Ceramic Industry

400 Years of Ceramics

April 5, 2000
As evidenced from the Remmey family history, ceramics have come a long way since the 1500s.

With today's computer software and Internet access, many people have begun delving into their family trees. For most people, tracing their genealogy reveals a host of influences and occupations.

Not so for G. Bickley Remmey Jr. Like the royal families of England, his bloodlines are pure-pure clay, that is. Since the early 16th century, the Remmey family has been entwined with the evolution of the ceramic industry, and has helped make history with their inventions and innovations.

A Tradition of Pottery

Jacob Remy, born in 1568 in Ivoy, France, was a potter. In the 1500s, the only way to become the owner or "master" of a business was to inherit it from your father or to marry the widow of a master of the same trade. So in 1595, Jacob married Catherina, who was 12 years his senior and the widow of master potter Adolf Wingenders, and took over Adolf's pottery business in Grenzhausen, Germany.

Jacob's son, Wilhelm, continued the pottery tradition of his father, as did his youngest son of the same name. In 1735, at the age of 29, the younger Wilhelm's son Johannes migrated to New York City and immediately set up a pottery. Like many immigrants, Johannes Americanized his name and became John Remmey. When he died in 1762, he left his New York pottery business to his only son, John II, who operated the company for over 30 years. His second son, John III, continued the pottery business in New York until 1820, when financial problems forced the business to close.

But pottery ran strong in the Remmey family, and John's fourth child, Henry, was determined to keep the tradition alive. In the early 1800s, Henry moved to Philadelphia, Pa., and established a stoneware pottery on Marshall Street. Henry's pottery developed a distinctive style, and today his pottery is in The Smithsonian, the New York and Philadelphia Museums of Art, and other art museums.

In 1817, Henry established a second pottery in Baltimore, Md., and put his 23-year-old son, Henry Harrison Remmey, in charge of the business. However, competition in Baltimore was fierce, and the pottery was forced to close in 1829.

Henry Harrison took over his father's business in Philadelphia in 1834, and quickly expanded the company by acquiring several local potteries. By the time his son, Richard Clinton, took over the business in 1859, the Remmey pottery was one of the largest stoneware potteries in the U.S. However, a new product-machine-made glass containers-was rapidly replacing stoneware as the domestic container of choice. Between 1865 and 1870, the manufacture of domestic stoneware was gradually abandoned in favor of chemical and Bristol glazed stoneware. In 1893, the Remmey plant sent two 500-gallon chemical ware pots-the largest pieces of chemical ware produced in the U.S. at that time-to an exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The pieces won a medal of merit and a worldwide reputation. But stoneware was on the way out, and a new product would have to be made to keep the Remmey ceramic tradition alive.

Refractories and Furnaces

In 1895, the Remmeys built a new plant to make firebrick and refractories, and this business soon flourished. By the time the family's stoneware plant was shut down in 1910, the Remmeys had already made a name for themselves in refractories. Robert Henry, Richard Clinton's son, took over the business after his father's death in 1904 and changed the company's name to Richard C. Remmey Son Co. Robert's four sons-Robert Jr., John, G. Bickley, and Francis-all entered the Remmey refractories business.

By 1930, the two oldest brothers-Robert and John-were essentially running the business, and G. Bickley had set up a laboratory to develop new products. During the depression years, the Remmeys' clay mine ran out. To keep the business going, they began manufacturing "super refractories" such as silicon carbide, mullite and high alumina. With the advent of World War II came a great demand for their products, and the company grew to employ several hundred people.

By 1956, Remmey Refractories had a worldwide reputation and employed close to 300 people. The four brothers decided to sell the company to A.P. Green...but the Remmey business didn't end there. Two years later, A.P. Green sold the furnace division of Remmey Refractories back to G. Bickley Remmey, with the provision that he couldn't use the name "Remmey" for the new company. And so Bickley Furnaces was born.

In September 1958, Bickley Furnaces started with six employees. Twenty-one years later, the company was the largest kiln company in the U.S., with 180 employees and a worldwide reputation. The company was sold to Reidhammer in 1979, and G. Bickley Remmey Sr. retired. His son, G. Bickley Remmey Jr., stayed with the company under Reidhammer until 1981, when he went into business for himself.

The Remmey Legacy

G. Bickley Remmey Jr. is still active in the business today with Swindell Dressler. He has written numerous articles about firing and kilns, as well as the most widely used textbook on the subject, Firing Ceramics, published in 1994. G. Bickley Remmey Jr. is the last of the Remmeys in the ceramic business-but the legacy left by the Remmey family will continue to leave its mark on the ceramic industry for generations to come.