Editor's note: The following essay was published on June 28, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibit titled Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Westmoreland Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Western Pennsylvania's Stoneware Potters
by Phil Schaltenbrand
In the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans developed a strong preference for a pottery type known as stoneware, primarily due to its remarkable durability. Ralph Russell, an early Beaver County potter, used poetry to describe his rugged creations. "Genuine stoneware," opined Russell, "will never sour, rust, or rot in the shape of a churn, jar, or pot." Glazed in a kiln with vaporized salt, stoneware vessels were also safe to use and relatively inexpensive. Properly cared for, these vessels would outlast their users by many generations.
Prior to the emergence of the "genuine" article, early consumers had relied on fragile lead-glazed redware to help them store and serve food products. But just as steel superseded cast iron following the Civil War, salt-glazed stoneware revealed redware's inadequacies and soon replaced it.
Stoneware was fabricated extensively in parts of New England, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. Although New York's Erie Canal system supported more factories, Pennsylvania's stoneware industry had greater longevity. Pennsylvania's immigrant population increased dramatically during this period, and with it an increase in the number of people who depended on crockery for a variety of needs. Among Pennsylvania's settlers were German potters who understood the advantages and challenges of salt glazing. Starting in Philadelphia, these craftsmen moved toward the Susquehanna River and beyond, bringing with them the tools and secrets of their trade.
The best examples of stoneware were distinguished by a light gray, pebbly finish that was sympathetic with assertive decoration. Not every crock drawn from a cooling kiln was a prize, but even the most homely pieces were purchased and put to use. Whether plain or fancy, decorated stoneware was thought of as poor man's art, hence the term "folk pottery."
Nineteenth-century consumers, especially homemakers, found these handsome vessels appealing because of their distinctive freehand cobalt blue flowers, vines, animals, birds, people, and abstract patterns. Decorators responded enthusiastically at times, displaying a virtuosity that belied their lack of schooling. Fortunately, some of these superior vessels were well cared for and survive today as reminders of the great skill and imagination of the times. Other decorated pieces popularized in western Pennsylvania were the so-called people crocks. Fired in the Fayette County kilns of John and Norval Greenland, people crocks displayed primitive simplifications of the human form, usually in motion. The exhibit gives us remarkable examples of regional stoneware, which are also representative of a larger American art form.
The most successful stoneware manufacturers always tried to obtain the best clays available. Unfortunately, stoneware (originally called fireclay) is not commonly found in the earth's crust. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the country's only reliable supply was a rich vein of plastic ore located in South Amboy, New Jersey. This substance serviced operations along the eastern seaboard, but it was difficult to ship to aspiring stoneware potters west of the Alleghenies. More often than not, western Pennsylvania's stoneware makers searched for small, random deposits of fireclay, which were often of inferior quality. Understandably, salt-glazed ware was produced on a modest scale at the time in the counties that surrounded the growing city of Pittsburgh.
One can imagine the excitement in the early 1800s when fireclay was found and developed in Fayette County, near the Monongahela River town of New Geneva. This substance was not only of excellent grade but also in seemingly endless supply. Norval Greenland, a young potter from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, expressed the view of many in an early newspaper advertisement that extolled New Geneva's "far famed" clay. "It is believed to be the best for manufacturing stoneware in the United States," bragged Greenland, who may have twisted the truth, though not by much. 
With the newfound clay, factories in New Geneva and nearby Greensboro became the most prolific producers of salt-glazed wares in western Pennsylvania. The names of Atchison, Boughner, Dilliner, and Hamilton became associated with large-scale stoneware manufacture in the 1850s. Smaller shops were also built in the towns of Rices Landing, Fredericktown, and West Brownsville. These made good use of New Geneva's throwing clay while other potteries in Beaver County -- one hundred river miles to the north -- presumably acquired the substance for another reason. Beaver County's busy stoneware makers depended on local clays, which unfortunately turned a dark hue when fired. With New Geneva's plastic fireclay, Beaver potters would have been able to produce a slip (liquid clay) and apply it to their vessels, creating a pleasing gray surface. Early potteries in Johnstown, like the Hamilton & Pershing and Haws enterprises, could have ordered South Amboy clay and blended it with local material to achieve their characteristically gray-colored wares. The wide tonal range of later Johnstown pieces made by the celebrated Swank brothers suggests that they had found fireclays closer to home. The same can be said of the Black family, who potted in Somerset County.
Many of the things needed in early western Pennsylvania -- domestic wares in particular -- could be fashioned from stoneware clay. These included water pitchers, churns, crocks, and canning jars, which were sold by the millions prior to the arrival of cheap glass. Any early order form would have also listed milk pans, spigot jars, various pots, chambers, bottles, and steins. Some potters made agricultural and industrial objects, such as poultry fountains, liquor jugs, and ware that could safely store acids and strong chemicals. On rare occasions, banks, doll heads, grave markers, twine holders, and whimsical novelties were created.
Stoneware potteries in western Pennsylvania sold to the public through outlets that were rarely more than thirty miles from a factory's site. Wares were made available in larger towns like Butler, New Castle, Mount Pleasant, Greensburg, Somerset, Brownsville, and Waynesburg, and in numerous small villages as well. Potteries were not in the habit of selling to walk-in customers -- a fact confirmed by company advertisements, which were aimed at the wholesale buyer.
Several potteries in Beaver County were quite profitable before the war. Since this district was downriver from Pittsburgh, it enjoyed a convenient proximity to the upper and lower Ohio River Valley, where great quantities of utilitarian pottery were needed. Early stoneware businesses owned by the Fowler, Russell, and McKenzie families operated six days a week year-round. Another early firm owned by the redoubtable William Hamilton and his younger brother, James, also operated in Beaver County at this time. This partnership, taking the name James Hamilton & Company, moved to Greensboro in 1850, where it became one of Pennsylvania's most successful pottery factories.
In New Geneva and Greensboro, firms delivered untold numbers of ware pieces to the expanding Pittsburgh area. An eighty-foot flatboat could hold several thousand jars, jugs, and crocks, which were packed in straw and stacked on the open deck. Most of these were presold, but boatmen also made cold calls on potential customers in the numerous villages along the Monongahela River. In Pittsburgh, wholesale houses owned by the Cooper family and the firm of R. Peet on Diamond Street bought and then distributed practical wares to small stores and businesses, including taverns and hotels. Stoneware articles became available to the public after business owners added a 30 percent markup. From 1870 through 1890, potteries charged seven cents for a gallon of ware but reduced this by a cent when selling to large brokers. Local historians mention that stoneware often went downriver as far as New Orleans in the 1850s and 1860s. Pottery was also moved east to Philadelphia and New England, and at least as far west as Indianapolis. With the expansion of the railroads in the district, Greensboro's Williams & Reppert factory frequently shipped boxcar-loads of stoneware to the nation's capital.
It can be argued that western Pennsylvania's stoneware makers were the last in a line of tradesmen who held on to traditional methods even as the country was embracing a machine technology. In the decades of prosperity that followed the Civil War, factories that once relied on a high degree of hands-on skill were modernized by owners who emphasized efficiency over craftsmanship. Rapid manufacture of inexpensive goods was now the overarching goal of American industry. Potters in the region felt the squeeze, and struggled to retain their shrinking share of the market.
Some western Pennsylvania stoneware manufacturers were able to survive these difficult straits by improving business methods. Although company owners could not afford to extensively overhaul their factories as had potteries in nearby New Brighton, Pennsylvania, and in East Liverpool, Ohio, they could cut costs to their customers -- a fearful practice that only served to buy them some additional time. A few creative pot shops introduced steam-powered equipment and better refractories, while some even made limited use of jigger wheels-devices that permitted the forcing of clay into molds, often by semiskilled workers. By and large, however, it was the master potter who sustained the region's remaining enterprises in their final days. It is interesting to note that the Hamilton and Robbins pottery works in Fayette County was still selling hand-turned whiskey jugs to distilleries several years after Henry Ford's first Model T rolled off the line in Detroit.
A good turner could produce up to five hundred units (depending on size) in a twelve-hour stretch. He was required to throw more than twenty different forms, in sizes ranging from one half pint to twenty gallons. Potters at the Boughner and James Hamilton firms in Greensboro sold even larger pieces. Boughner advertised forty-gallon pots, and James Hamilton claimed to "have in [his] employ" the only two men in the country who could "turn with ease" fifty-gallon jars. All the potteries in western Pennsylvania produced large, masculine pieces, whose bold rims and strong shoulders were a reflection of the men who made them. Occasional flaws never detracted from their honesty.
Western Pennsylvania's early (and best) blue decorations were applied with a brush held loosely in the hand of an unschooled artist. These decorations are inspired, ambitious, and uncommonly beautiful, with gracefully balanced motifs that relate to each other and to the vessels they envelop. The region's artists occasionally tried scratch decoration and slip trailing, but these methods -- particularly trailing -- were more popular in New York and New England. While we know the names of several dozen men who worked the wheels and loaded and fired the kilns, we cannot identify a single artist associated with stoneware manufacture in Pennsylvania's western counties.
In some shops, potters certainly doubled as brushmen, but such arrangements happened more often in the later years. For the most part, master decorators were retained at large firms in Beaver, Fayette, and Greene counties during the 18451865 phase of manufacture. Such craftsmen sometimes sought employment at other companies and contributed to an overall western-Pennsylvania style. Although peculiarities existed within the region, a familiar signature evolved. Stylized flowers, leaves, vines, bands, and swags were regularly used, while abstracted elements like dots, dashes, wavy lines, loops, and circles were integrated into elaborate decorative displays.
In the 1870s, as the region's stoneware industry peaked, it turned to stenciled decoration both to cut costs and to give its image a makeover. Countless patterns were applied to vessels at this time, at first incorporating the pottery's name and later displaying the names and addresses of new customers anxious to self-promote. The stenciled crock, often viewed as synonymous with southwestern Pennsylvania stoneware, lacked the spontaneity of brush-decorated ware but was a superior article economically. Ordinary day laborers could learn to use a stencil in a day or two. This technique foreshadowed the decline and demise of the master decorator, whose handiwork is rarely seen after 1880. In fairness, it should be noted that well-designed stencils produced patterns that fascinate in their great variety. The more interesting stencils showcased eagles, flowers, fruit, shields, animals, abstract patterns, and -- though rarely -- people in action.
The many stoneware potteries that waxed and waned in western
Pennsylvania in the second half of the nineteenth century are now receiving
the recognition they deserve in the vast world of American art. Decades
ago, these enterprising factories, with their daring proprietors and no-nonsense
employees, languished in the shadow of their New York and New England counterparts.
Today, many of the vessels that were fashioned at the factories beyond the
mountains are representative of the best stoneware produced in America.
In its decorative variety, vigorous forms, and prodigious numbers, western
Pennsylvania stoneware faces the brightest of futures.
1 19th Century Broadside, Callow & Co., Printers, Pittsburgh, 1859.
2 Advertisement, Uniontown Genius of Liberty, July 7, 1864.
About the exhibition
Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, will be on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. This exhibition presents important examples of fraktur, salt-glazed stoneware, tanware, textiles, and painted furniture, most originating in western Pennsylvania.
Made in Pennsylvania brings together for the first time almost 400 significant examples of folk art that will enable comparisons of style, maker and region. These objects come from both public and private collections, in addition to the Museum's own collection.
(above: Attributed to Enix and Frankenbery C. Baker Cake Crock, New Geneva, PA. Collection: Paul R. Stewart Museum, Waynesburg College. Photography: Mark May Photography)
An 80-page catalog accompanies the exhibition with color photographs of all objects as well as a short introduction/overview of each object category. Contributors are the guest curators and Phil Schaltenbrand, author of Big Ware Turners: The History and Manufacture of Pennsylvania Stoneware on salt-glazed stoneware. The soft cover catalog is available at An American Marketplace The Shop at The Westmoreland, online at www.wmuseumaa.org or by calling 724-837-1500 ext. 41.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was published on June 28, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibit titled Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Westmoreland Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judy Linsz Ross, Director of Marketing/Visitor Services, Westmoreland Museum of Art, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text
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