Pots and their Politics: Recovery of Ceramics from The Gex Pottery
Part of The City Beneath the City: Archaeology of New Orleans tour
In 2007, a team of archaeologists excavated the remains of a property enumerated “253 Carondelet Walk,” an address that had at one point operated as a nineteenth-century kiln manufactory along the walkway of the historical “Carondelet Canal.” Archaeologists recognized that the site had been used for ceramic production due to the plethora of irregular ceramic sherds scattered across an area that had once been a consolidated city lot.
Historical documentation links Lucien Gex to this pottery at 253 Carondelet Walk and another at 353 Carondelet Walk identified as the “Porcelain Works Factory” where Gex had been a superintendent. Porcelain Works Factory was owned and presided over by Bertrand Saloy, the president of the Carondelet Canal Company corporation tasked with upkeeping the Canal. Born in France, Saloy immigrated to New Orleans as a younger man. Throughout his life, Saloy was very active in the city’s politics, and member of the Whig party, and then Democrat after the Civil War. As a member of the merchant class, he was president, vice-president, or ranking board member of various insurance companies, railroads/streetcars, and various businesses. He invested heavily in real estate; a fact known to public record because he frequently acquired properties through sheriff sales, reported in newspapers as civil suits. At the end of his life, he had become a real-estate mogul; in fact, he was rumored to be the richest man in New Orleans at the time of his death.
During his tenure as president of the Carondelet Canal Company, Saloy repeatedly sparred with city officials concerning maintenance of the canal. As the canal was technically property of the state of Louisiana, both the city and the corporation balked at the cost of managing it, which included maintaining the height of the embankments, routine dredging, and repairs. While Saloy refused to maintain the canal, he did try to make the adjoining properties, many in which he was invested, more profitable. His porcelain manufactory’s opening was timed to be a crown jewel for Carondelet Canal’s renovation, which included the widening of Carondelet Walk, the commercial corridor along the canal’s docks.
The grand opening of the Porcelain Works Factory announced that the ceramics were well-made, pearl white, attractive, and functional. These porcelain dishes, although the recipe of French hard-paste porcelain, were purportedly made with American clay on American soil, a detail that seemed to be a marketing strategy to the late-nineteenth century consumer. Despite its popular reception, the pottery declared bankruptcy in less than a year. The remaining contents of the pottery, including clay biscuits, saggars, and kiln furniture, were purchased personally by Bertrand Saloy. Soon after, newspapers reported that the kiln burned to the ground and that Saloy received $7000 of insurance money for the loss. Saloy died on December 31, 1889, with his vast legacy the subject of legal inquiry.
In 1890, Lucien Gex, the Porcelain Works previous superintendent, was listed under “Potteries” at 253 Carondelet Walk. The archaeological recovery of unfinished porcelain biscuits, fragments of bowls and plates glazed white but with a sloppy glaze that “pooled” along the base, among the fragments of utilitarian ware and kiln furniture, suggests that Lucien Gex acquired the some of the remnant porcelain material after Saloy passed away. The amount of strange glazes on these porcelain biscuits suggested that Gex continued to experiment with the porcelain ceramics on site while making cheap flower pots, coarse earthenware, and stoneware crockery to sell. However, the defective white-paste pottery sherds recovered suggests that Gex never quite found the right balance to successfully manufacture hard-paste porcelain. Pottery is as much of a science as it is an art; likely the chemical composition of the American clays were not conducive to the European formulas and recipes developed to make the French hard-paste porcelain they were modeled after. By 1900, the United States Census documents that Gex and his family moved to Bay St. Louis. The remnants of the pots that Gex left behind at 253 Carondelet Walk seem all that is left of the failed Porcelain Works Company; even the canal that it fronted has been long since filled in.
The study of this kiln assemblage includes patterns of spatial distribution across the site; chemical analysis of pottery sherds, biscuits, and glazes; and comparison with other historical kiln sites. Equally instructive is how recovery of this pottery assemblage unravels complex contemporaneous socio-political patterns across New Orleans over time, and how specific individuals attempted to maneuver and grapple with their consequences. In this assemblage, both the infrastructure of the Carondelet Canal itself, as well as the remnants of the failed Porcelain Works company, are in conversation with the actors who built them and the landscape itself, which is now buried and erased from the urban grid.