Majolica

The Historical Society has over 300 pieces of majolica made by Griffen, Smith, and Hill (GS & H). Their pottery company was located at Starr and Church Streets in Phoenixville.

Majolica typically used raised-pattern, soft-clay pottery to depict natural scenes, such as flowers, fruits & vegetables, birds, shell-and-seaweed, and fish. Majolica was usually covered with a bright-colored or opaque white glaze. 

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.  

etruscan majolica

History of the Phoenix Iron Co.

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History 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 lusterware that was made by Moorish craftsmen from Malaga in Spain.  The term majolica refers to a certain type of ceramic that is created when unglazed soft-clay pottery is first fired at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit and then a series of glazes were used to create an intense translucent color.   Pottery WorkshopMajolica 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.  Many of the GS & H Majolica pieces were covered with a bright-colored or opaque white glaze. 

Majolica Characteristics

Majolica example

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.

Griffen, Smith & Hill Company History

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) were discovered at Third and Main Streets, along the road to Valley Forge, and from a pit along Pickering Creek. This clay was of superior quality, almost pure, making possible fine refractory bricks for iron furnaces and Majolica pottery.

Griffen and Smith
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 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 1880s 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, so the firm closed in 1903 and dismantled the kilns.

The Majolica Factory Workers

majolica hand painted

In 1880, the company employed 74 people – 55 men and 19 women The average wage at that time was $2.50 per day although piecework 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 and 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.

Phoenixville Pottery workers at the kaolin clay pit on Third Avenue
Workers at the kaolin clay pit
Pottery Workers
Men & boys pottery workers
Phoenixville Pottery workers
Phoenixville Pottery workers
Phoenixville Pottery workers
Phoenixville Pottery workers

The Pottery Factory 

The Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin, and Fire Brick Company was located 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 fully 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.

The Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin and Fire Brick Company Kilns
Phoenix Pottery, Kaolin and Fire Brick Co.
Majolica Kiln Drawing
Majolica Kiln Drawing
Etruscan Majolica trademark
Etruscan Majolica trademark
Phoenix Pottery Marking
Phoenix Pottery Marking
griffen, Smith and Hill Majolica Factory in Phoenixville, pa (1)
The Pottery Factory with 3 kilns, late 1880s

Examples of Majolica Pottery

Griffen Smith & Hill Company 1884 catalogue cover
Griffen Smith & Hill Company 1884 catalogue cover

Etruscan majolica made from 1880 to 1890 at Griffin, Smith, and Hill of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, includes compotes with dolphin supports and flower, shell, or jewel cups, a design of coral weed and seashells, and tableware with leaves and ferns. Their mark was an impressed monogram, “G.S.H.”, sometimes circled and with the words “Etruscan Majolica”.

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A Gold Metal piece in 1884

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Pear pitcher

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Majolica pineapple vase

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Majolica begonia dish

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Parian Pottery, Phoenix Pottery Co.

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Baptismal cup & Holy Water container

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Flower dish

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White berry dish

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Blueberry dish

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Leaf dish

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White pitcher

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Another white pitcher

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A Gold Metal winner in 1884

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Another Gold Medal winner in 1884

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Leaf cake dish

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Small bowl with lid

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Flower & swan container

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Flower pitcher

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Majolica tea service

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Majolica athletic theme mugs

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Leaf on basket weave pattern dish

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Sample from GSH Catalogue

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Another sample from GSH Catalogue

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Making a Donation to the Historical Society

Please consider making a tax-free donation to the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area. We are a PA non-profit corporation with an IRS status of 501(c)(3). We appreciate your support!

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