Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area

204 Church Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460

hspa@verizon.net    610-935-7646

www.hspa-pa.org   or   www.phoenixvillehistoricalsociety.org



Majolica

Please click to link to the Majolica International Society in New York, NY.

The Society has over 300 pieces of majolica. 

The name majolica is thought to have come from the medieval Italian word for Majorca, an island in the Mediterranean Sea.  An alternative explanation is that the name may have come from the Spanish term obra de Mallequa meaning luster ware that was made by Moorish craftsmen from Malaga.  The term majolica refers to a certain type of ceramic that is created when unglazed pottery is first fired at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit and then a series of glazes was used to create an intense translucent color.   Majolica pottery techniques were first developed in the 3rd Century and majolica was very popular during the Victorian era. Majolica has a tin glazing that creates a brilliant white, opaque surface for subsequent painting.  The colors were then added as metallic oxide glazes and the pieces were then kilned again at a lower temperature.  In the 1800s, some of the majolica that was made in the United States and England used a lead glaze.   

Pottery that emerges from a kiln has a dull, bland surface that is porous.  A subsequent glaze firing at a lower temperature produced a smooth, bright, and colorful surface that is not porous and holds liquids.  Glazes are in essence a type of glass that when heated binds to the clay to form an impervious layer.  Glazes were made from a number of ingredients that were blended together and mixed with water to hold them in suspension.  Various minerals were used in majolica glazes such as ground granite, limestone, flint, quartz, sand, lead, and clays.   Metal oxides were added for color.  Alimony and vanadium oxides were used to obtain yellow colors, chrome oxides for green and pink colors, cobalt for blue colors, copper oxides for green colors, iron oxides for orange colors, manganese oxides for purple and brown colors, nickel for gray colors,and tin oxides for whites and black colors.

The Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin, and Fire Brick Company was started in 1867 by the same men who owned the Phoenix Iron Works.  They were looking for a nearby source of fire bricks for the plant's furnaces.  Deposits of kaolin (a fine usually white high quality clay) was discovered at Third and Main Streets, along the road to Valley Forge and from a pit along Pickering Creek. This clay was of a superior quality, almost pure, making possible fine refractory bricks for furnaces and pottery. The kilns were located at Starr and Church Streets in Phoenixville. 

David Smith, a potter from England, later joined the firm adding his talents to that of John Griffen (of the Phoenix Iron Works and Griffen Gun fame) and David and Samuel Reeves. Later Griffen, seeking a business for his son, Harry, bought shares in the business.  William Hill was a boss potter, who may have also owned some shares.  By 1882, the firm was known as Griffen, Smith and Hill (GS & H), and it began manufacturing Etruscan Majolica.  In ancient times the Etruscans, or residents of the region around Rome, Italy, had excelled in making this form of pottery--all made by hand.  GS & H added the word "Etruscan" to their logo.  As an adjective the word "Etruscan" means art while as a noun it means an inhabitant of ancient Etruria.  In 1880, the company employed 74 people - 55 men and 19 women  The average wage at that time was $2.50 per day although piece work pay did generate higher wages for some workers. 

The firm used molds and then steam powered tools for pressing and grinding the majolica.  The high gloss and brilliant colors came from glazes made from oxides to which tin and lead were added.  The oxides were ground, added to liquid clay or slip and sand to make the glazes.  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 because the process allowed no retouching.  Many local women went to work at the company and painted on the lovely blend of pearl-like colors that distinguish GS & H majolica.

In 1890, there was a fire at the plant.   Four months later it reopened as the Griffen Pottery Company and in 1894 became the Phoenix Pottery.  William Hill left the firm in the early 1880's and Mr. Smith sold out in 1889 due to poor health. In 1894, at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, two vases and a jug submitted by GS & H won the Gold Metal. Changing tastes and a market glut (majolica was given away for large purchases in A & P stores) lowered the demand for majolica.   Nine different owners subsequently could not make a profit, and so the firm closed in 1903 and dismantled the kilns.

Interest in majolica has revived in recent years.  It is displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Chester County Historical Society, and in some other museums as well.  There are many fine private collections of majolica.  Our museum has a small representative collection on display in our Miriam Clegg Room.  

 

 

Copies of a 1960 catalogue showing most of the Griffen, Smith & Hill pieces are available for sale at the Society. 


 

This is a photo of The Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin and Fire Brick Company at Church & Starr Streets.   These large bottle kilns were 40 feet high. They were used to make fire bricks from local kaolin clay to line the furnaces of the Phoenix Iron Company.  Majolica was made there from 1879 until 1902.  In 1890, a fire nearly destroyed the company, which never recovered from its losses.  The kilns were demolished in 1903, and their bricks were used in the parish house of St. Peter's Church in Phoenixville.  The remaining buildings of the pottery were demolished in 1929.

 

Copyrighted Historical Society of Phoenixville Area

The Pottery Factory with 3 kilns, late 1880s

 



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