Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


The American Arcanum

As published in Ceramics in America, 2007

Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris were manufacturers of the most self-conscious stripe, their every maneuver calculated for effect. So why did they think that stylish Philadelphians would want a scientific-quality model of marine life in the middle of their well-set tables? For that is the best description of the six surviving pickle stands made at their Philadelphia porcelain manufactory (fig. 1).[1]These stands are strange and seemingly pointless things, wonderful in some way but in need of considerable explication. Given the shaky foundation on which the Bonnin and Morris porcelain manufactory was built, the stands seem almost willfully frivolous. Their thick encrustations of ornamental shells, cast from life and clinging to coral-like shafts, create an effect that is odd in the extreme (fig. 2). Porcelain, that most artificial of products, has been used to create an impression of almost unnerving naturalism. Why did Bonnin and Morris lavish so much effort on these frothy confections? 

This essay will propose a complex answer to this simple question. To begin, however, it will be necessary to reverse our customary approach to the Bonnin and Morris manufactory. Ever since Graham Hood’s pioneering archaeological and art historical inquiry into the subject, the Philadelphia concern has justly been presented as the most famous “first” in American ceramics—despite the fact that Bonnin and Morris utterly failed as entrepreneurs.[2] Their factory closed after a mere two years and might have resulted in the ruination of several of its workers, though probably not the principals themselves. One can imagine the gloating schadenfreude of British porcelain manufacturers on hearing of the rapid collapse of their upstart competitor across the Atlantic.[3] Yet no such grim satisfaction has carried over into contemporary views of Bonnin and Morris. Their achievement has been extolled not only for its own sake but also because of the way that it crystallized the artistic and technological ambitions of America when the country was on the verge of declaring independence. Seen from this perspective, the Bonnin and Morris manufactory was a precursor to the successful presumption of Americans to luxury manufacture in the wake of the Revolution, particularly the successful manufacture of porcelain in the early nineteenth century at such factories as Tucker in Philadelphia or Decasse and Chanou in New York City. Without denying the validity of this established narrative, this essay will propose a shift in perspective, as a way of looking anew at the importance of Bonnin and Morris. The history of the eighteenth century is often written in terms of what was to come: the burgeoning phenomena of industrialization, urbanization, and political enlightenment. But to fully understand the period it is equally important to consider the persistence of earlier ways of making and knowing, which were still reverberating in intellectual and private life. Rather than presenting Bonnin and Morris as a beginning, then, this essay will situate them as the endpoint of a long tradition: the tradition of alchemical ceramics.

People today tend to think of alchemy—if they think of it at all—as a long-gone type of hocus-pocus, consisting mainly of futile attempts to transmute lead into gold. But over the past two decades, historians of science have reevaluated this cartoonish picture of the hermetic arts, showing that alchemy was both more intellectually credible and more genuinely practical than typically has been acknowledged. In this revised view, alchemy is seen not as a fraud that was perpetrated on the credulous but as a logical extension of Neoplatonic philosophy and the logistical basis for the Scientific Revolution. The well-known alchemical experiments with base metals, while based in historical fact, are seen as continuous with other objectives, such as the formulation of new textile dyes, tanning solutions, cosmetics, metallurgical alloys, and many other technological innovations. Most important for the history of the decorative arts, scholars such as Pamela H. Smith, Lawrence Principe, William R. Newman, Neil Kamil, and William Eamon have characterized alchemy as a paradigm of craftsmanship in general. In this revised account, laboratory processes are seen as inseparable from philosophical reflection on productive practice of all kinds. The artisan took the leading role in this process. It was not just metals and other substances that were tested in the laboratory, but the ethical and spiritual qualities of makers themselves.

The history of porcelain invention that culminates in America with Bonnin and Morris takes on an entirely different aspect when viewed in the light of the broad scholarly reappraisal of alchemy. The connection between the two fields is a long-standing one.[4] It appears already in the first glassy soft-paste “proto-porcelains” that were made in Europe, at the court of Francesco de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, beginning about 1575 (fig. 3). The Medici family had long been fascinated with porcelain and hermetic science alike. Francesco’s grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent started a collection of imported Chinese wares that by the mid-sixteenth century numbered in the hundreds.[5] He also retained in his personal retinue one of history’s greatest authorities on sympathetic magic, the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Francesco, meanwhile, was an intellectual who cared little for governance and instead lost himself in the pursuit of art, literature, and, especially, alchemy. Although little is known of the specific reasons for his sponsorship of a porcelain manufactory, he was almost certainly motivated by a fascination with metaphysical transmutation rather than an interest in the Orient or in the potential economic benefits of the enterprise. Francesco did not limit himself to the pursuit of porcelain. His energies were consumed by experiments in which alchemy was applied to the manufacture of enamel, majolica, distilled medicinal waters, silk, fireworks, and even counterfeit jewels. In all of these lines of inquiry he likely regarded his ability to command such productions as a reflection of his own personal qualities, not just as objective scientific results. As historian of science William Eamon puts it, the successful completion of an experiment such as the creation of porcelain would have been seen as proof that “nature’s occult forces existed for the use and delight of the prince.”[6]

It was more than a century after the Medici experiments that the first European hard-paste porcelain was developed. In Dresden in 1709 Johann Friedrich Böttger and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus arrived at the arcanum, paving the way for the opening of a factory at Meissen shortly thereafter. Between the two of them, Böttger and Tschirnhaus were exemplars of the growing divide between the hermetic arts and their more rigorous counterpart, natural philosophy. Tschirnhaus had studied in Paris and was a member of the Academy of Sciences there, specializing principally in optics and geology. His pursuits proved essential in the development of the first Meissen porcelain, because powerful burning glasses that he had originally developed for mineralogical experiments were used to fuse the clays that eventually became a workable porcelain body. Böttger, meanwhile, was a professional alchemist—not a scholar, necessarily, but a talented practitioner in the laboratory and, like many alchemists, a man who was willing to engage in outright charlatanism when it seemed expedient to do so. When imprisoned by the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II (“the Strong”), under orders to repeat a transmutation of base metal into gold that he had fraudulently effected, Böttger managed with the help of Tschirnhaus to produce first a fine red stoneware reminiscent of Chinese Yixing ware and then a hard-paste white porcelain, using kaolin clay with alabaster as a flux (figs. 4, 5).[7]

In addition to these famous successes, there were also instances in which alchemical experimentalists attempted to produce porcelain but failed. The most studied of these is John Dwight, who was active in London in the late seventeenth century. Dwight is well known because he was the first British potter to manufacture stoneware successfully and because his attempts to create porcelain are securely documented through both textual and archaeological evidence. In 1672 he applied for a patent to “use practize & enjoy the mistery & Invencon of making transparent Earthen ware comonly knowne by the names of Porcelane or Chine and Persian Ware and also the Mistery & Invencon of makeing the Stone Ware vulgarly called Collogne Ware.”[8]Numerous sherds and wasters of proto-porcelain, ranging in date, have been found in the archaeological record at the site of his workshop in Fulham, so clearly Dwight came close to success. But it is worth stressing that, as ceramic historian Chris Green puts it, porcelain’s “special appeal to him and to some contemporary Europeans was almost certainly alchemical.”[9]

Evidence of metallurgical experiments have been found at Fulham, such as fragments of crucibles, probably made by Dwight himself, that contain silver and antimony slags. Dwight’s surviving notebooks also refer to an “Old Labouratory at the old house” and a “little furnace” that he kept in his kitchen.[10] (It is interesting that he conducted his experiments in his house, away from his kilns, which would have been an ideal place to work with high heat and metals. Perhaps Dwight was motivated, like most alchemists, by a desire for secrecy.) No less a figure than the great scientist Robert Hooke, who followed Dwight’s porcelain experiments closely, tacitly acknowledged the connection between the Fulham potter’s experiments in porcelain and alchemy in a 1689 diary entry, writing that at tea he had spoken with a friend about “Dwight [and] china of philosopher’s Stone.”[11]

The direct link Hooke made between Dwight’s porcelain and the quintessential objective of alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone, is hardly surprising. Some alchemists thought that clay was in fact the raw material for the “great work” itself. John Frederick Houpreght, a British writer who described himself as “a Student of, and Searcher into the wonderful Secrets of Hermes,” wrote in his 1680 treatise Aurifontina Chymia:

the first Matter from which the Philosophers Stone [is] to be had and taken, is a subject common and poor in outward appearance, and therefore it is called a little thing, and it is in every Mine. . . . there doth lye certain Beds, of a lutinous or clayish substance, under the Earth, which in some places is harder than in others, the deeper the Mine is, the more unctuous is the Clay; and this Clay is the Mother of the Metals, the feeder of the Mines, for in it lies hid the Spirits, or the three Principles of Metals, (vizSalt the Body, Sulphur the Soul, and Mercury the Spirit. . . . I say, invisibly in this confused lump of Clay, lies hid the aforesaid Principles.[12]

Like porcelain, the Philosopher’s Stone was an arcanum—a substance whose composition was held secret—and both materials were invariably described as white, pure, hard, and incorruptible. George Starkey, an American alchemist of the seventeenth century who took the pseudonym of Irenaeus Philalethes, described in detail one process for making the Stone. Within this narrative he placed special emphasis on the creation of the white albedo, the purified matter from which the Stone could then be made: “When by continuance of decoction the colour changeth to white, [alchemists] call it their Swan, their Dove, their white stone of Paradise, their white gold, their Alabaster, their Smoak, and in a word whatever is white they do call it by.”[13] Porcelain too was valued greatly for its pure whiteness, which no doubt seemed all the more astounding because of the material’s translucency. Père Francis Xavier d’Entrecolles, the French Jesuit missionary who first conveyed accurate descriptions of Chinese porcelain-making to Europe, described porcelain as of “exquisite whiteness and free from fault,” while Louis LeComte, another French traveler in China, wrote that it was “compleat and perfect” because of “the fineness of the Matter, the whiteness.”[14] The French chemist Pierre Joseph Macquer, who experimented on samples of kaolin and petuntse that d’Entrecolles sent to Europe from China and went on to become a superintendent at the porcelain works at Sèvres, went so far as to isolate whiteness as the sole distinction between imported porcelain and European stoneware. He argued that there was little difference between the two types of clay body other than color:

those Potteries which we call Gres or Stone-ware are not of modern Invention, and have all the essential Qualities of the best Japanese: for if we except Whiteness, on which the Transparency depends, and compare all the Potteries of the Japanese Porcelain with those of our Stone-ware, no Difference can be found betwixt them, the same Grain appears internally in both . . . the same Hardness, by which they strike Fire with Steel; the same Faculty of sustaining the Heat of boiling Liquors, without breaking; and the same infusibility are observable.[15]

In addition to the material similarity between porcelain and the imagined Philosopher’s Stone, the workshop techniques used in producing the two substances are closely parallel.[16]Indeed, alchemical work in general was thought of as a passage from chaotic materiality to perfect form—a fair description of what happens in any pottery shop, as raw clays are transmuted into refined ceramic ware. Although there was no one standard alchemical practice, most descriptions of the “great work” of making the Stone bear a strong similarity to the standard procedures of ceramic manufacture. The alchemist first burned or dissolved in acid a metal or clay, rendering it into its purest and most essential form (prima materia). He then rehydrated that matter, a complex stage of the process performed in many different ways but often described as requiring “philosophical mercury.” Finally, he steadily heated the material in an “athanor” or furnace (fig. 6). These three basic steps are strikingly akin to the refinement of clay, forming of a plastic ceramic body, and firing in a kiln. Thus Ben Jonson, in his 1610 play The Alchemist (fig. 7), satirized the esoteric language of hermetic work using words that could just as easily describe the process of making porcelain: 

The manner of our work: our bulls, our furnace
Still breathing fire; our argent-vive, the dragon
The dragon’s teeth, mercury sublimate
That keeps the whiteness, hardness, and the biting:
And they are gathered into Jason’s helm
The alembic . . . And thence sublimed so often, till they’re fixed.[17]

Alchemical theory held that the key to the transformation of the prima materia into the Philosopher’s Stone involved the fusing together of mercury (called “argent-vive” and “the dragon” in Jonson’s poem) with sulfur. These elements were held to represent, respectively, the principles of cold, wet, receptive, and changeable femininity, and hot, dry, active masculinity. seventeenth-century British alchemist Thomas Vaughan wrote that the Philosopher’s Stone was a 

miraculous substance . . . of which you may affirme contraries without inconvenience. It is very weak, yet most strong, it is excessively soft, and yet there is nothing so hard. It is one and all: spirit and body; fixt and volatile, Male and Female; visible and invisible. It is fire and burns not; it is water and wets not, it is earth that runs, and Aire that stands still.[18

The union of these dialectical pairings was often spoken of as a “chemical wedding,” an idea that would have had resonance for potters who mixed clays of counterbalancing properties in order to derive a successful ceramic body. True porcelain is one such instance, as it is made from a plastic, tractable clay (“china clay,” or kaolin) and a chalky, relatively inert one (“china stone,” or petuntse). A technician experienced in alchemy, like Böttger, would naturally have attempted to find materials of offsetting virtues in order to arrive at a perfect synthesis. 

While such literal comparisons between ceramics and alchemy may go some way toward accounting for the conspicuous historical overlap between the two pursuits in the early modern period, they miss a more fundamental and important point. Porcelain and the Philosopher’s Stone were most analogous in that they were talismans: valuable not just in and of themselves but because of what they represented. One alchemical text, apocryphally attributed to the fourteenth-century Spanish alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova, says of the Stone: “there abides in nature a certain pure matter which, being discovered and brought by Art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches.”[19] When alchemists referred to their practice as Ars Magna, the royal art, they were announcing its true purpose, which was to discover absolute truths that were comprehensible only to the most élite practitioners and patrons. In this sense alchemy was a fitting accompaniment to absolutist court culture, which was premised on the union between spiritual and worldly authority in a hereditary ruler. Through alchemy, in other words, princes were able to demonstrate their inherent right to power. Similarly, those who supported experimentation with porcelain, such as Francesco de’ Medici and Augustus the Strong, had expectations of its effects that far transcended immediate monetary gain. As Pamela H. Smith has argued in the context of the seventeenth-century Habsburg court, alchemy functioned as a symbolic discourse: “being both art and science, alchemy could illuminate the relationship of the artisan to his material and the productive process. . . . The language of alchemy was particularly well suited to the discussion of commerce, for alchemical transmutation—the ennoblement of metals—provided an example of fabulous material increase and the production of surplus.”[20]Porcelain, equally, was no ordinary luxury commodity. It was a metaphor, as well as a material manifestation, of wealth and ambition. 

The key that unlocks the historical connection between porcelain and alchemy is the term arcanum itself, which has its origins in the alchemical literature but was routinely applied to porcelain in the eighteenth century. The secrecy that encircled the successful production of porcelain was not simply an inconvenient obstacle. It was fundamental to the value placed on the enterprise in the first place. This is, again, a common trope of alchemical texts: the Philosopher’s Stone is scattered everywhere and thus available to all, but usable only by those who know its secrets. An unattributed treatise from 1526, entitled the Gloria Mundi, sets out an early and typical example of this idea: the Stone, we read, is 

familiar to all men, both young and old, found in the country, in the village, in the town, in all things created by God. Yet it is despised by all. Rich and poor handle it every day. It is cast into the street by serving maids. Children play with it. Yet no one prizes it, although, next to the human soul, it is the most beautiful and most precious thing upon earth, and has power to pull down kings and princes. Nevertheless it is esteemed the vilest and meanest of earthly things.[21

Like clay, then, the material basis of the Philosopher’s Stone was plentiful—the arcanum was purely a matter of knowledge, not possession. Through penetrating the secret, the alchemist demonstrated the perfection of his own soul; the actual transmutation of metals, if achieved, would in a sense be only an incidental proof of this higher goal. No wonder, then, that throughout the eighteenth century, even after Père d’Entrecolles’s explicit and accurate accounts of the Chinese porcelain industry were published and then widely paraphrased by other authors, porcelain retained its reputation as “the real true and full art mystery and secret,” as the founders of the English porcelain factory at Worcester put it.[22] Hardness, whiteness, and translucency may have made porcelain an attractive commodity, but it was secrecy that made it a cipher of national ambition. 

A good example of the continuing premium placed on “mysteries” by British porcelain manufacturers is found in the 1750 patent of Thomas Frye, the Dublin-born principal of the factory at Bow (fig. 8). Apart from its subject, the language of the patent could have been lifted directly from an alchemical text of a century earlier: 

As there is nothing in nature but by calcination, grinding and washing will produce a fixed indissoluble matter, distinguished by the same name of virgin earth, the properties of which [are] strictly the same whether produced from animals, vegetables, or . . . all fossils of the calcerous kind, such as chalk, limestone, etc.; take therefore any of these classes, calcine it until it smokes no more, which is an indication that all the volatile sulpherous parts are dissipated, and the saline are sett loose; then grind and wash in many waters to discharge the salts and filth, reiterate the process twice more, then the ashes or virgin earth will be fit for use.[23]

Frye’s wording is intentionally vague. His allusion to “fossils of the calcerous kind,” for example, was probably as close as he was willing to come to naming bone ash as a crucial component in his porcelain paste. This was an ingredient that distinguished Bow from the other earliest porcelain manufacturers (Chelsea, Worcester, Derby, and Bristol), so it is not surprising that Frye would have wanted to keep it secret, just as Böttger and other alchemists always kept their techniques closely guarded.[24] A more explicit resonance with alchemy in the patent is found in Frye’s choice of words. His phrase “ashes or virgin earth” recalls the prima materia made in the initial stage of the alchemical work. Frye’s descriptions of “volatile sulpherous parts” and discharged “saline” parts are also taken from the lexicon of the alchemical tradition, in which volatility itself was traditionally described as embodied by sulfur, whereas static and waste materials were generically referred to as salts. Of course these terms had little relation to the actual chemical properties involved, as today’s scientists would understand and describe them, nor did they refer with any particularity to the materials Frye was using—but that was of little consequence. Like an alchemist, he found it expedient to talk of transmutation in terms of abstract properties rather than concrete descriptions. 

Frye’s manufactory at Bow, which was a template for Bonnin and Morris in many respects, also used life casts from shells in its work, as did Derby, Chelsea, and other British and European porcelain manufacturers (fig. 9). To anyone familiar with ceramic history, such castings irresistibly recall the work of Bernard Palissy, the sixteenth-century French Huguenot potter, agricultural innovator, and alchemist (figs. 10, 11). William R. Newman, Neil Kamil, Lorraine Daston, and Katherine Park have all written about Palissy’s understanding of shells; clearly, for him they were much more than decorative coquillage. The metaphorical richness of the shell form operated on several levels at once. First, the protective armor of animals such as snails and mollusks are “generated out of the creatures’ own volition and then self-fashioned, seamlessly, from materials brought inside-out from within their soft inner bodies.”[25] This seemingly magical process was, for Palissy, a metaphor for the way that any transformation could be wrought on resistant material through knowledge and mastery.[26] It was for this reason, too, that shells were so frequently collected in cabinets of curiosity during the early modern period. As Daston and Park write, shells took their place in a Wunderkammer among other artificial and natural objects in which “difficulties of material [had been] overcome seemingly without effort: hard, dense ivory turned into filigree; baroque pearls formed into a tiny jester by touches of gold and enamel; the brittle, porcelain-like material of a seashell curled and crimped into a murex.” A second resonance between shells and alchemy is found in the spiral form of a snail, conch, or nautilus shell. The twisting line traces the physical process of the shell’s formation, as if it traced the path of the animal in building its own protective armor. The diagrammatic quality of such a spiral, or of a series of concentric or radiating ridges, as in a clam or scallop shell, had a special meaning to Palissy as well. For a mentality accustomed to numerological affinities, the natural occurrence of such perfectly linear mathematical progressions were a clear representation of divine order.

Finally, Palissy would have seen the process of casting a shell as an analogue for natural processes, such as the formation of a fossil. To understand the force of this analogy, it is important to see the passage of time the way that an alchemist like Palissy would—as an inexorable progression in the direction of resolution and unification. According to this theory all metals, for example, tend toward perfection, so that lead, if left to mature in the ground, would eventually turn into gold. Just as the alchemist attempted to control and speed up this process in the laboratory, Palissy’s shells mirrored the magical transmutations wrought by nature.[27

It is unlikely that Bonnin and Morris were inclined to such overtly metaphysical speculation. As we will see, they distinguished themselves in several ways from the alchemists who had preceded them in the history of porcelain invention. Yet the persistence of the shell motif in their porcelain may have borne with it a certain residuum of Palissy’s recondite theories. It requires no great leap of imagination to notice the close resemblance between a porcellaneous ceramic body and the white, hard, translucent material of a seashell. (The word porcelain itself derives from the French and Italian for cowrie shell—pourcelaine and porcellana, respectively.) Indeed, early accounts of the manufacture of Chinese porcelain held that it was composed of shells left in the ground for many years to decompose into a workable material. This explanation was originally propounded by the Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa in 1516 and persisted in published sources well into the seventeenth century.[28] Eventually the theory was disputed—John Webb, for example, wrote in 1669 that it “may be worthily laughed at”—and then definitively disproved by the letters of d’Entrecolles.[29] The idea continued to circulate in eighteenth-century texts, however, and it may be that the representation of shells in the medium of porcelain was something like a visual pun. At the same time, shell imagery underscored the fact of transformation that made porcelain desirable in the first place. Palissy’s analogy between the casting of shells into pottery and the formation of fossils, in particular, would have had continued resonance in the eighteenth century. We have already encountered this parallel in Thomas Frye’s patent, which characterizes components of his porcelain body as “fossils of the calcerous kind.” Frye here uses the word “fossil” in its eighteenth-century sense, meaning anything generated within the earth. Thus usable clays themselves were a type of fossil and were linked conceptually to the petrified remains of animals and plants that we call fossils today. Josiah Wedgwood, for example, referred to the excavation of clays for the purpose of experimentation as “fossiling” and, like many natural scientists of the day, collected fossils as a scholarly pursuit.[30] Fossils of all sorts were also a keen interest of the Philadelphia scientific community. They were collected by Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company and later by the American Philosophical Society, and studied at the College and Academy of Philadelphia in the first chemistry course ever taught in America.[31] (The instructor, Reverend William Smith, felt it necessary to distinguish himself, as a “rational chemist,” from “mere enthusiasts, and chimical madmen, [who] have spent their time and fortune in searching for the philosopher’s stone, and such wild fancies, which never existed but in their dis-tempered imaginations.”[32]) In this context, the encrustations of shells on a Bonnin and Morris pickle stand were perfectly consonant with the scientific curiosity that made porcelain so desirable in the first place.

A yet stronger connection between Bonnin and Morris and the alchemists who preceded them in the field of porcelain invention is to be found in the fact that, before attempting to produce porcelain, Gousse Bonnin first went into business making crucibles. These heat-resistant vessels, in which metals or glass could be heated, melted, and joined, were a fixture in every experimental laboratory. (Randle Holme’s 1688 treatise on tools and toolmaking, The Academy of Armory, defines crucibles as “a kind of Earthen Pots, made of a Whitish Clay or Soil that will abide Fire and much heat; in them Gold-smiths melt their Silver and Gold; and Brasiers their Metals.”[33]) Like porcelain, crucibles were available to Americans only in the form of European imports. So in London in 1769 Bonnin applied for a patent for “black lead crucibles,” made of “a species of clay hitherto only discovered near the city of Philadelphia.” These were probably made from an admixture of “black lead” (graphite) and a locally dug white clay body (fig. 12). Bonnin did not have much hope of enforcing his patent on British crucible manufacturers from Philadelphia, however, so by 1771 he had decided to let this initiative “lie dormant” and instead took up the riskier project of making porcelain. Yet the subject stayed uppermost in the minds of Bonnin and Morris. As late as September 1772, when the factory was on its last legs, the manufacturers noted in the Pennsylvania Packet that their latest experiments with clay imported from Charleston “will stand the heat beyond any kind of crucibles yet made,” suggesting that they saw a scientific application for their efforts even after they had produced commercially salable decorative porcelain tableware.

Gousse Bonnin’s early attempt at manufacturing crucibles is entirely compatible with the personality that can be gleaned from his surviving letters and public announcements. His outsized rhetoric suggests a young man who was, in Graham Hood’s phrase, “impulsive and volatile, with opportunist overtones.”[34] Bonnin cuts the figure of an accidentally successful charlatan, much in the mold of Böttger. The comparison between the two men is reinforced by the fact that Böttger’s first ceramic products were also crucibles, at least according to early-nineteenth-century ceramics scientist and historian Simeon Shaw. Böttger was experimenting with fusible metals, as did all alchemists who were hunting for gold in their laboratories. He was obliged to manufacture his own crucibles, by Shaw’s account, because the ones he was able to obtain commercially “failed under the extremely high heat of his furnaces, which he deemed requisite to fuse some of his materials.” To the alchemist’s surprise, again according to Shaw, the ceramic body he developed for this purely utilitarian purpose was “of a pale flesh-colour, semi-vitreous, semi-transparent, and so compact and firm as to receive from the lapidary’s wheel a polish and luster equal to that of the best glazed porcelain.”[35] If this story is to be believed, Böttger’s first experimental porcelain body was actually an unintentional offshoot of his alchemical work. It is impossible to determine what the basis of Shaw’s information might have been, as it was written more than a century after the fact and is accompanied by no corroborating evidence. But it is undeniable that if Böttger was the first commercially successful porcelain maker in Europe, and the first to make crucibles alongside his porcelain, he was by no means the last in either respect. As mentioned previously, John Dwight made his own crucibles for use in metallurgical experiments. Nicholas Crisp, founder of the Vauxhall porcelain works, and Josiah Wedgwood also manufactured crucibles, either as a predecessor or an accompaniment to the making of their salable domestic wares.[36

Although crucibles had no decorative value, they were among the most technologically sophisticated products of European ceramic kilns, especially those in Germany. Because of their centrality to laboratory procedure, crucibles often appear in personifications of alchemy and in images of alchemists at work (figs. 13, 14). But they were a key technology for the making of glass, too, as well as for silversmithing, and for processing metal alloys such as iron, steel, and brass. (On a less industrious front, crucibles were also strongly associated with criminality, because they were essential to counterfeiting currency, or “coining,” and to converting stolen silver items into salable ingots. Surviving court documents suggest that mere ownership of crucibles was considered to be compelling evidence of guilt when such a crime was suspected.) In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hessian-made black lead crucibles were the cutting edge in the industry, prized for what was described by alchemist Johann Glauber as their “stony hardness.”[37] These products retained their preeminence as late as the end of the eighteenth century, when British scientist Joseph Priestley listed Hessian crucibles among his laboratory equipment, alongside more recent innovations such as an Argand lamp and one of Wedgwood’s new pyrometers.[38] German dominance in crucible production inspired competition, leading the British to develop their own crucible manufacture in several areas (including Staffordshire) in support of the domestic glass-making industry.[39] In 1688 Royal Society fellow John Clayton reported on his success in finding a satisfactory fire clay for crucibles in Virginia, where he had been sent to search for usable New World materials of various kinds. He wrote to his London colleagues: 

I have observed that at five or six Yards deep, at the Breaks of some Banks, I have found Veins of Clay, admirable good to make Pots, Pipes or the like of, and whereof I suppose the Indians make their Pipes, and Pots, to boil their Meat in, which they make very handsomely, and will endure the Fire better than most Crucibles: I took of this Clay, dryed, powdered, and sifted it; powdered and sifted Potsherds, and Glass; three parts, two parts and one part as I remember, and therewith made a large Crucible, which was the best I yet ever tried in my Life; I took it once red hot out of the Fire, and clapt it immediately into Water, and it started not at all.[40]

The involvement of Dwight, Böttger, and Bonnin in crucible production is a reminder of the fact that porcelain was fundamentally a technical and not an artistic achievement. Just as crucibles had to be made of clay that could “endure the strongest force of fire,” those who seriously experimented with hard-paste porcelain realized that high heat was the critical element in successful manufacture.[41]Réamur, for example, drew the contrast between true Chinese porcelain and existing European manufactures entirely in these terms: “What degree of heat, or whether any degree of heat, produceable in our furnaces will vitrify Oriental porcelain we do not know,” he wrote, “but there is great reason to believe that those particulars in which it excels European porcelain are essentially connected with its specific difference from them, viz., its enduring, without vitrification, the degree of heat, in which the European porcelain is found to vitrify.”[42] When Thomas Briand, one of the principals of the Chelsea porcelain factory, appeared before the Royal Society to demonstrate the quality of his wares, the learned scientific body duly recorded (with some inaccuracy) that the new British porcelain was “much preferable for its fineness to the ware of Dresden, and seem’d to answer the Character of the true Japan.... this ware, before it be glaz’d (a Specimen of which he shew’d) is firm enough to stand the heat of a Glass-house furnace.”[43]By the 1770s, then, when Bonnin and Morris undertook their own “invention” of porcelain, the substance had been invented and reinvented by men who understood the challenge of doing so essentially in terms of chemistry. Yet, like so many before them, they insisted that porcelain was just as much an arcanum as ever—in Bonnin’s words, a “mysterious system” which “no body could unravel.” This was so despite the fact that their porcelain was very much in line with the soft-paste recipes that had been manufactured in England for some thirty years. 

Why did Bonnin and Morris employ the rhetoric of unveiling an ancient secret? Unlike Böttger and Dwight before them, they were no alchemists. They were businessmen, and their formula did not come from an arcanist (as had been the case at Chelsea, for example, where the founder, goldsmith Nicholas Sprimont, was given a recipe by a mysterious unnamed “chymist”), but from some direct knowledge of the Bow porcelain factory.[44] This is not to say, however, that alchemy was no longer a consideration for Philadelphians of the 1770s. Evidence of the value placed on inherited thought can be found in the libraries assembled in Philadelphia during the period, such as that of the Swiss scientist and book collector Pierre Eugène du Simitière, who owned copies of texts on occult philosophy such as Authores Varii super Alchemiam, Hermes Trismegistus, and Paracelsus’s Aurora.[45] Some of the pressing scientific questions of the day, too, were situated in an uncertain middle ground between the symbolic logic of alchemy and the classification imperative of the chemical revolution. Combustion, for example, was still a much-disputed phenomenon, because of the persistence of the quasi-alchemical idea of “phlogiston.” According to this theory, first advanced by German chemist Georg Ernst Stahl in 1703, all burnable objects held an identical substance in them that was consumed by fire. The existence of this mysterious matter was “proven” by the fact that combustion was invariably accompanied by a loss of weight. The word phlogiston was borrowed from the lexicon of alchemy to describe that substance, and indeed the theory itself was not significantly different from the traditional alchemical idea that objects could burn only when they contained the “principle” of sulfur. Phlogiston was often seen as crucial to the proper formulation of porcelain and other ceramic bodies; Dr. John Wall of the Worcester porcelain factory, for example, was described as “a chemist of some skill, adept in the mysteries of phlogiston.”[46] Although the theory was discredited by Antoine Lavoisier, many chemical authorities continued to adhere to it—including Joseph Priestley, the eminent British scientist who relocated to Philadelphia in 1794.[47

The transformation in Philadelphia’s intellectual life, then, was not as simple as a paradigm shift from alchemy to modern science. It is better characterized in the terms that William Eamon has proposed for the early modern period in general: a move from secret to public knowledge.[48] No longer was the penetration of nature’s mysteries a worthy goal in itself, a matter of individual and courtly pride. Now, any scientific enterprise—including the making of porcelain—was seen by entrepreneurs (or “projectors”), experimentalists, and governments alike as a literally productive, as well as a demotic, societal achievement. With Bonnin and Morris’s “invention” of porcelain, we see not actual technological advancement but instead a breakthrough in cultural terms: a suggestion that porcelain was not the creation of an inspired individual but rather the work of an entire like-minded community. Throughout their short two-year experiment, Bonnin and Morris seem to have conducted themselves in a remarkably public manner—turning on its head the secrecy that had always attended manufactories like theirs. Their 1770 Pennsylvania Gazette advertisement offered “twenty shillings per thousand . . . for . . . horses or beeves shank bones,” fifteen shillings per thousand for hog shank bones, and ten shillings per thousand for “calves and sheep [bones].” They also advertised for other crucial ingredients, such as zaffer, or cobalt oxide, and broken pieces of flint glass. Their self-promotional writings were shot through with distinct streaks of American exceptionalism, which contrast sharply with the defensive, competitive stance of British porcelain manufacturers of the time. This comes across most strongly in their essay in the Pennsylvania Gazette (August 1, 1771) addressed, appropriately enough, “to the public.” This piece of propagandistic writing—part political science, part economic protectionism, and part breathless nationalism—is as wonderful and novel in its way as the porcelain of Bonnin and Morris itself. The essay starts with a proclamation of Philadelphia’s glorious contributions to the arts and sciences, noting that though the colony was only “One Hundred Years from the rude Vestiges of Nature,” it had already produced “one of the most useful mathematical instruments that has ever been invented,” a reference to David Rittenhouse’s orrery, developed in the late 1760s, as well as other “Discoveries in Natural Philosophy of singular Importance to Mankind.” Linking themselves to the similarly pioneering recent experiments in glass by Henry William Stiegel, with the caveat that their own enterprise was “more curious, more hazardous, and much more expensive,” they wrote that “the Manufacture of China Ware in this Province, certainly deserves the serious Attention of every Man, who prays for the Happiness of his Fellow-subjects, or that the very Semblance of Liberty may be handed down to Posterity.” In short, Bonnin and Morris asserted that Philadelphia was a place of special significance for the history of science, and they had no hesitation in placing themselves in that context. Ironically, they were most indebted to past attitudes toward porcelain precisely when they were describing the legacy they hoped to leave to the future. They declared for their scientific exploits the qualities traditionally reserved for magic. Just as Francesco de’ Medici and Augustus the Strong had seen in their porcelain enterprises a reflection of their own right to rule, Bonnin and Morris looked into their vessels and saw the principle of liberty. 

It is no coincidence that among their clients Bonnin and Morris could count John Cadwalader and Thomas Wharton, among the most prominent members of the American Philosophical Society, which was the leading scientific organization in America and among the most sophisticated of such groups in the world. Neither of these men seems to have been particularly active in scientific research, and Cadwalader was one of the most ambitious aesthetes and consumers of rococo design in America, so it may be that his attraction to Bonnin and Morris porcelain was purely stylistic. Yet the participation of such men in the society was itself symbolic—a sign of an elite culture in which the active patronage of science was a seemly sign of public-spiritedness. Benjamin Franklin, who best embodied this combination of patriotism and “curiosity,” is known to have owned sauceboats made by the Bonnin and Morris factory, which were sent to him by his wife Deborah; in his return letter, dated in January 1772, Franklin wrote: “I thank you for the Sauceboats, and am pleasd to find so good a Progress made in the China Manufactury. I wish it Success most heartily” (fig. 15). Franklin’s concern for the factory suggests that he, Wharton, and Cadwalader all saw Bonnin and Morris as more than purveyors of finery, and, to be sure, Bonnin and Morris themselves evidently had no trouble seeing their porcelains that way. What they made was extraordinarily ambitious and assertively symbolic rather than utilitarian. If Bonnin and Morris only made the most conspicuous of forms, that was because it was the making itself—the symbolic unlocking and distribution of the arcanum—that was the important thing. 

It would be two generations before porcelain was again made in America, but that was not for lack of trying. Both before and after the failure of the Bonnin and Morris factory Philadelphia scientists expressed enthusiasm for the successful domestic production of the arcanum. The American Philosophical Society noted in its Transactions for 1771 that “the bowels of our earth are but little explored, notwithstanding the encouragement received from the experiments that have already been made. There is a great variety of clays, many of them valuable. Of some, good crucibles have been made, and fire bricks, equal to any in the world. Others have answered so well in burning, as to induce one to hope, that in time, a porcelain, equal to that brought from China, may be made here.”[49] In the decades to come, such vigorous promotion would continue. Charles Willson Peale, who had a small concern in the making of porcelain teeth in later life, called for the voluntary contribution of “earthly Substances of use especially in the manufacturing of Porcelain, Earthen and Stone wares” when assembling his famous museum.[50] In 1802 the Chemical Society that had been founded in Philadelphia a decade earlier—the world’s first such organization—heard an oration from its vice president, Felix Pascalis: 

We will not . . . consider it as the chief point in Chemistry, to form theories on the primitive state of the earth, to explore the ruins of extinguished volcanos, nor the most antique works of nature. . . . However useful to science, these mineralogical essays and deductions would be, with more real advantage, the chemist will be contented to analyze mineral substances, and to procure those which satisfy our wants, constitute our wealth, augment our comforts, which enriches our arts, and manufactures. . . . Before I terminate this article of Mineral chemistry, let me remind you, gentlemen, of the great advantages obtained by other nationals, from the class of alumines only. Among the compounds in which that primitive earth is dominating, they have found all the materials from the common tile and brick to the most elegant works of Porcelain. . . . That America possesses such treasures, it is needless to prove, and that they have not yet been applied to the use of the community, it is also an object of regret. Do, gentlemen, let a liberal patriotism animate your scientifical pursuits, among you who are to see the glorious days of the trans-Atlantic Republic.[51

Pascalis leaves little doubt that practical science and “liberal patriotism” were to be seen as kindred and mutually supportive projects. What he leaves unspoken is the fact that this equation was an entirely novel one, even in the waning years of the eighteenth century. What was at stake in this celebration of public knowledge, put to work for the public benefit, was the elimination of the alchemical from scientific discourse. 

Four years earlier, in 1798, the same platform had been used by Thomas P. Smith, another member of the Chemical Society, to make this point quite emphatically. Extended the honor of giving the annual oration to the group, he elected to present a “Sketch of the Revolutions in Chemistry.” His brief history typifies the almost hysterical attack on alchemy that became commonplace in the late eighteenth century. From the days of the ancient Egyptians onward, Smith claimed, there had been men who possessed only practical knowledge—“confined to the forge of the smith and the work-shop of the lapidary”—but no understanding of “general principles.” Insofar as they pretended to a larger conception of the workings of science, “their object was merely to gain an ascendancy over weak minds ... hence arose the idea that these priests, who perhaps understood little more than how to delude a superstitious, ignorant people, were possessed of a knowledge of all the arcana of nature.” Smith characterized the search for the Philosopher’s Stone as a “mania” in which “immense fortunes were dissipated by men who would not have advanced the smallest sum for the discovery of any truth whatever from which they could not hope to derive some pecuniary advantage. Thus was avarice enlisted in the cause of science.” Predictably, Smith was as triumphant in proclaiming the successes of modern chemistry as he had been in dismissing “the dark gathering clouds of ignorance and superstition” of the past. He portrayed the development of contemporary science as inevitable—“nor need we be afraid that any false theory, however specious it may appear, will be permanent; for, WHATEVER SYSTEM IS NOT FOUNDED IN TRUTH MUST FALL!” And, again typically for a member of the Philadelphia scientific circle, Smith claimed a political as well as a philosophical victory for American science. Certainly, he conceded, there were analogues across the ocean. A figure such as Lavoisier, in his support of the French Revolution, “was strongly attached to the cause of SCIENCE AND TRUTH, and consequently to that of LIBERTY.” But it was in America, where “we have reason to believe that nature has been far from bestowing her blessings . . . with a parsimonious hand,” that chemistry would find its full flowering. “It is to a general diffusion of a knowledge of this science,” he concluded, “that we are to look for the firm establishment of our INDEPENDENCE.”[52]

The caricatured view of the history of science presented by Smith was canonical by the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, this narrative, in which the falsehoods and greed of alchemical practice were gradually displaced by the democratic objectivity of modern thought, still forms the basis of the popular understanding of scientific history today. The irony is that something fundamental in the quest for the arcanum had not changed at all. Scientists were still chasing the goal of cultural transmutation through the medium of porcelain. It was never the intention that such a domestic manufacture would be a means of outfitting the homes of the new Republic; it was too fragile for that, and in any case (as an encyclopedia published in Philadelphia put it) “too costly an article for general use.”[53] Rather, it was the promotion of the knowledge of its manufacture itself that was held to be culturally transformative. In 1768, as Bonnin and Morris were laying their plans for a porcelain manufactory, American Philosophical Society president Charles Thompson defined this attitude toward science in words that recall the spirit of Franklin himself: 

As Philadelphia is the Centre of the Colonies, as her Inhabitants are remarkable for encouraging laudable and useful Undertakings, why should we hesitate to enlarge the plan of our Society, call to our Assistance Men of Learning and ingenuity from every quarter and unite in one generous noble attempt, not only to promote the Interest of our Country but to raise her to some eminence in the rank of polite and learned Nations? ... Knowledge is of little Use, when confined to mere Speculation. But when speculative Truths are reduced to Practice, when Theories, grounded upon Experiments, are applied to common Purposes of life, and when, by these, Agriculture is improved, Trade enlarged, the Arts of Living made more easy and comfortable, and, of course, the Increase and Happiness of Mankind promoted; Knowledge then becomes really useful.[54]

Bonnin and Morris, and their peers in Philadelphia, would have had no difficulty in seeing symbolic tableware as an outgrowth of this philosophy. 

The pickle stand with which this essay began takes on a rather different aspect if one imagines it not as the centerpiece of a dining table but rather as the sample of production presented in 1771 to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania by Bonnin and Morris. In hopes of securing a government loan the two entrepreneurs respectfully submitted an example of their “Work” to the legislature, reminding them that porcelain was a “Commodity which, by Beauty and Excellence, hath forced its Way into every Refined part of the Globe.”[55] The members of the assembly must have realized, given the remote likelihood of immediate monetary profit, that refinement—that most alchemical of terms—was the best justification for their request. Much like the China Trade itself, which was launched from Philadelphia only a few years after the failure of the Bonnin and Morris enterprise, the manufacture of porcelain was at least as much a magical talisman as a sensible financial investment.[56] Over the course of time, the grip of alchemy on the mind of the potter and the chemist may have loosened. Ceramic innovation was no longer a secretive enterprise, carried out in the laboratory in the hopes of metaphysical redemption. Even so, echoes of the Philosopher’s Stone resonate in everything made by the Philadelphia porcelain manufactory and in the hopes placed on those objects by an avid community of scientists and patriots. After all, as Gousse Bonnin himself put it in 1771 in a letter to his mother, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Thanks for assistance during the preparation of this essay are due to Robert Barker, Luke Beckerdite, Meghan Doherty, Michelle Erickson, Sarah Fayen, Robert Hunter, Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Reino Liefkes, Jonathan Prown, Giorgio Riello, Alicia Volk, and Hilary Young.


On pickles in eighteenth-century cuisine, see Hannah Glasse, The Complete Confectioner, or, the Whole Art of Confectionary Made Plain and Easy (London: J. Cooke, 1770), pp. xxii–xxiii.


Graham Hood, Bonnin and Morris of Philadelphia: The First American Porcelain Manufactory, 1770–1772 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972).


For British reports on the failure of the Bonnin and Morris manufactory, see Thomas Byerley in Pennsylvania Journal, November 11, 1772; and John Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield, Observations on the Commerce of the American States with Europe and the West Indies (Dublin, 1784), p. 22.


Needless to say, the intertwined history of science and porcelain begins in China, not in Europe. For a recent encyclopedic overview, see Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood, Chemistry and Chemical Technology: Ceramic Technology, in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, pt. 12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 


On Medici porcelain, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates, Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000), p. 25; Catherine Hess, Italian Ceramics: Catalogue of the J. Paul Getty Museum Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002); Galeazzo Cora and Angiolo Fanfani, La Porcellana dei Medici (Milan: Fabbri, 1986); and Cristina Acidini Luchinat, ed., The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002).


William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 271.


On Meissen’s early production, see Ingelore Menzhausen, Early Meissen Porcelain in Dresden (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988).


Dennis Haselgrove and John Murray, “John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery, 1672–1978: A Collection of Documentary Sources,” Journal of Ceramic History11 (1979): 40


Chris Green, John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery: Excavations 1971–79 (London: English Heritage, 1999), p. 3.


Ibid., p. 35.


Haselgrove and Murray, “John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery,” p. 49.


John Frederick Houpreght, Aurifontina Chymia, or, A Collection of Fourteen Small Treatises. . . . (London, 1680), pp. 43–45.


Starkey is quoted in Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 5. On Starkey, see also William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chemistry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and William R. Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).


D’Entrecolles’s letters are transcribed in William Burton, Porcelain, Its Nature, Art and Manufacture (London: B. T. Batsford, 1906); Louis LeComte, Memoirs and Observations, Topographical, Physical, Mathematical, Mechanical, Natural, Civil, and Ecclesiastical, Made in a Late Journey through the Empire of China. . . . (London, 1698).


Macquer is quoted in Papers Relative to Mr. Champion’s Application to Parliament, for the Extension of the Term of a Patent (London, 1775), p. 21. 


Bruce T. Moran briefly draws attention to the parallel between Meissen porcelain and the Philosopher’s Stone in Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 148.


Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (London, 1612), act 2, scene 1.


Quoted in David Kubrin, “Newton’s Inside Out! Magic, Class Struggle, and the Rise of the Mechanism in the West,” in The Analytic Spirit: Essays in the History of Science in Honor of Henry Guerlac, edited by Harry Woolf (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 105. 


Quoted in John Read, Prelude to Chemistry: An Outline of Alchemy, Its Literature and Relationships (1936; reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966), p. 28.


Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 4.


Quoted in Read, Prelude to Chemistry, p. 130.


Hilary Young, English Porcelain, 1745–95: Its Makers, Design, Marketing and Consumption (London: V&A Publications, 1999), p. 46.


Frye’s patent is transcribed in Elizabeth Adams and David Redstone, Bow Porcelain (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 70.


George Savage first noted the indirection concerning bone ash in the patent in his 18th-Century English Porcelain (London: Spring Books, 1952), p. 125. Security at Meissen was a near-obsession, understandably given that an early defection led to the creation of a competing factory at Vienna. An account of the travels of British merchant Jonas Hanway, on visiting Dresden in the 1750s, includes the following description of the extraordinary measures taken: “Our author had an opportunity of being convinced of the secrecy with which this manufactory is conducted; for there is no admittance into the works without an order from the Governor of Dresden; nor are the workmen ever seen without the gates; for they are all confined as prisoners and subject to be arrested, if they go without the walls: for this reason a chapel, and every thing necessary is provided within.” The World Displayed, or, a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels, Selected from the Writers of All Nations: in which the Conjectures and Interpolations of Several Vain Editors and Translators are Expunged, Every Relation Is Made Concise and Plain, and the Divisions of Countries and Kingdoms are Clearly and Distinctly Noted; Illustrated and Embellished with Variety of Maps and Prints by the Best Hands (London, 1759–61), p. 49.


Neil Kamil, Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517–1751 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 76–80.


William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 159.


Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), p. 277. See also Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), chap. 1 passim. For a period description of the process of life-casting, see Godfrey Smith, comp., The Laboratory, or School of the Arts (1736; reprint, London, 1740), pp. 100–106. My thanks go to Robert Barker for this last reference.


Mansel Longworth Dames, ed., The Book of Duarte Barbosa: An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1918–21), 2:213–14. Other writers held, similarly, that porcelain was formed from plaster or eggshells pulverized and buried for the purposes of maturation.


John Webb, An Historical Essay Endeavoring a Probability that the Language of the Empire of China Is the Primitive Language (London, 1669), p. 112. For other period texts referring to the seashell theory in positive, negative, and uncertain terms, see Pierre d’Avity, The Estates, Empires, and Principalities of the World, translated by Edward Grimeston (London, 1615), p. xiii; William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World (London, 1697), p. 409; J. B. Du Halde, The General History of China..., translated by Richard Brookes (London, 1736), p. 310; John Guy, Miscellaneous Selections, or, the Rudiments of Useful Knowledge from the First Authorities.... (Bristol, 1796), p. 246.


On Wedgwood and fossils, see Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), p. 142.


Edwin Wolf, “At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin”: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1731–1976 (Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1976); Henry S. Van Klooster, “The Beginnings of Laboratory Instruction in Chemistry in the U.S.A.,” Chymia 2 (1956): 1–15. 


William Smith, The Student’s Vade Mecum (London, 1770), pp. 20–21. Smith’s fears were well founded; another of the earliest instructors of chemistry in America, Benjamin Silliman, complained that the discipline was dogged by an association with “alchemy, with its black arts, its explosions, its weird-like mysteries.” Linda K. Kerber, “Science in the Early Republic: The Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy,” William and Mary Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 1972): 263.


Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory (Chester, 1688), p. 308. 


Hood, Bonnin and Morris, p. 8. 


Simeon Shaw, The Chemistry of the Several Natural and Heterogeneous Compounds Used in Manufacturing Porcelain, Glass, and Pottery (London: Printed for the author by W. Lewis and Son, 1837), pp. 402–3.


On Crisp’s crucible production, see Young, English Porcelain, 1745–95, p. 43; on Wedgwood’s, see Uglow, The Lunar Men, p. 297. For a general account of the scientific aspects of Wedgwood’s production, see Neil McKendrick, “The Role of Science in the Industrial Revolution: A Study of Josiah Wedgwood as a Scientist and Industrial Chemist,” in Changing Perspectives in the History of Science: Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham, edited by Mikulás Teich and Robert Young (London: Heinemann Educational, 1973), pp. 274–319.


Johann Rudolf Glauber, A Description of New Philosophical Furnaces; or, A New Art of Distilling, Divided into Five Parts. . . . (London, 1651), quoted in Haselgrove and Murray, “John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery,” p. 35.


Douglas McKie, “Priestley’s Laboratory and Library and Other of His Effects,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 12, no. 1 (August 1956): 114–36.


For crucibles in the glassmaking and brass industries, see Warren C. Scoville, “Technology and the French Glass Industry, 1640–1740,” Journal of Economic History 1, no. 2 (November 1941): 153–67; Charles E. Hatch, “Glassmaking in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 21, no. 2 (April 1941): 119–38; D. W. Crossley, “The Performance of the Glass Industry in Sixteenth-Century England,” Economic History Review 25, no. 3 (August 1972): 421–33; Harry J. Powell, Glass-making in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923); Claus Priesner, Bayerisches Messing: Franz Matthias Ellmayrs “Mössing-Werkh AO. 1780” (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997).


“A Letter from Mr. John Clayton, Rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire, to the Royal Society, May 12, 1688, Giving an Account of Several Observables in Virginia, and in His Voyage Thither, More Particularly Concerning the Air,” Philosophical Transactions 17, no. 201 (1693): 781–95; “A Continuation of Mr. John Clayton’s Account of Virginia,” Philosophical Transactions 17, no. 205 (1693): 941–48; “A Continuation of Mr. John Clayton’s Account of Virginia,” Philosophical Transactions 18, no. 210 (1694): 121–35. See also Worth Bailey, “A Jamestown Baking Oven of the Seventeenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly 17, no. 4 (October 1937): 495–500.


William Salmon, Medicina Practica, or, Practical Physick: Shewing the Method of Curing the Most Usual Diseases Happening to Humane Bodies. . . . (London, 1692), p. 434.


Réamur is quoted in The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, for the Year 1763 (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1764), p. 103.


F. Severne Mackenna, Chelsea Porcelain: The Triangle and Raised Anchor Wares (Leigh-on-Sea, Eng.: F. Lewis, 1948), pp. 5–6.


Young, English Porcelain 1745–95, p. 35.


On Simitière, see Quarter of a Millennium: The Library Company of Philadelphia 1731–1981, edited by Edwin Wolf and Marie Elena Korey (Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1981), p. 44.


On John Wall, see Savage, Eighteenth-Century English Porcelain, p. 131.


For an overview of the phlogiston debate, see Read, Prelude to Chemistry, pp. 120–44; and Marco Beretta, The Enlightenment of Matter: The Definition of Chemistry from Agricola to Lavoisier (Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications, 1993). On the phlogiston controversy in America, see Sidney M. Edelstein, “The Chemical Revolution in America from the Pages of the Medical Repository,” Chymia 5 (1959): 155–79; Robert Siegfried, “An Attempt in the United States to Resolve the Differences between the Oxygen and the Phlogiston Theories,” Isis 46, no. 4 (December 1955): 327–36.


Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature.


Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge (Philadelphia, 1771), vol. 1 (January 18, 1769–January 18, 1771), p. xi.


David Brigham, Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale’s Museum and Its Audience (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), p. 109.


Pascalis was a French chemist who practiced medicine in Santo Domingo and fled to Philadelphia during the island’s slave revolt in 1793. He is quoted in John C. Burnham, Science in America: Historical Selections (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), pp. 55–57. Such optimism on the subject is also seen frequently in geographic surveys of the new nation; Jedediah Morse’s The American Gazetteer (Boston, 1797), for example, noted that a clay found in the riverbanks of Kentucky “might, it is thought, be manufactured into good porcelain.” 


Thomas P. Smith, A Sketch of the Revolutions in Chemistry (Philadelphia, 1798), pp. 12, 13, 16, 24, 30, 35. See also Edgar F. Smith, Chemistry in America: Chapters from the History of the Science in the United States (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1914). A parallel attack on alchemy appears in the first chemical dictionary, written by Pierre Joseph Macquer (the superintendent of the Sèvres porcelain factory) and translated by James Keir (a close associate of Josiah Wedgwood). See Pierre Joseph Macquer, A Dictionary of Chemistry: Containing the Theory and Practice of That Science . . . (To which is added, as an appendix, A treatise on the various kinds of permanently elastic fluids, or gases [by James Keir]), 3 vols., translated by James Keir, 2nd ed. (London: Printed by T. Cadell, 1977), pp. iv–xii; see also Wilda Anderson, Between the Library and the Laboratory: The Language of Chemistry in Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 26–30. 


Encyclopaedia; or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature . . ., 18 vols. (Philadelphia, 1798), 14:297.


Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (American Magazine, 1769; facsimile reprint, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1969), p. 123.


Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris, “The Address of the Proprietors of the China Manufactory,” Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1777), pp. 278–79.


Jean Gordon Lee, Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784–1844 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984).

WritingMarci LeBrun