Thomas Smith pioneer of the Union Porcelain Works

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Pottery, Glass & Brass Salesman

New York, NY, United States
vol. 15, no. 8, p. 30, col. 1-3

Thomas Smith Pioneer American Potter

A Brief Report of the Life of the Founder of the Famous Union Porcelain Works of Brooklyn.


[In the issue of THE SALESMAN of February 15th was published an article concerning the famous Union Porcelain Works of Brooklyn and the new life the concern has taken on since it had recently come under the Pitcairn management. In this article brief reference is made to Thomas C. Smith, founder of the concern—a remarkable man and able potter who did much for the potting industry of this country. The following brief sketch of the life of Mr. Smith will doubtless prove of interest to the readers of THE SALESMAN and particularly those who read the article previously referred to.—Editor SALESMAN.]


Thomas C. Smith, the only manufacturer of hard porcelain in this country, was born in Bridgehampton Suffolk County, Long Island, in 1815. His ancestors on the maternal side migrated from Wales to Bridgehampton, in the town of Southampton, of which town they were the earliest settlers, a little more than two hundred years ago. His father died when he was only six years of age, and he was brought up by his widowed mother on a farm purchased by his ancestors from .the Indians. The schools of Bridgehampton were good for the time, and he enjoyed their advantages until he was sixteen years of age, when he left home alone and came to New York to seek a place in which to learn a trade. After various disappointments he apprenticed himself to a master builder, giving his promise to serve faithfully as an apprentice for four years. He kept his promise to the letter, and received for the first year 50 cents a day, for the second 62 1/2 cents, for the third 75 cents a day, and on the fourth year he was to receive 87 1/2 cents, but hid employer was so well pleased with his faithfulness that he voluntarily made his compensation a dollar a day. His employer allowed him to spend the months of January, February and March at home with his mother, and these months were diligently employed in school in improving his education.

Before he was twenty-one years of age he commenced business as a master builder: but hard work and exposure to rough weather brought on severe sickness and he returned to his home in Bridgehampton to enjoy a mother's tender care and nursing. He suffered from two successive attacks of illness, and while recovering from these he employed all his leisure moments in still further improving his education. At this time his health was so completely shattered that he gave up -the hope of being able to pursue his trade as a builder, and endeavored to qualify himself to become a teacher. In 1837 he returned to New York without money and with impaired health. Here he was offered by a master builder a position as superintendent of buildings, with the understanding that he was to do only what his condition of health would permit.

He soon found that he was improving in vigor and strength, and' in September, 1839, again commenced business as a master builder and continued in it with remarkable success till 1883. At this time, his health having been again impaired by protracted overwork, he went to Europe for rest and recovery. He was in Paris when the intelligence was received there of the disastrous battle of Manassas, generally known as "the second battle of Bull Run." Among the many failures and business wrecks which were caused by the outbreak of the Civil War, there was one in which Mr. Smith had a special interest—a small porcelain factory at Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which was largely indebted to him and which he had been compelled at the winding up of its affairs to take in partial satisfaction of his debt.

Dark as was the political horizon of our country at this time—drifting, as it seemed to many, to inevitable bankruptcy and ruin—Mr. Smith looked hopefully to the future and believed that "when this cruel war was over" manufacturers would thrive as they had never thriven before, and that we should become one of the greatest manufacturing nations on the globe. Our history for the past twenty years has justified his foresight. This conviction of his, acting upon a mind intensely practical. led him to consider the possibility of utilizing the little porcelain factory, which had cost him so much, and which was lying idle and dismantled at Greenpoint.

He began at once a critical examination of the porcelain manufactories of France, to which he was by good fortune admitted, and the earthenware manufactories in Staffordshire, in England; and though he was convinced that there would be great difficulties to surmount in finding the proper materials, properly prepared and in chemically combining them, vet he was strongly impressed with the idea that there was nothing done there which could not, by perseverance and industry, he done as well here. To a man of his strong will and fine mechanical genius, and in the full vigor of a stalwart manhood, nothing seemed impossible. Accordingly, immediately after his return he cleared away the wreck and rubbish of the little porcelain factory and began the necessary experiments which would enable him to start out at his new and unknown field of labor.

After about two years of diligent experiment, he was prepared to put ups the market merchantable specimens the true, hard, vitreous porcelain. Which conducting these experiments he very wisely manufactured the simpler articles of porcelain—doorknobs, caster wheels, insulators and other hardware trimming for which there was an immediate demand, and at a fair profit; but soon proceeded to manufacture a general assortment of china tableware for large hotel and, later, vases, plain and decorate and the more delicate articles of porcelain, which compare favorably with the finest wares of Limoges, Meissen and Berlin, alike in the beauty of their design and the delicacy and tastefulness of their decoration. Every year has witnessed material progress both in the quality and quantity of his wares. The copying of European designs or pattern is studiously avoided, much originality displayed, and many articles are of such rare artistic beauty as to excite the wonder and admiration of connoisseurs from all parts of the world. The "Union Porcelain Works" has now grown to a vast establishment, owning its own quarries of quartz and feldspar, and mills to crush and pulverize these earths, and has become a favorite resort for those interested in art manufactures. In accomplishing such a work within less than twenty years, Mr. Smith had difficulties and obstacles to contend with which would have utterly appalled a man of less resolute will and of inferior mental resources. Not least among these was the utter indifference of both the American Government and the people to efforts and sacrifices for the promotion of our national reputation in industrial at which in any country of Europe would have been crowned with the highest honors and have received the most substantial rewards. But he succeeded, and both in America and in Europe acquired a reputation which will go on increasing throughout the world.


Keywords:Union Porcelain Works
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:January 4, 2012 by: Elton Gish;