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 six-inch 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 Headmans 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.