The magic of the wood-fired kilns turning earth into a beautiful ceramic form or redware pottery, still amaze people today.
George Buehler and Willoughby Smith (1839-1905) of Berks County were among numerous upstate potters in Eastern Pennsylvania whose artistic pottery is included in outstanding Pennsylvania Dutch pottery collections. Journeymen potters, who learned from various early masters, the art of pottery throwing and slip decorating were still numerous as we approached the Victorian period.
However, few if any practiced sgraffito art. As late as the 1930’s every Pennsylvania Dutch town with roots dating back to the early American period, still retained its town blacksmith, tinsmith, and potter. However, competition from modern manufactured goods made the livelihood of the potter difficult.
His raw material “clay from the earth,” was in abundance, so potters like Jacob Medinger (1856-1932) of Montgomery County plying his trade in the 18th Century fashion continued to make wares into the twentieth Century, while major museums were amassing significant collections of rare Pennsylvania Dutch folk art earthenware for public exhibition.
The Stahl brothers, Thomas and Isaac, who had an old stone pottery kiln at Powder Valley, Lehigh County, dating back to 1847, noticed that Medinger’s redware was bringing high prices at country auctions among antique collectors. Therefore, they decided to increase their own production to meet the needs of the Americana pottery collectors.
In the 1950s, Isaac’s son, Russell R. Stahl (1911-1986), the last of the Stahl potters, continued digging clay and firing the family’s wood fired stone kiln with wheel thrown traditional pottery. About the same time, another Lehigh County redware potter, James Christian Seagreaves (1912-1997), known locally by his whimsy bird and fish whistles began a pottery works at Breinigsville, also fashioning his traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pottery from native clay, however, fired by an electric kiln.
The Lester P. Breininger Pottery Shop at Robesonia, Berks County, begun in 1965, followed the same process as early Pennsylvania Dutch potters where earthenware objects are thrown on the potter’s wheel and plates drape molded traditionally, however, Lester did very little work on the wheel.
Both slip and sgraffito decorating is applied to the finished glazed product, and Lester and his wife, Barbara (Barb), were fortunate enough to apprentice with Russell R. Stahl at his Lehigh County pottery shop in 1978. Another contemporary of Breininger, Carl “Ned” Foltz, also a Pennsylvania Dutchman, set up his pottery shop further south of Robesonia at Reinholds, Lancaster County. Known for a variety of earthenware products and decorative molded objects, the Foltz Pottery is a full-time shop and the last surviving of all the potters mentioned.
Yesterday’s earthenware pottery revival, though fading, among discerning early American collectors was indeed a renaissance, bringing high prices at auction galleries and yet today. Not only are Medinger, Stahl, Seagreaves, and Breininger pottery at an all-time premium, but pottery by Ned Foltz has likewise improved with age in the collector’s market.