When many of Phoenixville’s streets were recently uprooted to install new sewer lines, Dave Frees was one of the few who welcomed it. The civic-minded businessman headed down with a digging trowel and plastic bags—a modern-day archaeologist descending more than 14 feet on contractors’ ladders.
Frees was in search of pottery shards. He unearthed hundreds, and he’s still cataloging them today. Police would stop to coax him out of the ditches after suspicious neighbors called. “I dug for the better part of a month,” he says.
Frees’ target area was the corner of Starr and Church streets, the former site of Phoenixville Potteries—actually nine consecutive firms operating on two large lots between 1867 and 1903. From 1879 to 1890, the Etruscan Majolica of Griffen, Smith and Hill was the most heralded of the diversified lines produced there.
Majolica is a name given to raised-pattern, soft-clay pottery that depicts natural elements—leaves, flowers, birds, fish, vegetables—and is covered with a bright-colored or opaque white glaze. The name is derived from an Italian ware with relief design that originated on the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. It reached mainland Italy in 1115, when the Pisans conquered the island of Majorca.
Between 1846 and 1881, a number of American firms tried their hands at manufacturing it. Only GSH had any real success. So it’s fitting, then, that the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area has assembled what it believes is the largest permanent display of Etruscan Majolica in the country.
“Individuals have short life spans, but institutions have long ones,” says Frees, a society founder and one of the Majolica collection’s largest donors. “It’s so important to understand where we come from. Otherwise, those coming in don’t really have any connection to the community.”
After giving each of his children 10 pieces, Frees gifted another 110 to the society. “I donated early,” he says. “I want people to enjoy it, and now my wife, Mary Jane, doesn’t have to dust it anymore.”
Another donor, Miriam Clegg, bequeathed 198 pieces upon her death three years ago. A display case in the society’s Miriam Clegg Room includes a two-piece baptismal set and a three-dolphin-base compote. Five local Majolica enthusiasts contributed $1,000 toward the compote’s purchase at auction. Only two are known to exist.
Frees began collecting Etruscan Majolica at age 10, mostly getting it from a woman who ran an antiques shop in her husband’s corner pharmacy. For his first purchase, he paid $1.25 for a begonia-leaf plate. “I was a strange child,” he admits. “Some say the strangeness carried into my adult years.”
According to an 1884 catalog reproduced in 1960, Majolica plates were sold for an average of $12 per gross (144 pieces). Butter pats went for about $6 per gross, and teapots, sugars and “creams” for $1.70-$8 a dozen.
Today, certain butter pats bring $200-$300 each. Frees figures he spent $2,000 to build his 40-year collection, which was worth $30,000 when he donated it. “I just want as many people in the community to see it as can see it,” he says.
There are six to seven GSH seals—absolute proof of authenticity when also embossed “Etruscan Majolica.” Unmarked pieces are identifiable by their orchid-pink interiors and patterns—seashells, seaweed, cauliflower, sunflowers and starfish. Each was hand-painted, so no two pieces are the same. When fired, brilliant colors were the result, due to the lead, copper and tin in the paint.
Meant to be used, relatively little Etruscan Majolica has survived. There are also few records because of a devastating fire in 1890, which ultimately shut down production of the brand in town, though other potteries came in, rebuilt and functioned until 1903.
It all began in 1867 with the Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin and Fire Brick Company. Taking advantage of kaolin deposits in Chester Springs, the clay pits near Phoenixville’s Main Street and a quarry in Schuylkill Township, Phoenixville’s W.A.H. Schreiber convinced the nearby Phoenix Iron Company to let him manufacture fire bricks for their iron furnaces. Three 25-foot-tall kilns were built to burn whiteware, Rockingham and yellowware.
By 1872, the new partnership was named the Phoenixville Pottery, which also began firing Parian ware. Four years later, David Smith was placed in charge after Schreiber left. A year later, Levi Beerbower and Henry Griffen began leasing the pottery. Henry, the son of John Griffen, then superintendent of the Phoenix Iron Company, was still in college at the time.
Two years later, Beerbower withdrew, and Henry’s brother, George, joined David Smith and William Hill, forming Griffen, Smith & Hill. Majolica wasn’t made there until 1882, after Hill had left. Though the company was renamed Griffen, Smith & Company, the earlier mark—interpreted as “good, sturdy and handsome”—remained.
The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company made Etruscan Majolica famous while flooding the market with it. A&P owner George Hartford, a friend of Ulysses S. Grant, began giving away pieces as product premiums, which tripled production in Phoenixville within the year. Grant himself bought an Etruscan Majolica tea set for his daughter.
The plant expanded. A gristmill and other buildings were purchased, and three more kilns were built. Of the new production pace, worker Mary Murphy recalled, “That’s when we brought home the bacon.”
In 1889, Smith retreated in ill health, and J. Stuart Love, Henry Griffen’s father-in-law, came in. The business became Griffen, Love and Company. After the fire, the place closed until the spring of 1891, when it was restructured as Griffen China Company for two years.
Final attempts to operate the “Phoenixville Potteries”—sans Etruscan Majolica—followed in 1894 as the Chester Pottery Company. Then came the Penn China Company Etruscan and, lastly, the Tuxedo Pottery Company.
In 1903, the kilns and plants were torn down, and the land sat vacant until 20 years ago, when a senior housing facility and an apartment complex went up at the former site.
Today, aside from the historical society tribute, there’s a restaurant in town named Majolica, a celebratory nod courtesy of chef/owner Andrew Deery.
Frances W. Pennypacker was the niece of Henry and George Griffen, who were involved with the Etruscan Majolica brand. In 1942, Pennypacker spoke before the Chester County Historical Society, delivering a paper titled “Majolica and Its Makers.” Four years later, she wrote an article with the headline “Chester County’s Pottery Firms Made Most Famous Majolica Ware” for The Picket Post, the newsletter of the Valley Forge Historical Society. It accompanied an exhibition of 125 pieces of Phoenixville Majolica at its museum.
From her childhood, Pennypacker remembered men in “sleeveless shirts carrying large wooden trays of crockery across [both sides of Church] street.” But she reported that even the family pieces weren’t highly prized. “At one of the cousin’s homes, the shell and seaweed plates were used to heat up leftovers in the oven or as refrigerator dishes,” she wrote.
In 1884, at a World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, GSH was awarded the gold medal for two vases and a jug it had exhibited. All with the continental theme—eagles and flags—and painted with melted-down gold coins, they are now the prized pieces at the historical society—gifted by Grace Yarnall Hadfield, a Smith descendant.
John Kathman’s grandmother, Mary Murphy, was artist-painter No. 24. The numbers were used to track the output of Etruscan Majolica pieces at Griffen, Smith & Hill. Just one family piece survived. “It’s what she kept her brushes in when she worked there,” says Kathman of the corn pitcher, painted by No. 21. “My mother always mentioned the piece, but my grandmother never talked about it.”
He’s sure there must be other local pieces painted by his grandmother. Occasionally, he’ll visit an antiques shop or flea market, hoping to find one. Majolica sells for “an arm and a leg,” compared to years ago when “there was no value to it,” says Kathman.
Phoenixville Etruscan Majolica is “probably the most famous unknown pottery in the United States,” wrote Dimitrios N. Bastas in his 2009 book on the brand. Janet Ayres, a collector in Phoenixville, is captivated by the pottery’s color, antiquity and local origins. She and her physician husband amassed 150 pieces. Lately, she’s been pairing down, giving some to her three children and liquidating at auction.
While prices have soared, Ayres fears the inflation won’t stimulate new buyers. “There should be more local appreciation because it’s no longer made, it’s Victorian, and it’s pretty,” she says.
To learn more about Etruscan Majolica, visit etruscanmajolica.com.