Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The decorative arts department of the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg, ad­ministered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, houses a collection of fine American ceramic pieces spanning the years from 1800 to 1900. Many of these examples are very familiar, but some are quite surprising and not as well known. This sampling from the collections can help to trace the design trends of the sometimes bewildering but very provocative decades of the nineteenth century. A stylistic progression may be observed from the elegant classi­cal Empire influence of the early decades to the highly embel­lished products of later years. Toward the end of the 1800s, design elements of several periods were often combined in a single piece, and historical revivals occurred simultaneously, with disconcerting regularity.

Many nineteenth-century American potteries were re­markably versatile, producing not only a diversified line of utilitarian objects, but creating fine high-style ware as well. The degree of skill and imagination employed in the creation of these products resulted in handsomely made ware which re­flected the technological advances of the industrial age as well as the taste of the period. The enthusiasm for new materials and techniques and the demands of a growing market spurred the ceramic industry to remarkable achievements.

Although utilitarian ware, particularly stoneware and red­ware, seems to have captivated the modern eye, it is the high style or “fancy” ware which is most expressive of its time. These highly sophisticated pieces better reflect the sociologi­cal and historical developments than the traditional ware, and are a more accurate barometer of taste in nineteenth-century America.


The Early Decades and Tucker Porcelain, 1800-1840

There were few ceramic factories in America producing fine ware in the Empire style, which evolved in the second decade of the nineteenth century and continued, in more opulent fashion, the archaeologically-inspired classical motifs of the Federal period. U.S. manufacturers could not compete with the financially and technically canny English and French potting centers which supplied most of the world’s fashionable and utilitarian products. Producing fine porcelain was a risky endeavor often fraught with technical and finan­cial failure. Only a few examples of early ventures in fine ceramic production remain to tell the story of the pioneer pot­teries – the exquisite ware of Bonnin and Morris of Philadel­phia comes immediately to mind.

The first commercially successful production of hard-paste porcelain became a reality with the founding of the American China Manufactory in Philadelphia by William Ellis Tucker in 1825. In terms of determined personalities and turbulent events, the story of Tucker porcelain remains one of the most fascinating chapters of ceramic history. Theirs was a true suc­cess story, and that the firm succeeded at all does credit to the perseverance and creative spirit of the Tucker family, particu­larly to William’s father, Benjamin, whose support and faith in the young enterprise never wavered.

The Tucker firm produced decorative and useful ware in the Empire style, basing many of its designs on classical shapes; urn forms, caryatid handles, and shell and leaf molded spouts and handles are typical. Illustrating many of these character­istics, the comprehensive sampling of Tucker porcelain in the William Penn collections includes both early pieces as well as later works, which tend to be rich in color and more ornate in decoration. A seven-piece tea and coffee set, ornamented with sepia architectural landscapes, is a particularly good example of Tucker’s early experiments with hand-painted mono­chromatic decoration. The aim of the Tucker firm was to produce porcelain so comparable in quality that it would be indistinguishable from French ware. In this they certainly suc­ceeded, for the graceful elegance and sophistication of Tucker pieces is unsurpassed.

Many American ceramic firms believed that potential cus­tomers thought foreign ware was superior, so they often left their products unmarked or used marks similar to those of im­ported ware. This would change in later decades. A substan­tial number of Tucker pieces are marked by hand, often in iron red, though some are unmarked or only bear impressed workmen’s marks. A particularly well documented example is the distinctly marked sugar bowl of the Phoenix Hose Com­pany. This piece, made under the partnership of Tucker/ Hulme, is a rare survivor of the first porcelain tea set produced in America. The rim is decorated in gold with the “spider” design, a characteristic and unusual border treat­ment unique to this firm.

Because of its important role in Pennsylvania ceramic his­tory, a fine group of Tucker porcelain was acquired by the Commission especially for the Governor’s Residence, where it is displayed in the Grand Hall and the Entrance Foyer. (The residence is open on a regularly scheduled basis so that the pieces may be seen in a domestic setting.) Exhibiting a wide range of shapes and patterns, this group includes serving pieces, urns, jardinieres, fruit baskets and a tea and coffee set decorated with the “spider” pattern. One of the most intrigu­ing pieces is an extremely rare and beautiful veilleuse of the crenellated rower type, one of perhaps only a half dozen surviving food and tea warmers made by the Tucker firm.

The American China Manufactory underwent numerous changes over the years and continued to prosper until finally succumbing to financial and technical difficulties in 1838. The national tariff controversies and the bank failure of 1837 no doubt contributed to its downfall. Foreign imports created great problems for American industry, particularly for a struggling porcelain manufactory still in its infancy.


The Revival Years, 1840-1870

The nineteenth century saw rapid improvements in domes­tic life at all levels of society – advantages in heating, lighting, plumbing and labor-saving devices made life more enjoyable. Industrialization and mass production enabled al­most everyone to acquire the trappings of comfortable afflu­ence. Prosperous families moving into new housing desired a style and background that would be respectable, solid and durable, yet would have the showy opulence reflecting their position. While adjusting to rapid changes in technology and to life in general the average person felt more comfortable with the newly adapted historical styles. In architecture and in many areas of the decorative arts, the middle decades were a period of revivals, of drawing inspiration from the past and reinterpreting it to make use of new materials and advanced technology. By the 1840s the taste for Classical and Empire was beginning to wane and the siren song of medievalism and Renaissance Europe was sounding throughout the land.

A rather unscholarly medievalism attacked the landscape in the late 1830s, spreading even to the South, the stronghold of Greek Revival style. Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, that youthful arbiter of taste, was most influential in popularizing the “pointed” or Gothic and Elizabethan styles in architecture and furnishing. He advocated “smiling lawns and tasteful cottages” and was partial to Elizabethan revival furniture to complete the “tasty nest.” Romantic medievalism was further popularized by the novels of Sir Wal­ter Scott. Baronial castles rose along the Hudson, and Gothic cottages and Italianate villas began to dot the landscape. Towers, turrets, trellises, [Peaked windows and pinnacles mushroomed. These “new” medieval styles truly satisfied the Victorian desire for splendid, solid comfort.

The medieval revivals enjoyed great popularity but could not compare to the flamboyant tidal wave of Rococo Revival that swept the country. This romantic and naturalistic style, with its vocabulary of curves, scrolls and intricate carving and molding, was inspired by the eighteenth-century court of Lou­is XV. Almost any manufactured product could be adapted to the Rococo mode – from the elegant, sumptuously carved furniture of Belter to the smallest flower-encrusted trinket box. Although this was not a particularly innovative period in ceramic history, technological advances made the industry well suited to the manufacture of the ornate and naturalistic pieces then desirable.

Britain and Europe continued to exert influence on style well into the closing decades, but efforts were being made to create a distinctly American expression in ceramic ware, such as the porcelain, corn-molded pitcher on page 19. Benning­ton, Vermont, one of the most distinguished and long-lived potting centers in the East, employed creative and talented ar­tists and potters, many of whom came from Britain. Their de­signs were an influential force in the American ceramic indus­try for many years. The Bennington potteries produced a wide variety of ware, including a great quantity of pieces in the Ro­coco mode.

Bennington is particularly well known for producing Parian porcelain, a fine white, marble-like material, often additional­ly decorated with blue. Most Parian shapes were modifica­tions of English designs done in the fashionable Rococo Re­vival manner. Made during the 1850s, these ornate pieces dis­play the romantic and naturalistic style so dear to the Victori­an heart. Every grape and leaf is painstakingly shaped, each tendril curled to perfection. A trinket box, vase and mask pitcher from the United States Pottery Company of Benning­ton may be seen in the Brockerhoff House Victorian Parlor, one of the first-floor period rooms in the William Penn Me­morial Museum.

The great potting center of East Liverpool, Ohio also made outstanding contributions toward satisfying the Victorian de­sire to fill every cranny with suitably stylish and useful ware. Many potteries produced a wide variety of objects such as sanitary ware, door knobs, firebrick, plain tableware, hotel china and other functional as well as decorative items. Pro­duced in quantity, the highly decorative, mottled, brown­-glazed yellow ware was eminently suited to either a Gothic cottage or a rustic villa and was extremely popular. Commis­sion collections include a group of interesting pieces from this midwestern area. A particularly fine, well documented, hound-handled pitcher produced by Harker Taylor and Com­pany of East Liverpool reflects the American love of nature and the outdoors, as well as the continuing British influence during this mid-century period. It is richly glazed with a mot­tled, tortoise-shell brown over a yellow-ware body.

The post Civil War years found the Rococo Revival being supplanted by the massive Renaissance Revival style. This heavily architectural style was rooted in tradition and created the properly impressive ambiance so desired by the industrial magnate or rising business tycoon. During the closing years of the 1860s, many potteries were still producing traditional forms and drawing on European sources for inspiration. The Philadelphia City Pottery, formed by J. E. Jeffords and Company in 1868, was but one firm to continue in this vein.


The Centennial and the Electric Decades, 1870-1900

The Centennial Exposition was a landmark event, spurring interest in foreign and exotic design forms as well as de­veloping new awareness and pride in American manufactured goods. The effect on the decorative arts and architecture was astonishing – the Exposition inspired a feverish explosion of styles. The combination of historical revival motifs and the fascination with things Oriental and Middle Eastern in particular was enough to jar the senses. Colonial Revival co­existed with the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and everything in between. It was not until the closing years of the century that new concepts of cleaner, lighter design and sim­plicity, harmony and durability, espoused by the likes of such innovative men as Charles Eastlake and his followers emerged. From the perspective of years, these closing decades have come to be more fully appreciated and better under­stood. Frequently lampooned, these years of creative ferment remain a fascinating and dynamic period in the decorative arts.

The creative spirit is particularly evident in the rare and sur­prising bisque redware vase illustrated on this page, one of a pair produced by the Abraham Rieser Pottery, Berks County, between 1880 and 1890. The use of redware to execute such in­tricately detailed work is rather unusual, and to create full­-blown, applied roses in any clay medium requires tremendous skill and patience. The vivid naturalism of the decoration is in complete contrast to the graceful, almost Oriental shape of the body. The delightful intricacy of the piece, with its exqui­sitely molded leaves and petals, appealed to the Victorian de­light in novelty and use of incongruous materials. Redware was a medium usually reserved for more practical purposes.

Perhaps nowhere is the Victorian love for the naturalistic and the stylistically complex more wonderfully expressed than in the earthy and imaginative ware of the Phoenixville firm of Griffen, Smith and Hill. This captivating ware, called Etrus­can Majolica, may strike some twentieth-century eyes as a bit bizarre. Nevertheless, the pieces are a unique manifestation of late Victorian America. With design traditions deeply rooted in the past and its interpretation uniquely and eccentrically Victorian, the Majolica line captures the essence of this period and remains a fascinating chapter in American ceramic his­tory.

Although Majolica was produced by many potteries, the Phoenixville story is representative of a highly successful American venture in manufacturing and is particularly sig­nificant because it is so well documented. The Phoenixville potting center in Chester County had a long and complex his­tory, but Griffen, Smith and Hill is probably the more fa­miliar name because of the “Etruscan Majolica” line it intro­duced in 1880. This ware is usually clearly marked with an im­pressed circle enclosing the intertwined initials “G S H,” or is stamped “ETRUSCAN MAJOLICA” in a line. It was often said the initials stood for “Good, Strong and Handsome.”

A Staffordshire potter and artist named Bourne originated many of the designs for the Etruscan line, most of which were based on natural forms – shells, marine life, bamboo, vegeta­bles, flowers and leaves of all sorts. The naturalistic patterns and rich glazes used so successfully by Whieldon and Wedg­wood in the mid-eighteenth century provided some of the strongest design influences for this ware. Their popular cauli­flower pattern was adapted by the Phoenixville firm.

The Commission’s collection of Etruscan Majolica includes a representative range of shapes and patterns – Bamboo, Be­gonia, Sunflower, Lotus, and a large group of the Seaweed and Shell pattern which is probably the most familiar design in the Etruscan line. Elaborately molded, this pattern was based on shells and marine life and decorated in soft colors of browns, greens and blues, with the characteristic orchid interi­or lining in cups and bowls. This pattern was also produced in white.

Because Etruscan Majolica was expensive and time con­suming to produce, due to the hand processing involved, the company wisely continued their other lines as well. This was indeed fortunate, since a disastrous fire in 1890 closed the pot­teries for a time, marking the end of Etruscan Majolica production.

Not all ceramic designers followed the conventional path of tradition, however, and new avenues were explored in an ef­fort to break away from formulas which had become over­done and tiresome. By the mid-1870s, the influence of the William Morris Arts and Crafts movement in England was being felt in America. The Art Pottery movement, one of the major developments in ceramics during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, was spawned by a rebellion of crafts­men against mass-produced ware. It also provided an oppor­tunity for anyone to acquire aesthetically pleasing objects. New forms and experimental decorative techniques were evolving and the concept of the potter as artist emerged.

The collections of art pottery at the William Penn includes an especially interesting hand-thrown vase, produced by the Newcomb Pottery, the art department of Newcomb College in New Orleans, one of many creative pot­tery studios connected with schools or universities. Its attrac­tive shape and sinuous design recalls the Oriental influence of the Art Nouveau style, yet it has an almost contemporary feeling. Made near the close of the century, this transitional piece illustrates the fresh new directions which were evolving in the decorative arts during these final years. Form and function became more important than technical virtuosity or novelty. With the turn of the century came an acceptance of change; clean line and uncluttered design was like a breath of fresh air.

The group of ceramics shown here gives only a taste of the rich confection that is nineteenth-century design. A defi­nite progression of style is seen from the chaste elegance of classical America, through the tumultuous middle decades to the beginnings of functionalism in design. Perhaps no other era has witnessed such rapid technological and sociological change and holds so much fascination for its abundance of decoration and design as the nineteenth century. Once ac­quainted with its diversified character and mosaic of styles, it is a delectable feast for the adventurous eye.

That Pennsylvania played a significant role in ceramic de­velopment in America during these dynamic years cannot be denied, and the evidence can be found among the collections of fine American ceramics held by the Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission.


Gail M. Getz, associate curator of decorative arcs at the Wil­liam Penn Memorial Museum, is a graduate of Western Mary­land College and has studied at the Corcoran School of Art and American University. For the past eleven years she has worked on the staff of the PHMC where she has been re­sponsible for organizing numerous exhibits at the William Penn.