Earthen­ware of early Pa. Dutch Pot­ters

Part 1: Pot­tery Re­nais­sance of the 20th cen­tury

The Southern Berks News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Richard L.T. Orth Colum­nist Richard L.T. Orth A Look Back In His­tory

As his­to­rian and au­thor, Frances Lichten noted in her book, “Ru­ral Folk Art of Penn­syl­va­nia,” our Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch an­ces­tors land­ing at the port of Philadel­phia and found the colony rich in re­sources, which en­abled numer­ous 18th Cen­tury pi­o­neers to make a liv­ing from the clay-lined earth, thus be­com­ing the na­tion’s best-skilled pot­ters. Red­ware pot­tery, molded and thrown on the pot­ter’s wheel, us­ing at­trac­tive (New) “Jer­sey white clay” slip-dec­o­ra­tion soon de­vel­oped into a re­mark­able craft among the pot­tery ar­ti­sans of the seven Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch coun­ties of Penn­syl­va­nia that sur­rounded the port city of Philadel­phia.

Year af­ter year, as waves of more and more Ger­manic and Swiss im­mi­grants ar­rived and dis­persed into the hin­ter­land away from Philadel­phia, their ex­po­sure to the ex­cel­lence of Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Colo­nial pot­tery in­spired these later im­mi­grant crafts­men to en­hance the art of Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man pot­tery to an even higher level. The earthen­ware, which were pro­duced by these early Amer­i­can pot­tery kilns, were ul­ti­mately be­yond util­i­tar­ian value and were of such aes­thetic qual­ity in de­sign, as they were given as spe­cial presents

to en­hance even the wealth­i­est of farm house­holds.

Fol­low­ing the Eu­ro­pean con­ti­nen­tal tra­di­tion of dec­o­rat­ing earthen­ware with liq­uid clay through a slip cup, red­ware dishes and ves­sels were dec­o­rated with slip-trail­ing or over­laid with a coat­ing of slip to be later scratched carved, a tech­nique called “sgraf­fito,” Ital­ian for scratch-carved. In this process, the white slip-coat­ing is scratched away, only when it hard­ens from the sur­face of the plate, and shows the mo­tif (s) in the sil­hou­ette of the red clay fired be­neath it.

The white slip coat­ing it­self turns an ocher yel­low color when fired in the kiln and is of­ten high­lighted with dabs of cop­per ox­ide in con­tem­po­rary times, which turns green, and looks decades older sim­i­lar to the nat­u­ral process in the 1700 and 1800s when im­pu­ri­ties would come through the clay, show­ing it­self.

Judg­ing from the sur­viv­ing num­ber of pre­sen­ta­tional pieces (artis­tic dec­o­rated slip or sgraf­fito plates not in­tended for house­hold use), the hey­day for Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch pot­tery oc­curred be­tween 1780 to 1830, as our agrar­ian re­pub­lic pros­pered af­ter the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.

Sev­eral of these highly dec­o­rated large sgraf­fito plates not only en­riched the house­hold fire­place man­tel de­signed with folk art tulips and birds, but had do­mes­tic Ger­manic proverbs writ­ten along the outer edge as well. Whim­si­cal say­ings like “When the dish breaks Thou shouldst not scold” pro­vide in­sight to these fun-lov­ing peo­ple. As Frances Lichten re­searched pot­tery forms, she dis­cov­ered the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch were the orig­i­na­tors of the Amer­i­can pie since fruit trees were few in Europe but abun­dant here in Amer­ica.

Earthen­ware pie plates were ideally suited for pro­duc­ing non-stick pies will­ingly, and each house­wife had many com­mon six­inch pie plates to meet the needs of their large fam­i­lies. Pot­ters there­fore chose a large deep-dished pie plate form to dec­o­rate pre­sen­ta­tion pieces to sell to farm­ers to sur­prise wives and daugh­ters.

Among the early ex­cep­tional Amer­i­can ar­ti­sans of sgraf­fito de­sign was Ge­orge Hubener and Sa­muel Troxel from Mont­gomery County who op­er­ated their pot­tery about the post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War pe­riod. Lo­cated in Up­per Hanover Town­ship, both pot­ters were masters of plate de­signs, es­pe­cially Hubener us­ing his pro­fi­ciency in old Ger­man let­ter­ing of in­scrip­tions along the apron of the plate.

In ad­di­tion, other early pot­ters such as John Leidy, Ben­jamin Bergey, and John Nase also pro­duced their wares in early Mont­gomery County. David Spin­ner, Chris­tian Klinker, Ja­cob Taney, John Mon­day, and the Head mans were out­stand­ing pot­ters in nearby Bucks County.

Many of the afore­men­tioned red­ware pre­sen­ta­tion pieces are pre­served in two for­mi­da­ble col­lec­tions rep­re­sent­ing Amer­i­cana folk art: The Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art and the Henry Fran­cis du Pont Win­terthur Mu­seum at Win­terthur, Delaware. The high es­teem these early Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch artis­tic pot­ters were held in by be­gin­ning ap­pren­tices was a far out­cry from the te­dious chore of milling clay to pro­duce hun­dreds of ap­ple but­ter crocks and thou­sands of Ger­manic roof tiles for their homes.


Great ex­am­ple of Slip-trail­ing/ Slip dec­o­ra­tion. The bright col­ors, in­tri­cate pat­terns, and date add value to this round plate, but in­clu­sion of a cen­ter­piece heart mo­tif is its great­est at­tribute. The earthen­ware piece brought $105,300 in April 2007 sale at Ron and Deb Pook’s Auc­tion Gallery.


Dou­ble Ea­gle Heart Mo­tif Sgraf­fito Plate made by Ge­orge Hubener, Lim­er­ick Town­ship, dated 1789., in the Win­terthur Mu­seum Col­lec­tion, Delaware. An­other of Hubener’s plates sold at Pook & Pook in Jan­uary 2008 for $351,000, a red­ware record.

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