Preserving pieces of history
A Trenton native son treasures its pottery
By Meir Rinde
February 27, 2010
Reminders of the city’s glorious past linger in every corner -- in the hulking former factories, in the streets named after long-dead magnates, in the memories of residents who toiled in those workshops decades ago.
And in the passionate — not to say obsessive — collecting of Robert Alloway.
A 57-year-old Trenton native and retired wire company worker, Alloway has spent a lifetime collecting pottery. He estimates he owns well over 500 porcelain objects made by the city’s legendary manufacturers — Lenox, Boehm, Cybis and Ispanky.
Alloway and his wife, Barbara, have hunted down rare items at flea markets and antique shops, at estate sales and in catalogs. He searches, in part, out of admiration for the pieces’ painstakingly crafted details, like delicate porcelain lace and hand-painted floral designs.
From the time he started collecting seriously, after he got married, he has also relished the sheer pleasure of the chase.
“I liked the fact of going out early, just searching,” he said recently, as he stood in his living room, surrounded by dozens of porcelain busts, figurines, plates and lamps. “Turning up something good, you know.” But he has another motivation as well.
Despite his wide-ranging interest in everything from a large Cybis anniversary-edition figurine of a Polish bride to a miniature penguin that doubles as a lady’s perfume atomizer, he has only ever really wanted one thing: art that comes from his hometown.
The plates showing brightly colored pairs of English songbirds, the slender foot-high statuettes of characters like Desdemona and Madame Butterfly, the turn-of-the-century porcelain lamp with a sister piece at the Trenton City Museum — they’re not just beautiful and rare.
They’re also artifacts of a time when Trenton was bursting with industries where the young man Alloway once was could put in a day’s hard work, be treated fairly by his boss, earn decent pay and afford to raise a family.
“The city had so many good companies,” he recalled. “There were a lot of these factories, whether they made cigars, or batteries, or wire or whatever.
“There were literally hundreds of manufacturing jobs for anybody, you know, even if you were a helper and machine loader, there was a job there. I think that’s what’s missing today. There’s not too many jobs for the average joe,” he said.
“You know, not everybody is college-bound,” said Alloway, himself a Trenton Central High graduate.
As he passed from piece to piece, he told stories — about a manufacturer’s immigrant founder, or the clay-shaping process, or how pottery extended Trenton’s renown across the country and around the world.
“Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to order a complete service for the White House,” he said, standing next to a case brimming with Lenox pieces.
“They used to buy their services out of the country, and thought it was important to start promoting the United States, and they chose Lenox china as the first suitable for the president,” he said.
Alloway’s favorite piece these days is a stunningly realistic Cybis dahlia made of more than 100 individually crafted petals. One of his recent acquisitions is Mary Mary, a Cybis piece of a young girl wearing a straw hat and holding a bouquet.
“I looked for her for, cripe, 30 years,” he said, his voice rising. “And those things happen sometimes, where you look for something, a piece that you can’t just seem to find. And then all of a sudden, it appears.”
With their three children grown up, the Alloways have discussed moving to a smaller home. That would mean packing up hundreds of items of delicate art, he said — but it would definitely not mean selling them.
“I didn’t buy it as an investment for a large return,” he said. “If I don’t get a dime for anything of this, I don’t care. I enjoyed collecting. That was the whole thing.”
An excerpt of this article is available on NJ.com.
Copyright © 2010, The Times of Trenton