly good pottery shop. If the shop were in New York City and the year was 1795, the potter would probably be following hoards of panic stricken people fleeing the plague.
Waves of yellow fever swept through New York City almost annually from 1795 to 1805. Entire neighborhoods were decimated within weeks. Whoever could leave town would do so. Many plague refugees traveled up the Hudson River to sleepy little villages like Poughkeepsie – far enough to be safe but close enough to keep up with city events.
Most refugees returned to New York as each plague episode abated. But some, potters included, saw advantages in establishing a foothold between the metropolis and the growing hinterland.
One enterprising young stoneware potter, William Nichols, went so far as to set up shop in Poughkeepsie in anticipation of a possible plague outbreak in 1823. He figured he’d be ready to supply pots to refugees as soon as they arrived. Unfortunately, yellow fever didn’t strike that year and poor William lost his shirt.
Poughkeepsie’s first potters were also plague refugees. James Egbert and Durell Williams fled New York City’s initial 1795 yellow fever outbreak. Durell Williams was a stoneware potter and James Egbert had been a carpenter. Durell had convinced James to try his hand at the stoneware business. Durell eventually moved back to New York City.
But James seems to have liked both Poughkeepsie and pottery. He continued the Poughkeepsie pottery for a while before ‘shopping around:’ working in both stoneware and redware potteries throughout the region.
James apparently had a long and healthy life, according to a June 29, 1842 article about him in the Newburgh Gazette. But that same article told of disaster. His kiln collapsed while he was preparing for a firing. James Egbert survived the plague only to be crushed to death by his own kiln.
Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague. George Lukacs. Arcadia Publishing/Charleston, SC. 2001.