Objects are fascinating remnants from the past that can reveal incredible stories once you learn how to listen. As a newly minted Winterthur Fellow, I was tasked to get to know an artifact and unlock its mysteries. I sat down with a jug made in England (either in Staffordshire or Liverpool, ca. 1794) and had a kind of conversation. As strange as it sounds, that is what I did. I asked a lot of questions: Where was it made? Why does it look the way it does? How was it used? What did it mean to the person who owned it? As emerging material culture scholars, we are often instructed to “interrogate the obvious”— if only the objects could talk back!
The hand-painted inscription on the face of the jug is the most obvious and curious aspect. It reads: “William and Kathrine Aldred, removed from Manchester in England to the State of Delaware in the year 1794.” We all have objects that commemorate significant events, whether it is a diploma hanging on the wall or that souvenir spoon brought back from the airport gift shop. It is the same today as it was in the late 1700s. There are moments in our lives that are so special or important that they warrant material remembrance. For the Aldreds, moving to Delaware was one of those milestones. So join me on a transatlantic journey to investigate the significance of the removal of the Aldred family and to consider why they uprooted their lives in Manchester to settle in Delaware in 1794.
The last quarter of the 18th century was a tumultuous time for England. Not only did it lose its American colonies during the Revolution, but it was affected by ongoing wars with France and a transformation in production. New technology and extensive road and canal building altered the manufacturing of goods. Raw materials could be shipped faster and goods could be produced cheaper, making a wide range of products available to more people for less money. The jug was a product of this industrial revolution that also affected William Aldred. The same channels that moved the jug from its place of production to the port of Liverpool and onto a ship bound for Philadelphia were the same ones that carried the Aldred family to America.
Aldred was a textile dyer and a member of a growing working class involved in the manufacturing of textiles in Manchester, the center of the industry in England. Labor strife was a frequent outcome of mechanization due to the reallocation of tasks to machines. In Aldred’s Manchester, unrest due to industrialization, poor living conditions, food shortages, and political disagreements concerning war was rampant.
Aldred could not alter these conditions, but he could change his situation. He focused his eye on the young United States for its opportunities. Industrialization was beginning to take off there, and the manufacturing of dyed and printed textiles was just getting started. The production of cotton “shoddy goods” expanded after Eli Whitney’s gin reduced the costs of processing cotton, and quercitron—a cheaper yellow dye made from the bark of the American black oak tree—was discovered.
It was in Wilmington that quercitron was first distributed. Aldred settled near the city, a short distance south of where the Winterthur Museum is today. His business was located along the Brandywine River which was already the host to a number of mills. In a former barley mill, he established a short-lived partnership with textile printer Archibald Hamilton Rowan. The Brandywine provided all the resources necessary to operate their business: access to important markets in nearby cities and valuable materials in the form of water, wood, and iron.
Though logical, the life-altering decision to move halfway across the globe with children and a wife must not have been an easy one to make. The trip was filled with uncertainty, regardless of pamphlets by Benjamin Franklin ensuring the success of skilled immigrants in America. It also required leaving behind a home, even if it was one shaken by industrial change. Because William Aldred owned a jug whose creation was the result of industrialization, we can infer that he likely embraced it. He relied on the skills he gained from industrial experience to establish a stable life for his family in Delaware.
Winterthur’s lovely ceramic jug with floral sprays and vibrant colors is then a symbol of both loss and opportunity. The jug would have been visibly displayed as a commemoration and as a memento of the family’s origin. However, we must not forget that it was also a functioning object. As such, it was not left to collect dust like a trophy on a shelf. The jug would have been used among family and friends to serve a beverage and as a reminder of a distant home and a new beginning.
So I encourage you to come to Winterthur. Take a tour of the house and think twice about the artifacts you see. They tell stories about struggle, celebration, opportunity, loss, accomplishment, and hope. And if you happen upon a student, they’d be happy to translate.
Post by Lauren Brincat, first year student in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC)
For Further Reading:
Aiken, John. A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester, 1795. Reprints of Economic Classics ed. New York: A. M. Kelley: 1968.
Hancock, Harold. Industrial Worker Along the Brandywine, 1800–1840. Wilmington: Hagley Museum Research Reports, 1956-08, Hagley Museum Digital Archives.
Montgomery, Florence M. Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens 1700–1850. New York: Viking Press, 1970.
Teitelman, S. Robert, P. A. Halfpenny, Ronald W. Fuchs, Wendell D. Garrett, and Robin Emmerson. Success to America: Creamware for the American Market: Featuring the S. Robert Teitelman Collection at Winterthur. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2010.
Wadsworth, Alfred P. and Julia De Lacy Mann. The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire, 1600–1780, New York: A. M. Kelley, 1968.