Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 2, 2008
Byline: Stephan Salisbury
Stunning factory seconds
While examples of America's first porcelain get show treatment at the Art Museum, old shards turn up in a South Phila. park.
A week or so ago, Mike Toklish experienced a serendipitous Philadelphia moment, the kind in which idle curiosity opens up onto the vast expanse of the past.
Arriving early to see a big, splashy show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Toklish had some spare time and decided to visit a small, distinctly unsplashy exhibit of ceramic wares produced by America's first successful porcelain factory, Philadelphia's American China Manufactury.
Toklish, who happens to be president of the Friends of Jefferson Square Park in South Philadelphia, knew nothing about Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris' factory, which produced porcelain from 1770 to 1772 at its complex near Front Street, south of Washington Avenue.
But Toklish was stunned when he entered the exhibit. A map on the wall showed that the factory had been located a scant block from Jefferson Square. And the porcelain wares — all 19 that have survived — looked disconcertingly familiar.
"I said, 'My gosh! This looks like the stuff we're digging up at the park,' " he recalled.
Indeed, the city's long-planned refurbishment of Jefferson Square began more than a month ago, and fragments of ceramics popped from the ground as soon as bulldozers began turning the earth. Neighbors scooped up and saved the mysterious fragments, more than once wondering about their origins.
"Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris," which runs at the Art Museum through June 1, suggested some answers to Toklish. In addition to the intricately crafted and glazed pickle stands, trays, bowls, sauce boats and the like, the exhibit featured an array of fragments pulled from a late-1960s excavation near Jefferson Square.
Could it be?
Toklish immediately contacted Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the museum's associate curator of American art and curator of the Bonnin and Morris exhibit, and she headed to a hastily arranged meeting last week with park neighbors and an official from the city Recreation Department.
All the collected shards and fragments were carefully laid out on cookie trays for Kirtley's inspection.
"They had buckets and buckets of porcelain and ceramics," she said. "Most of it was 19th-century — the park was an encampment during the Civil War, like all the other city parks. But there were a few Bonnin and Morris pieces."
Kirtley immediately identified fragments with an oyster-shell design, a few blue and white fragments, and some other pieces bearing a strong resemblance to fragments in the museum exhibit, as definitely Bonnin and Morris in origin.
After meeting with the Friends, she contacted Graham Hood, retired vice president and chief curator at Colonial Williamsburg, who oversaw the late-1960s excavation of the factory site. Both agreed that the factory complex could well have extended into what is now the park, and that the area perhaps was used as a waste dump for imperfect pieces.
"It was an enterprise — it wasn't a little cottage industry type of thing," Hood said of Bonnin and Morris' factory. "There were several buildings and spaces between the buildings. It covered quite a bit of ground."
Hood's own archaeological work, conducted in 1967 and '68 in advance of the construction of I-95, definitively identified the characteristics of Bonnin and Morris porcelain, sweeping aside all questions about its identity and composition.
"We were able to tie it up," he said in an interview from his home in Virginia. "That was fantastic."
From Hood's unearthed fragments, questions at the time about elaborate pieces owned by the likes of John and Elizabeth Cadwalader — on view at the museum — were convincingly laid to rest.
But now, as more fragments are uncovered by city bulldozers, all involved are wondering what should be done in Jefferson Square Park.
Barbara McCabe, a city rec department program coordinator, has wondered the same thing. She has been keeping an eye on park construction progress and attendant discoveries and was at the meeting with Kirtley and the neighbors last Wednesday.
At this point, no one involved believes stopping the long-awaited park renewal is warranted. Toklish, head of the Friends, said the consensus of his group was that the discoveries were "interesting" and revealed the depth of history in the city's ground. But nothing has turned up to suggest archaeological work is in order, he said. Kirtley, the curator, agrees.
Nonetheless, McCabe said she would continue to monitor the construction, a joint project of the city, the state, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and would remain in touch with neighbors.
Kirtley said the significance of the findings seemed to lie in what they revealed about the extensive size of the Bonnin and Morris endeavor — not to mention how the city's history has a way of poking into the present.
"This is exciting," she said, standing within the exhibition space at the Art Museum. "This is an exhibition at the museum that has educated and alerted a group about their neighborhood. To me, as a curator, it's terrific, a success. This is it — why we do what we do."
Said Toklish: "In Philadelphia, six degrees of separation means about six feet."