Arts & Antiques

Phoenixville Majolica

The whimsical wares that took America by storm

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Majolica made transferware look staid. Majolica is fun. To quote the Majolica International Society, it is a “whimsical, humorous, richly sculpted, and brilliantly glazed Victorian ceramic.”

Most authors say the name came from the island of Majorca, as early majolica was patterned after Italian tin-glazed earthenware shipped from that island in the 16th century. In Majolica, Jeffrey Snyder and Leslie Bockol provide this definition: “Majolica is a soft, low fired earthenware molded with high or low relief decorations, coated with an opaque glaze or slip, and painted with brightly colored lead glazes which generally accented the molded designs.”

M. Charles Rebert referred to Griffen, Smith, & Hill in Phoenixville, Pa., as a “Majolica Giant” in their book American Majolica. The firm began in 1867 as the Phoenixville Pottery, Kaolin and Firebrick Company. Deposits of kaolin, a high quality white clay, were found at Third and Main Streets and along the road to Valley Forge, according to the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area.

When local ironmakers Henry and George Griffen were joined by English potters David Smith and William Hill, the company was renamed in 1879. They dominated production of ornamental majolica in North America for the next 10 years, according to Nicholas Dawes in Majolica.

American majolica took off after the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where English firms showed superior wares. Of course majolica was invented in Staffordshire. Stoke-on-Trent potter Herbert Minton first showed it to great acclaim at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. Credit must also be given to Leon Arnoux, a French potter Minton hired as Art Director in 1848 who developed new glaze colors and kilns.

Soft-bodied earthenware had been in use in Spain and Italy since the 14th century and in England since the 17th century, glazed for water tightness. Arnoux’s genius lay in developing colored glazes that all became vibrant within the same temperature range (roughly 900-1100° C) and were compatible with earthenware. His new, exciting colors wowed the decorative ceramics industry according to Dawes.

Minton, soon followed by Wedgwood, created facsimiles of Italian Renaissance ceramics during the 1850s and ’60s, but the vast majority of English majolica pieces had naturalistic designs. Victorians were crazy for classical civilizations, archaeology, and the world’s flora, fauna, and oceanic life. It is fitting that Darwin was related to the Wedgwood family by marriage.

Wealthy Victorians wanted majolica jardinières for their conservatories, but it was the middle class that made majolica huge. The wares were relatively cheap to make, as opaque glazes covered surface flaws in the unglazed body, and due to increased automation.

Congress placed high duties on most imported ceramics in 1861 to help domestic production, and the Centennial Exposition created greater demand for majolica. “New potteries sprung up to take advantage of the rising market,” according to Snyder and Bockol.

One of these was Griffen, Smith & Hill, which grew to become the largest and most influential of manufacturers, making some of the best American majolica. According to the Historical Society, “The tin that was added to the lead in the glazes gave Phoenixville Majolica its special brilliance. The glazes required the talents of carefully trained artists ….”          Griffen, Smith & Hill called their ware “Etruscan majolica,” perhaps owing to the contemporary popularity of the Etruscan style in decorative arts.

“Most Etruscan majolica is decorated with a muted palette of glazes that often flow into each other in a characteristically American manner,” notes Dawes. Among the first American companies to use the Japanese aesthetic influence, popular designs included their “Shell-and-seaweed” and “sports pitchers” of kids playing baseball.

English wares were frequently copied by American majolica manufacturers, including G, S & H. In 1882 the Daily Local News claimed that a strawberry design that G, S & H had copied from Wedgwood was superior to the original in glazing and coloring. G, S & H’s most original design resulted from employees scouring the area for beautiful begonia leaves that were pressed into clay patterns.

G, S, & H were awarded a Gold medal in the 1884 Industrial Exposition after which they were flooded with orders and received a contract from the A & P Company for premiums. In 1890 a fire destroyed most of the facilities and although the firm reopened in 1891, the majolica craze had ended, and the plant closed in 1903.

Majolica remains accessible for collectors, but Dimitrios Bastas author of Etruscan Majolica and two eBay guides warns of forgeries. “Never go by the mark,” he cautions, stressing the importance of knowing what G, S & H made. A catalog can be found at the Historical Society in Phoenixville as well as a beautiful collection of Etruscan majolica, the 1884 Gold medal pieces, and photos of workers.

“Color is the primary selling point”, Bastas writes. Cobalt has always commanded the top price in Etruscan majolica, and pink is so desirable that it can make the difference between a $50 plate and a $200 plate, Basta notes online. Earthenware chips easily, and therefore condition is not as important as it might be. Basta writes, “A chipped piece of porcelain can have its value reduced by over half while the equivalent damage on a piece of majolica will reduce the price by just 20 percent.” He notes that most people don’t know what pieces are rare, so good buys such as the Etruscan lily pattern are available.