Monday, August 29, 2016

Ebeneezer Price, Colonial-era Gravestone Carver

My knowledge of eighteenth-century American headstone carvers is rather limited. What I do know has been gleaned from my relationship with the Association for Gravestone Studies. This organization publishes such scholarly information in their quarterly journal (see link at end). So when I personally happened upon evidence of such a headstone carver right before my eyes, I became immediately interested.

Pennington Presbyterian Church, Pennington, New Jersey.

Walking through the Presbyterian Church graveyard in Pennington, New Jersey, I noticed seven red sandstone grave markers all in a row – six large (standard-sized), and one small. Recognizing them as the oldest on the site, I thought perhaps they might have the old “angel-head” carving at top (I initially spotted them from behind). I walked around the thick (three inch) slabs with the roughly carved backs and, lo and behold, three of the large stones had angel heads carved at top, while two had a sunrise! I get rather excited to find these as they are quite uncommon outside New England. New Jersey cemeteries seems to be the southern cutoff point. Why is this?

Rear view of red sandstone grave markers

Well, New England was one of the first areas of the north American continent to be settled by Europeans and the first to become densely populated. Therefore, the oldest graveyards are there. The Puritanical flair of the headstone artisans and craftsmen is evident on early headstone carvings throughout that region. As time went on, populations grew and spread out from New England. Belief systems changed, different materials were used for grave markers, and this particular type of angel head was replaced with other symbolism (or none at all).

"Sunrise" symbolism

White marble became a popular choice as a replacement for red and brown sandstone, as Vermont and Philadelphia quarries boomed in the late 1700s. Angel heads appear on old marble stones too, but marble wears easily and detail is quickly lost. Sandstone retains detail better, but cracks more easily. Central and northern New Jersey’s sandstone quarries supplied the need for grave marker material from the end of the seventeenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Small headstone, perhaps a child's
While red sandstone grave markers can be found geographically south of central New Jersey, they are usually devoid of ornamentation (i.e., angel heads, flowers, and other designs). The reason is that Philadelphia-area stone carvers (from 1785 onward) usually did not exhibit the artistic flair, or skill, of their northern counterparts. Still, fanciful headstones from the northern and central New Jersey carvers found their way to cemeteries all over the east coast.

"E. Price" signature engraved at bottom of 1775 headstone

Ebeneezer Price

As I photographed the seven red sandstone markers in Pennington’s Presbyterian Church graveyard, I realized two things: one, they all marked graves of members of the same family, the Muirheids; and two, the markers were all signed by the same stone carver! This latter point is rather unusual in my experience.

“E. Price,” as you can see in this photo, stands for Ebeneezer Price, “New Jersey’s most prolific eighteenth century gravestone carver” (so described by Nonesteid and Veit in their fascinating 2011 publication, Carrying On the Stone Cutting Business.) describes Price as a “Master Craftsman, Folk Artist. One of the most skilled and prolific gravestone carvers in colonial America, Price's work began to appear in the burial grounds of northern New Jersey in 1757… 

Ebeneezer Price, this engraver from Elizabeth, New Jersey, was born in 1728 and created masterpieces such as those you see here from 1744 through 1787. These intricate soul effigy engravings, lettering, and other designs were amazingly done by his own hand and chisel. His style influenced many other stone carvers of his time.

Note "E. Price" engraving at bottom right

It happens to be well-documented that Price signed, or initialed his work, which was unusual in that industry, or craft. I found it interesting that during the Revolutionary War-era that Price was in business, he would barter for payment of a carved headstone. Barbara Schaffer’s 2013 Quilts, Gravestones, and Elusive Ancestors blog post, “Signed by Carvers,” reproduces a 1786 newspaper advertisement for Price’s engraving business. He would accept any of the following in exchange for an engraving job: “timber, stone, brick, boards, window-frames, doors, sashes, shutters, hinges, carting, labor.” The article shows further examples of Price’s intricate carvings of angels, flowers, and letters.

Seven Ebeneezer Price-engraved sandstone grave markers, Pennington, New Jersey

Ebeneezer Price’s workshop was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but his engraved headstones – wonderful examples of early American folk art - traveled to such places as New York City, Long Island, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Caribbean (ref.)

Price died in 1788 and is buried at the First Presbyterian Churchyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

References and Further Reading: