The Excelsior Terra Cotta Company made high-grade clay products for architectural ornamentation. Terra cotta had been used as a building material for centuries in Europe, but the first successful American terra cotta factory was established in Perth Amboy, NJ in 1877. Since that time, a number of similar ventures had sprung up in the area and Perth Amboy became a center for the terra cotta industry. Terra cotta was fireproof, as durable as brick, but lighter, and could be molded into elaborate designs and shapes, so it was popular for architectural ornamentation.
The Excelsior Terra Cotta Company had begun as the Rocky Hill Terra Cotta Works, which in turn, had its roots in Partridge, Powell, & Storer’s brick factory in 1892. The Excelsior Company operated from 100 acres on the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the railroad. In the photo below can be seen the floating barrel footbridge which the workers from Rocky Hill used to get to the plant.
In 1900, the Excelsior company specialized in producing glazed architectural tile. In 1907, the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company and the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company merged to become the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company which also had a plant at Tottenville on Staten Island. The company began shipping terra cotta products around the world. Presumably because of a shift in operations, many of the Rocky Hill workers moved to Tottenville around that time.
In her booklet entitled, Rocky Hill, New Jersey, 1701-1976, Vivian Engelbrecht described the plant this way:
This decorative clay trim was practically hand made from molds custom designed for each building. It could be sprayed and fired any color. The storage yard around the plant was a gay array as stacks of different shapes and hues awaited shipment. The tile roof for the Philadelphia Art Museum was red and blue.
In 1909, the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company still employed 300 workers in Rocky Hill and was one of the town’s leading industries. At least nine kilns for firing terra cotta pieces were in operation, each capable of reaching 2300 degrees F.
Interviewed in 1973, one former worker at the plant described the process this way:
“Well, I was the blueprint maker, but the draftsmen upstairs, they made the prints, of course. Then they’d send them down to me and I’d make them into blueprints. And at that time we had sun machines. You put the print in there and you clamped everything down, and you turned it over and shot it out into the sun. And you had to watch the edges of the paper… the blueprint paper… and when it turned a certain color, you’d bring it in and turn it over and take the print out. And you’d put it in a big tank of water… a tray…. and wash it all down good. Then you’d take it out carefully and hang it on a line so it would dry. And afterwards, if you got it dried and everything was all right, then they’d take it back upstairs and check it to see if everything was all right.
And then, you see, the model-makers, they made the models out of plaster… water and plaster mixed up. And they’d make ’em out of plaster according to the blueprints, And then the mold-makers, they’d make a mold to cover the whole thing… all the indentations, and everything else. They had ’em fixed so you could take the sides off and everything, and when they got hardened they removed the sides.
And when it was hard enough that they could move it, they’d take it into the pressers. And they had the forms, and all they’d do is remove the clay in there. And when it was all filled up, they’d let it sit for about a day, you know, so it would set good, and they had it hot in there to dry it.
And from there it would go to the kiln where it would be baked for maybe three or four days, or a week… or something like that. And they had things that could tell you how hot it was.
And’ then from there on it went out to the fitters’ shed, and my uncle was a fitter. And he used to work out in all kinds of weather, and his hands were split open from the cold and everything. And, you know, that stuff was heavy, and good and hard… well-packed. Then it was packed and they took it to New York. A lot of it went by train, you know, box-cars. But it was well padded with straw and everything, you know, so you wouldn’t have one heavy piece against another heavy piece. But it was well padded and they were deliverin’ it to New York, to the Woolworth Building there; and there was a lot of other buildings in New York, too. I just forget just what they were, now. But they had a lot of them.”
In 1910, work began on the ornate Woolworth Building in New York and the company was the sole supplier of the terra cotta for that project. At the time, it was the world’s tallest building. Atlantic terra cotta was also used for the elaborate north pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Interestingly, terra cotta from Perth Amboy was also part of America’s war effort during World War I. 500,000 practice bombs, weighing twenty pounds each, were delivered to Army Aviation for training. Eventually, demand for the building material waned and Rocky Hill operations ceased in the early 1930’s. The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company lasted until 1943 at which time it was dissolved.
- Engelbrecht, Vivian F., Rocky Hill, New Jersey 1701-1976, Rocky Hill Tercentenary Committee, 1976.
- Highest of the Hand-Made Buildings, Friends of Terra Cotta Press, 201
- McGinnis, William C., A History of Perth Amboy, NJ, American Publishing Co., Perth Amboy, NJ, 1963.
- Menzies, Elizabeth G. C., Millstone Valley, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1969.
- “Recall When Terra Cotta was King of the Hill,” The Princeton Packet, 18 April 1973.
- Shepard, Barnett, Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built, Preservation League of Staten Island and the Tottenville Historical Society, 2010.
- “Terra Cotta a Delight of the Golden Age,” Somerset Messenger & Gazette, 2 December 1982.