Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Colin Fanning

Ceramics

Once on par with other industries that gave Greater Philadelphia its reputation as the “Workshop of the World,” ceramic production played a key role in the region’s economic and artistic significance. Innovative makers and entrepreneurs produced a spectrum of utilitarian pottery and refined luxury goods, making visible the shifting patterns of consumption, taste, and technology use. While the height of ceramics production coincided with industrialization in the nineteenth century, the medium’s ubiquity in daily life continued to support Philadelphia-area pottery-making on a smaller scale into the twenty-first century.

Prior to European colonization, abundant local clay deposits supported a continuous indigenous pottery tradition in the region for around three thousand years. The native Lenni Lenape People and their ancestors made, used, and traded earthenware ceramics across a broad territory, throughout the Woodland Period and after (roughly 500 BCE-1500 CE). Early prehistoric vessels were decorated by pressing a cord into the wet clay, while later pots often feature incised geometric patterns around the rim or shoulder. Hand-built and fired without kilns, some Lenape vessels for daily and ceremonial use reached impressive sizes.

Early European settlers in the region drew on the same clay deposits to produce a wide range of useful wares for use in homes, taverns, or dairies. Ceramics with industrial or architectural purposes, including building components like bricks, roof tiles, drain pipes, and chimney liners were also produced from an early date. The porous, low-fire earthenware that formed most of these functional products required glazing to be waterproof. Intensive labor characterized each step of the production process: cutting clay from the ground, preparing and refining it, and shaping, decorating, and firing finished vessels and other objects. Workshops tended to be organized through the longstanding tradition of apprenticeship, although colonial craft was far less formal or regulated than its European precedents, and many potters supplemented their incomes with additional lines of business.

[caption id="attachment_34326" align="alignright" width="300"]Close up picture of a plate with plants painted on it, and writing along the rim. This lead-glazed earthenware dish, made in Rockhill Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is attributed to Jacob Stout and John Lacy. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

One of the most distinctive styles of early ceramics in the Philadelphia area arrived with the influx of German-speaking settlers to the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Pennsylvania Germans (or Pennsylvania Dutch, as the community is often known, based on a corruption of “Deutsch”) produced great quantities of red-bodied earthenware using earthy glazes (typically containing iron oxide, manganese, copper oxide, and cobalt), colored slip (thin, liquid clay), and sgraffito (incised marks) to create a wide variety of decorative effects. The Pennsylvania German tradition in ceramics and other crafts continued into later centuries, even as the mid-eighteenth-century discovery of higher-grade stoneware clays in northern New Jersey and an increase in luxury production throughout the colonies shifted the economic center of gravity away from these more rustic wares.

Casting Off Imported Wares

For Anglo-Europeans, establishing pottery production on a commercial scale aided in casting off reliance on imported wares, thus contributing to economic and political independence from Britain. Philadelphia-area manufactories benefited from the knowledge and skill of émigrés from Staffordshire, the heart of Britain’s ceramics industry. The American China Manufactory, the joint venture of British-born Gousse Bonnin (c. 1741­-?) and Philadelphia native George Anthony Morris (c. 1742-73), began operations in 1770 at a site on Front Street and the newly built China Street (later renamed Alter Street) near Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. It became one of the earliest American enterprises to produce porcelain, a type of ceramic highly valued for its physical and visual refinement. The complexity and secrecy surrounding the making of porcelain (which had been exclusive to China for several centuries) fueled demand for the China trade, and scientific and entrepreneurial investment in porcelain production throughout eighteenth-century Europe made and broke personal and state fortunes. Enabled by nearby sources of porcelain ingredients (kaolin and feldspar) in Delaware and New Jersey, Bonnin and Morris’s wares represented not only an American attempt at economic self-determination, but also demonstrated the intellectual and artistic capacity of the colonial states. Despite these ambitions, the manufactory proved fiscally unsustainable, facing stiff competition in quality and price with English imports and struggling to sufficiently compensate its laborers. Although the American China Manufactory ceased operations in 1772, its standing as an early indicator of Philadelphia’s industrial achievements remained.

Objects of Euro-American luxury consumption often survived in museums and private collections, but ceramics were also an important part of daily life for laborers, free and enslaved Africans, and other marginalized groups in the colonial period and early Republic. Sturdy vessels made by Africans and African Americans, termed “colonoware” by archaeologists, originated primarily in southeastern colonies and the Caribbean, but important finds in Philadelphia have shown a wide geographic distribution between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Alongside such vernacular pottery production, fragments of fine imported wares found at sites associated with African and African American communities and individuals in Philadelphia, including the kitchens and slave quarters of the former President's House on Market Street, have shown that more expensive forms of ceramics could also move across social and economic divides.

By the 1810 United States Census of Manufactures, Pennsylvania’s leadership in ceramics production had been firmly established: the commonwealth hosted 164 of the 194 potteries in the nation. Despite the difficulties encountered by Bonnin and Morris, Philadelphia’s situation as an intersection between land and maritime transport made it a center for this production. As America’s manufacturing sector grew, the project of reducing national dependence on European imports continued. The William Ellis Tucker China Manufactory (active 1826-38), located at Twenty-Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, made largely French-styled porcelain and found regular success at exhibitions hosted by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, which aimed to support domestic fine ceramics and other luxury industries. Despite its successful porcelain recipe and favorable reception of its designs, the Tucker factory faced continual financial difficulties that revealed the unstable nature of luxury industries, which relied on rapidly shifting tastes and complex manufacturing processes.

Mechanization and Expansion

Over the course of the nineteenth century, like many other industries the ceramics industry experienced mechanization and expansion. Steam-powered machinery for digging and working clay, along with larger kilns fired by coal rather than wood, enabled some manufacturers to grow from small family firms to industrial-scale producers. Railroads fostered better access to inland clay deposits and more reliable distribution of finished wares to customers. Machine-based molding techniques, adapted to mass production from their origins in small potteries, allowed higher output and better consistency. Techniques for transferring patterns and graphic decoration onto blank ceramic shapes saved time and the high cost of hand-painting, although fine handcraft traditions were still valued for high-style wares aimed at elite consumers.

These technological changes reshaped the economic, demographic, and geographic landscapes of ceramics production. In central urban areas, smaller, older potteries closed in the face of population growth, rising land values, and reduced tolerance for manufacturing inside the city’s bounds. Larger firms moved to the edges of urban centers, exploiting low-skill, low-wage labor that allowed them to undercut more traditional potteries (which required higher skill, higher wages, and higher prices for finished wares). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, New Jersey—especially Trenton—became a key center of ceramics production in the United States, mostly because of the confluence there of land and water transportation and its specialization in sanitary ware for institutional customers. Philadelphia-area firms continued to expand their holdings of clay deposits in the interior of Pennsylvania (particularly Lancaster and Cumberland Counties) and diversify their merchandise in response to a growing middle-class consumer base.

[caption id="attachment_34325" align="alignright" width="300"]Photo of a Chinese pagoda at the Centennial fair. Vases surround it. The displays of Chinese ceramics around a seven-story Chinese pagoda at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition were a novelty for American audiences. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Reflecting the public clout of the pottery business, ceramics were one of the most commented-upon categories of industrial art on view at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Displays of ceramics by numerous exhibitors from Europe, Asia, and the United States provided a global view of techniques and styles through both contemporary and historic objects. Many commentators argued that the distinct styles and high degree of workmanship evident in Chinese and Japanese ceramics could be a fresh source of inspiration for domestic producers. European firms with long-standing reputations also displayed wares reinterpreting the historic styles of classical antiquity or the Renaissance, issuing a challenge to their younger American counterparts on the bases of quality and refinement. The Centennial ceramic displays captured many of the defining impulses of nineteenth-century decorative arts—orientalism and historic revivalism, the embrace of handcraft amid increasing industrialization, and concerns about quality in mass production.

These trends also informed the wide diversity of ceramics produced in the Philadelphia region in the later nineteenth century. Examples include J. E. Jeffords & Company, which operated the Philadelphia City Pottery at Edgemont Street and Lehigh Avenue in the Richmond area beginning in the 1868, as well as Ott & Brewer in Trenton, New Jersey, both of which produced highly decorative, orientalist ceramics; Griffen, Smith & Hill Company in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, whose offerings included fashionable majolica and Renaissance-revival objects; the American Crockery Company in Trenton, producing more affordable transferware; and Charles Wingender & Brother, established in 1881 in Haddonfield, New Jersey, by German immigrants who worked to revive the Central European tradition of durable salt-glazed stoneware.

Post-Centennial Institutions

Another impact of the Centennial Exhibition was the establishment of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (later separated into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, forerunner of the University of the Arts). Ceramics acquired from the exhibition formed a major part of the institution’s founding collection, intended to serve as didactic examples to raise the quality of local manufacturing. An early curator and eventual director of the museum, archaeologist Edwin Atlee Barber (1851-1916) was a respected authority on ceramics history, and his publications and acquisitions reinforced the medium as an area of focus for the young institution. While its primary educational mission mainly addressed industry-based makers, the museum and school also promoted china-painting as a respectable income-earning activity for genteel women. This vein of ceramics history is less well-documented or collected in archives or cultural institutions, illustrating the gendered divisions between the professional, “masculine” world of manufacturing and the domestic, amateur, “feminine” sphere of home industry—both in nineteenth-century social terms as well as in subsequent history-writing.

Reactions against mechanization and industrialization—and the social and economic upheavals that accompanied them—led to a surge of interest in small-scale craft production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Building on the writings and practices of English design reformers, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States focused on the individual (often rural) craftsperson as a vehicle of both social and artistic change. Ceramics were one of the most financially successful veins of Arts and Crafts activity, and firms like Trenton-based Lenox Incorporated or Flemington, New Jersey-based Fulper Pottery participated in a larger vogue for “art pottery” that suggested handcraft and connections to nature. More radical art colony projects, like Rose Valley outside Philadelphia in Delaware County, sought to construct daily life as an artistic practice, inviting potters like William P. Jervis (1851–1925) to teach craft skills and sell work to support the community.

[caption id="attachment_34328" align="alignright" width="289"]Framed mosaic of an elk. This 1903 glazed earthenware tile was designed by Henry Chapman Mercer, and made by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The region’s urban growth in the early twentieth century provided a robust market for architectural ceramics, especially efficiently produced tilework. One of the frontrunners in this arena was the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, established in 1898 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, by Henry Chapman Mercer, a notable archaeologist and collector whose interest in the history of Germanic pottery in colonial America led him into the ceramics field. Like many other Arts and Crafts advocates, Mercer looked to the arts of the Middle Ages to inform his designs, producing mosaics and other decoration for buildings throughout the Philadelphia area and elsewhere. Alongside the more romantic Arts and Crafts approach, industrial-scale ceramics production continued unabated, and the construction of Philadelphia’s first skyscrapers spurred architectural terra-cotta ornament to new heights. Many of the region’s buildings dating from the late 1910s into the 1930s sported Art Deco ceramic ornament in patterns and bright colors that suggested the dynamism and modernity of the machine-age city.

After the Second World War, an influx of G.I. Bill students and rising national interest in craft education supported the founding or expansion of ceramics programs at Philadelphia-area institutions including Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia College of the Arts (later the University of the Arts), and Beaver College (later Arcadia University). Faculty and graduates of these programs contributed to a turn in the broader field of craft toward more conceptual and sculptural work, moving away from the production of necessarily functional objects and allying themselves with avant-garde artistic ideas. The tensions between notions of utility and artistry and the contested borders between craft, art, and design continued to characterize the ceramics field in subsequent decades.

Ceramists as Teachers

Teaching provided ceramists a secure income as well as time and resources for their work, and many of Philadelphia’s best-known makers cultivated careers as artist-educators, often enjoying lengthy tenures. Rudolf Staffel (1911–2002) taught at the Tyler School of Art for thirty-eight years; Staffel’s student Paula Winokur (1935–2018) taught for three decades at Beaver College, while her husband Robert (b. 1933) taught at Tyler; and William Daley (b. 1925) joined the Philadelphia College of the Arts faculty in 1957 and taught there for thirty-three years. Other notable ceramists who studied or worked in the region bridged multiple geographies over the course of their careers. Robert Turner (1913–2005) studied at Swarthmore and the Pennsylvania Academy before teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina; Byron Temple (1933–2002) operated a studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, while teaching in several New York City programs. Temple’s assistant James Makins (b. 1946) pursued graduate study at the prestigious Cranbrook Art Academy in Michigan before returning to teach at University of the Arts from 1990.

Non-academic cultural organizations also played an important role in the postwar visibility of ceramic art. The Clay Studio was founded in 1974 by a group of Tyler School of Art students and faculty seeking studio space. Originally housed on Orianna Street near Temple University, by 1979 it had transformed into a nonprofit offering public classes, artist residencies, and selling exhibitions for ceramists in the region, moving to Second Street in Old City the next year. Private collectors and commercial galleries also responded to the growing interest in—and market for—contemporary ceramics. Helen Drutt English (b. 1930), a founding member of the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen in 1967, established a respected Center City gallery that mounted exhibitions of nationally and internationally prominent ceramists during its operation from 1973 to 2002.

In the twenty-first century, ceramics remained a strong presence in the artistic and everyday life of the Philadelphia region, as retailers, galleries, and museums interpreted the creative, economic, and social importance of the medium. The juried Philadelphia Craft Show, running since 1977 as a fundraising project of the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, remained a prominent venue for ceramists to exhibit and sell their work, and in 2018 the Clay Studio began planning a move from Old City to a much larger facility for expanded studio and educational offerings. Younger generations of makers like Winnie Owens Hart (b. 1949), Lizbeth Stewart (1948–2013), and Cristina Tufiño (b. 1982)—ceramists who trained or worked in Philadelphia while participating in global artistic conversations—drove the medium in new aesthetic and conceptual directions, exploring how ceramic artworks might critique issues of racial, gender, or economic disparities.

Since its earliest days as a center of making, the Philadelphia region has played a key role in the history of American ceramics—a medium that, at its best, represents a combination of technological knowledge and artistic excellence. Although the mass-production of pottery tapered off over the twentieth century, a strong ceramist community ensured that Philadelphia’s reputation for ceramic innovations continued beyond the region’s transition to a post-industrial economy.

Colin Fanning is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center, where his research focuses on the history of American design education. From 2014 to 2017, he was Curatorial Fellow for European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Arts of Wharton Esherick

The unconventional artistic trajectory and prolific work of prominent Philadelphia-area artist and craftsman Wharton Esherick (1877–1970) have been claimed for and by multiple movements in the history of twentieth-century American art, from early-twentieth-century Arts and Crafts to postwar studio craft. Working across a wide variety of media, including printmaking, sculpture, furniture, and theatrical design, Esherick also attained fame for the studio he built over several decades in Paoli, Pennsylvania, which became a draw for other creative figures from Greater Philadelphia and farther afield. Directly shaped by him over the course of decades, the building and its site became an extension of his integrative approach to the arts.

[caption id="attachment_21791" align="alignright" width="192"]A cubist woodblock print illustrated by Wharton Esherick as a gift to a friend. After leaving the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Esherick worked as a commercial artist, and the graphic arts—drawing, printmaking, and book illustration—continued to play a prominent role in his artistic practice. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Born to a well-to-do West Philadelphia family, Esherick attended the Central Manual Training High School and trained in printmaking and commercial art at the Pennsylvania Museum School of the Industrial Arts (later University of the Arts). In 1908 he received a scholarship to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he worked under some of the leading Pennsylvania Impressionist painters of the day. However, apparently dissatisfied with academic constraints, he left the academy before completing his studies and began working as a commercial artist and book illustrator while attempting to sell paintings. In 1913, he moved with his new wife Leticia (“Letty,” 1892­–1975) to a small farm in Paoli that they called Sunekrest (pronounced “sunny crest”), drawn by an idealized notion of rural life that would allow him to develop as an artist. Although Esherick struggled to find an audience for his paintings, the wood frames he began carving for them drew praise, and from the early 1920s he increasingly worked as a sculptor in wood, as well as a printmaker and maker of functional objects. His prints and sculptural work in particular exhibited the smooth contours and semi-abstraction that characterized the growing modernist art movement in the United States.

[caption id="attachment_21793" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of Wharton Esherick's Paoli Studio. Esherick began building his studio in 1926 on land in Paoli, Pennsylvania, bought with his wife, Letty. Preferring to work in relative solitude, he sited the studio at a remove from the farmhouse he shared with Letty and their children. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1926, he began building a barnlike studio on his land, somewhat removed from the farmhouse he shared with Letty and their children Mary (1917–96), Ruth (1923­–2015), and Peter (1926–2013). Esherick modeled his studio after the region’s historic barns, constructing thick stone walls with the help of a local stonemason and intentionally introducing curves to the architecture in a suggestion of timelessness. Esherick’s conscious evocation of vernacular barn architecture was influenced by Expressionist tradition and certainly by Greater Philadelphia’s rural Arts and Crafts art colonies (like nearby Rose Valley), with their attempts to integrate the visual, applied, and performing arts into a utopian vision of “honest” labor and social cohesion.

Esherick had an even more direct connection to Rose Valley through his involvement in the Hedgerow Theater, established in 1923 in the colony’s former mill building after the Rose Valley Association and its workshops had disbanded in 1910. He designed and built furniture, stage sets, and interior fittings for the theater and made prints to promote performances. He even displayed his sculpture works there, using the theater as a kind of informal gallery. Esherick maintained close connections to the performing and literary arts throughout his career. He developed friendships with many of the authors, playwrights, dramaturges, and educators who worked with the Hedgerow Theater; those he met in New York City or during his family’s summer travels to dance camps; and the circle of Philadelphia’s Centaur Book Shop and Press, whose focus on small-edition fine book printing appeal to Esherick’s sense of workmanship. He would also occasionally host literary and theatrical guests at his home and studio, which acted as a kind of crossroads between art forms.

[caption id="attachment_21794" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the fireplace and doorway from the Bok House library. Esherick’s largest commission was for Judge Curtis Bok, for whom he completed several architectural woodworking schemes and items of furniture between 1935 and 1938. This photograph shows the fireplace and doorway in the small library of the house (called the “book room” by the family). (Wharton Esherick Museum)[/caption]

Although furniture would become his best-known work, it was initially a somewhat tangential endeavor for Esherick, who early on designed and built pieces as need arose or for special favors to friends. His early designs were heavily built and vaguely inspired by medieval forms, clearly expressing the joinery and carving techniques that went into their making. Some prominent furniture and interior commissions in the Philadelphia area, New York City, and elsewhere in the late 1920s and into the 1930s brought Esherick increasing attention as a designer. Many of his inventive asymmetric furniture forms—called “prismatic” or later even “Cubist” by commentators—showed an attention to the growing popularity of Art Deco, while his commitment to a high level of craftsmanship brought his functional work increasing acclaim. His growing success was all the more notable for the relative lack of a robust professional network for fine woodworking (academic programs, professional organizations, publications, and galleries) at the time. 

[caption id="attachment_21790" align="alignright" width="251"]An image of a music stand crafted by Wharton Esherick. One of Esherick’s few works to be produced in serially (in an edition of twenty-four), this music stand typifies the slender organic quality of his later furniture work—which, in some ways, recalls the fluid treatment of material in his early wood sculpture. (RISD Museum)[/caption]

Esherick's largest commission in both physical and financial terms began in 1935 for the judge Curtis Bok (1897–1962; son of the Philadelphia publisher Edward Bok [1863–1930]) and took three years to complete. He provided stylistically inventive architectural elements and furniture for a suite of rooms including a library, a dining room, a music room, as well as a dramatic spiral staircase for the house’s entry hall. By the late 1930s, he was creating slender, organic furniture forms that became his signature in the latter part of his career, which lasted well into the postwar decades. A key vehicle of his success was the inclusion of some of this furniture—along with the dynamically cantilevered spiral stair he had added to his studio in 1930—in the “Pennsylvania Hill House” display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, designed in collaboration with Philadelphia architect George Howe (1886–1955). Esherick also continued expanding the studio building, adding a kitchen and living quarters as he spent ever more time on his work, especially after separating from Letty in 1937.

After Esherick’s death in 1970, his children and heirs incorporated the nonprofit Wharton Esherick Museum, preserving the studio building and its contents almost entirely intact. Open to the public since 1972, Esherick’s former studio tells the story of his practice through the preservation and interpretation of his living and working environment. Individual works by Esherick have been acquired by public collections around the United States—as have some of the interiors from the Bok House, salvaged before its demolition in 1989—but the Wharton Esherick Museum’s establishment created an institution uniquely placed to conserve and study Esherick’s varied artistic career and its lasting impact on Greater Philadelphia’s cultures of making. While commentators and historians have described him variously as an inheritor of the Arts and Crafts tradition, a linchpin of interwar modernism, or a father of postwar studio craft, Esherick’s chief legacy lies in his ability to bridge these categories and their wide chronological span.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.

Art Deco

[caption id="attachment_19717" align="aligncenter" width="575"]An image of the lobby of 30th Street Station. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Thirtieth Street Station (built between 1929 and 1934) was an architectural statement of the railroad’s ambitious efforts to embody efficiency, modernity, and stylistic panache. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Like other major American cities in the 1920s and 1930s, Philadelphia was an epicenter for the exuberant strain of architecture and design activity that came to be known as Art Deco. Fueled by the area’s economic importance and increasingly urban character after the First World War, designers, corporations, and manufacturers all engaged in a broad search for a distinctly American form of design appropriate for the modern age.

[caption id="attachment_19722" align="alignright" width="300"]The Hotel Traymore, an early example of art-deco architecture. The Hotel Traymore was a large resort complex in Atlantic City, New Jersey, renovated and expanded in 1914–15 by the Philadelphia architect William L. Price and his partner M. Hawley McLanahan. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Art Deco is generally considered to have its roots in the French moderne style that arose in the early twentieth century. Although the style contained great variety, moderne furniture, decorative objects, and interiors were generally characterized by restrained, simple forms (some inspired by classical or otherwise traditional precedents) rendered with luxurious materials like exotic wood veneers, precious metals, or sharkskin. The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris celebrated this approach, showcasing the most modern of Europe’s decorative arts. While the United States did not participate in the exhibition, the event was heavily covered in the press and had a palpable impact on the design professions. American Art Deco was also influenced by avant-garde European art styles, particularly Cubism, that attempted to capture the rapid technological, economic, and societal changes of the interwar period.

The larger umbrella of “Art Deco” (a term applied retroactively by later scholars) included a diversity of simultaneous and even contradictory stylistic approaches, from luxurious upscale goods and interiors inspired by the French moderne to the more populist, mass-market products of the machine age that arose after the onset of the Great Depression. But it was precisely this heterogeneity that made Art Deco such an intriguing and widespread vein of design, and the creativity of interwar architects, designers, and manufacturers would leave a lasting legacy on the built environment of Greater Philadelphia.

Philadelphia architect William L. Price (1861–1916) and his firm Price & McLanahan, although best-known for their involvement in the Arts and Crafts movement, signaled some of the directions later Art Deco architecture would take with their 1916 expansion of the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, into a massive resort complex with an innovative concrete structural system. The hotel combined bold architectural massing, radically modern construction techniques, and a rich decorative program—elements that would come into play in many Art Deco buildings of the 1920s and 1930s.

Iconic Skyscrapers

One of the building types most closely associated with Art Deco was the skyscraper, a triumphant icon of construction technology, American financial might, and the growing cultural power of large cities. One of the earliest Art Deco skyscrapers in Philadelphia proper was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Armed Forces Building (today a luxury apartment building, The Metropolitan) on Fifteenth Street near Arch Street in Center City. Completed in 1928 and designed by the New York–based architect Louis Jallade (1876–1957), the tower featured distinct zigzag banding on its upper stories and a colorful cornice of modular geometric terra cotta decoration. Other notable examples of similarly adorned high-rise Art Deco buildings in Philadelphia included Ritter and Shay’s Market Street National Bank (1319 Market Street; built 1931); Tilden, Register & Pepper’s Sun Oil Building (1608-1610 Walnut Street; built 1928); and the Architects Building at 121 S. Seventeenth Street, completed around 1930. Designed by the prominent French-born, Philadelphia-based architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945), who in this later phase of his career moved sharply away from the Beaux-Arts style toward the moderne, the Architects Building housed numerous architectural offices and attested to the central role of the profession in shaping the city’s modern landscape.

[caption id="attachment_19720" align="alignright" width="300"]An image of the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman building, across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One prominent thread of Art Deco fused the historicism that had long characterized American architecture with the increasingly prominent vogue for abstract, geometric forms. This can be seen in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Large corporate or institutional clients turned to Art Deco in an attempt to project an image of modernity as well as an optimism in technological and cultural progress. Philadelphia’s WCAU Building (1931) at 1622 Chestnut Street, the first radio-station headquarters in the country to be purpose-built, also expressed the excitement of new material treatments for architecture. Architects Gabriel Roth (1893–1960) and Harry Sternfeld (1888–1976) created an unusual façade that incorporated crushed glass and decorative metalwork in brass, copper, and stainless steel. The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance headquarters by the firm of Zantzinger, Borie & Medary (completed 1928; today the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), meanwhile, was a lower-rise building whose decoration took inspiration from classical forms, highlighting how interwar designers reworked and simplified historical styles to signal a modern spirit.

A grand example of a civic building in the Art Deco mode was the United States Post Office (built 1931–35 by the firms Rankin & Kellogg and Tilden, Register & Pepper in partnership) at the intersection of Market and Thirtieth Streets. The limestone-clad building was organized much like a factory to accelerate the mail-distribution process, and its rich but selectively applied decoration visually reinforced the ethos of speed and efficiency.

In addition to these large, expensive corporate and civic buildings, a concurrent thread of Art Deco was manifest in smaller-scale, more populist kinds of architecture like theaters, storefronts, and eateries. Business owners who wanted to mark their establishments as up-to-date and stylish deployed moderne decoration and new materials. Architect William Harold Lee (1884–1971) designed several theaters around greater Philadelphia, while Ralph Bencker (1883–1961) designed many of the region’s numerous Horn and Hardart’s automat cafeterias. And despite Art Deco’s close association with big-city life, it was not solely an urban phenomenon: The main streets in smaller communities in surrounding parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware often sprouted “modernistic” buildings as businesses competed for customers’ attention.

Transportation Makeover

[caption id="attachment_19716" align="alignright" width="300"]A picture of the S1 locomotive, a massive experimental steam locomotive developed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the late-1930s. The S1 Class was a massive experimental steam locomotive developed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the later 1930s, intended as a prototype for an eventual replacement of its aging fleet. The largest passenger locomotive ever built, the S1 sported a highly streamlined “cowling” designed by the New York-based industrial designer Raymond Loewy. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

American notions of progress were often tethered to transportation as a particular arena of invention. Amid the rise of widespread car ownership, the gradually increasing accessibility of air travel, and the luxurious experience connoted by the great ocean liners—all modes of travel that frequently carried their own Art Deco styling—railways in particular felt a need to project an image of modernity to remain competitive. Railway station architecture was one prominent vehicle for such design activity. The exterior entrances of Suburban Station (built 1930) in Center City Philadelphia appealed to the spirit of the age through exuberant decorative metalwork. Although Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (built 1929–34 by Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White) sported an exterior in the Beaux Arts tradition, its grand interiors epitomized the simplified moderne approach to classicism.

In addition to self-consciously modern station architecture, the Pennsylvania Railroad experimented with the design of locomotives and rolling stock to reinforce their connotations of speed and modernity. Locomotives like the iconic S1 Class and the interiors of passenger cars designed by the prominent industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893–1986) typified the vogue for “streamlining” that emerged with a force in the 1930s. Characterized by smooth contours, rounded forms, and a general horizontality often heightened by bands of “speed lines” (whether the object was meant to be mobile or not), streamlining was one material manifestation of a widely held sense that the modern world was running at a faster pace than in previous periods.

[caption id="attachment_19714" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of the Design for the Machine: Contemporary Industrial Art, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1932. In 1932, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s curator of decorative arts, Joseph Downs, organized a large exhibition focused on industrial design. Its title, "Design for the Machine," pointed to the exhibition’s focus on modern manufacturing and the aesthetic challenges and opportunities it presented to designers. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Despite the interwar romance with speed, a primary motivator for the streamlining trend was economic. In the 1930s, companies turned to professional designers to imbue products with expressive qualities without significant factory retooling. Some critics saw these attempts to stimulate consumer desire through novelty as blatantly commercial, or even morally dangerous, but streamlined products and vehicles proved hugely popular in the marketplace. Consumers in greater Philadelphia encountered the products of the young field of industrial design, whether streamlined or in a more minimal “machine” style, in contexts both commercial and cultural. Department stores were a key venue for the dissemination of new ideas in design, while arts institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art played a prominent role with exhibitions like the 1932 Design for the Machine: Contemporary Industrial Art. The museum displayed an array of furniture, appliances, and other home goods designed to take advantage of modern manufacturing techniques, and the installation opened with a mock storefront by noted New York industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960) that echoed the Art Deco architecture appearing across the region.

While many of the most famous firms, designers, and manufacturers featured in these displays were based in New York or Chicago, some production took place around Pennsylvania, capitalizing on its long industrial history and transportation connections. The prominent Westinghouse Company was based in Pittsburgh, while the Stehli Silks Corporation—best-known for its “Americana Prints” collection (manufactured 1925–27), commissioned from artists to capture the “modern spirit” of the country—maintained a large mill in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, until 1975, with operations peaking in the 1920s. On the more exclusive end of the textile spectrum, Philadelphia’s House of Wenger (active 1903­–38) created luxurious clothes responding to the taste for streamlined modern forms in fashion as well as home goods.

Craftsmanship Valued

Mass-produced goods and the growing prominence of the industrial design profession came to dominate the decorative arts under the Art Deco umbrella, but there remained a thread of high-end making that prized individual craftsmanship and traditional techniques while it adapted to twentieth-century sensibilities. Samuel Yellin (1885–1940), a Philadelphia ironworker deeply rooted in the Arts and Crafts tradition, was one such exemplar, producing architectural elements like gates, railings, and grilles in the 1920s and 1930s that complemented the design language of the thoroughly modern buildings for which they were commissioned.

[caption id="attachment_19719" align="alignright" width="300"]Art Deco styling made prominent appearances at several interwar international exhibitions held in American cities, underscoring the optimistic notions of technological and social progress that characterized these large public events. (PhillyHistory.org) Art Deco styling made prominent appearances at several interwar international exhibitions held in American cities, underscoring the optimistic notions of technological and social progress that characterized these large public events. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As the Depression marched on and construction and manufacturing slowed ever further, federal involvement in the arts through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) supported some later buildings and works in the Art Deco vein. Harry Sternfeld’s post office building at Ninth and Market Streets in Center City (built 1937–41) incorporated relief sculptures by Edmond Amateis (1897–1981) in the moderne style shared by many other WPA-funded artworks. Similarly, the Edward W. Bok Technical High School (built 1935–38) was a PWA-supported project with restrained geometric Art Deco ornament.

However, a number of overlapping factors contributed to the slow decline and eventual end of Art Deco’s fashionability, including compounding economic difficulties in the 1930s and finally the onset of World War II. Stylistically, avant-garde attention in the design professions shifted toward the more strictly rationalist “International Style,” modeled after the progressive theories of European modernism. As a result, Art Deco was increasingly seen as overly decorative and retrogressive. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scholars began to reevaluate the style as a distinct expression of the economic and cultural complexities of the interwar United States. Philadelphia’s own Art Deco legacy reflects this national history in microcosm, from the commercial circumstances that birthed the city’s first skyscrapers, to the rise of radio and other forms of mass entertainment, to the WPA’s attempt to stimulate the Depression economy through art and design.

In the twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s Art Deco buildings remained in somewhat mixed condition: many have been demolished or stripped of their ornamental architectural details. Others, however, retained their characteristic Deco styling, contributing to the distinctive character of many Philadelphia neighborhoods. Accordingly, organizations like the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia continued to actively advocate for Art Deco’s importance to the region’s built heritage.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.

[caption id="attachment_19749" align="aligncenter" width="552"]map showing Art Deco points of interest in the Phila area Philadelphia is peppered with examples of Art Deco-influenced architecture.[/caption]

Art Colonies

Outside the urban core of Philadelphia, the picturesque rural landscape proved a significant draw to many artists in search of the purportedly simple, wholesome, and moral quality of countryside living. Whether planned and intentional or more organic and serendipitous, colonies like those in New Hope, Chadds Ford, and Rose Valley in Pennsylvania, and Arden and Wilmington in Delaware, provided easy access to the metropolitan centers of Philadelphia and New York, with their networks of galleries and educational institutions fostering opportunities to sell artwork, teach, and make social and professional connections. Part of a widespread growth of art colonies in Europe and elsewhere in the United States, such communities around Greater Philadelphia played a prominent role in shaping the artistic culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

[caption id="attachment_18123" align="alignright" width="300"]Scan of a postcard, in color. The valley rose guesthouse is photographed from an angle. The building is bright yellow with two rows of small white windows. The building is surrounded by a short hedge and obscured by a few trees. The road wraps around the building in the lower half of the postcard. Founded in 1901 near Moylan, Pennsylvania, by Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price, Rose Valley was an experimental utopian community devoted to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. (The Rose Valley Museum and Historical Society)[/caption]

Rural or small-town art colonies arose in large part because of the increasing availability of old farmhouses and disused industrial properties. One such example was New Hope, a mill town on the Delaware River in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, which became an important incubator of impressionist painting in Pennsylvania. The colony’s genesis is generally traced to the painter William Langson Lathrop (1859–1938), who in 1898 took up residence on the property of the abandoned Phillips’ Mill, owned by his childhood friend George Morley Marshall (1858–1935). Judging it a beautiful, accommodating home, Lathrop purchased part of the mill site from Marshall the following year and moved his family there from Ohio. Around the same time that Lathrop was discovering the area, painter Edward Willis Redfield (1869–1965) took on ownership of a family property just north of New Hope and likewise came there to work.

With the two artists becoming increasingly visible on a national level, numerous other professional artists moved to Bucks County throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, aided by the magnetic, community-oriented personality of William’s wife, Annie Lathrop (née Burt, 1865–1935), and the 1907 arrival of the prominent painter and educator Daniel Garber (1880–1958). Notable artists including Morgan Colt (1876–1926), M. Elizabeth Price (1877–1965), Charles Rosen (1878–1950), George Sotter (1879–1953), Robert Spencer (1879–1931), Rae Sloan Bredin (1880–1933), and John  F. Folinsbee (1892–1972) all contributed to the distinctive artistic culture of New Hope and the well-regarded Pennsylvania Impressionism school. The colony drew attention for its residents’ successes at exhibitions in Philadelphia, New York, and as far afield as the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Graphic Artists and Craftspeople Gather

Although painters dominated the New Hope colony, graphic artists were also forming communities around Greater Philadelphia. Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, southwest of Philadelphia in the Brandywine River Valley, is perhaps most famous as the home of the Wyeth family of artists, but it was host to a colony associated with the “Brandywine School” of illustrators, centered on the influential artist and educator Howard Pyle (1853–1911). Dissatisfied with Philadelphia’s institutions of higher education, in 1898 Pyle began teaching students during the summers at Turner's Mill in Chadds Ford. Beginning in 1900 he held more formal, extremely popular classes at his home and studio in Wilmington, Delaware, drawing another community of illustrators to that city. His strong presence continued to be felt even after his death among the artists living, working, and teaching upriver in Chadds Ford, carrying on the Brandywine School style as well as Pyle’s legacy as an educator and advocate for the illustration profession.

[caption id="attachment_18118" align="alignright" width="180"]colorful postcard image of a woman with long, dark hair dressed in blue robes, standing on the side of a hill looking down at herself in thought Illustrator Howard Pyle is frequently lauded as “the father of American illustration,” both for the impact of his teaching work and his own prolific artistic career. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

From the late nineteenth century, the Philadelphia area was also home to colonies associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike the New Hope artists, who placed particular emphasis on the rural landscape as a means of fostering an artist’s triumphant individuality, Arts and Crafts advocates saw the agrarian character and vernacular architecture of the area around Philadelphia as important components of their romantic, community-driven notion of life as art. Frequently active in socialist politics, they stressed communal spirit, honest labor, and the value of handicrafts such as ceramics, metalwork, and furniture-building, and their utopian colonies were designed to foster a holistic sense of artistic activity.

The best known of these, Rose Valley, was, like New Hope, built in and around an abandoned mill. Founded near Moylan, Pennsylvania, in 1901 by Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price (1861–1916), Rose Valley and its Delaware counterpart Arden—founded outside Wilmington in 1900 by Price and sculptor Frank Stephens (1859–1935)—included workshops for furniture, metalwork, ceramics, and bookmaking, as well as communal guildhalls and a number of cottages and larger houses for artists and their families. Selling work through periodical advertisements and shops in Philadelphia proper, and, in the case of the Rose Valley Association, publishing The Artsman journal from its city press, these communities and their residents made important contributions to the dissemination of Arts and Crafts ideals in the United States.

By 1910, the Rose Valley shops had been shuttered for financial reasons, but the community continued to be considered a desirable, “artistic” suburb. Arden and several imitator communities near Wilmington maintained their radical attempts at communal ownership, modeled after economist Henry George’s “single-tax” theories.

Remnants Survive

Although many art colonies eventually disbanded as coherent communities, the physical environments and traces of their organizational structures survived into the later twentieth century and beyond. For example, the Phillips’ Mill Community Association, established by New Hope–area artists in 1929, continues to exhibit art in the old mill building. Furthermore, these communities provided important precedent for the postwar studio craft movement, notably the Peters Valley colony, a community founded in a former farming village near Layton, New Jersey, in 1970 and later organized as a school of craft. Just as early twentieth-century artists tied their artistic practices to the bucolic settings and historic buildings surrounding Philadelphia, many artists and craftspeople of subsequent generations have continued to find inspiration in this landscape. The communities of New Hope, Chadds Ford, Rose Valley, and Arden, along with educational institutions like the James A. Michener Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum of Art, carry on the artistic legacy of Greater Philadelphia and the stewardship of its important history.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.

Arts and Crafts Movement

[caption id="attachment_15815" align="alignright" width="305"]Furness Desk Architect Frank Furness also produced furniture designs that influenced the Arts and Crafts movement in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The Arts and Crafts movement in Greater Philadelphia grew against the backdrop of the area’s increasingly industrial character in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition brought attention to Philadelphia’s prominence as a manufacturing center and fostered a renewed sense of pride in the city’s connections to national history, but it also elevated anxieties about the state of America’s crafts and the potential shortcomings of mechanized production. In the face of mounting unease with the social and environmental impacts of industrialization, Arts and Crafts advocates sought to mobilize architecture and the decorative arts in the service of recovering what they saw as the disappearing premodern values of craftsmanship, artistic harmony, and cultural cohesion.

The movement spread to the Philadelphia area over the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the increasing reach of the English design reform movement. The influential and polemical writings of English architect A.W.N. Pugin (1812–52), art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), and especially designer William Morris (1834–96) together called for artists and craftspeople to work toward social and aesthetic reform. With an ethos of honest labor and “truth to materials,” they argued that objects and spaces should be simultaneously beautiful, functional, and produced in conditions that acknowledged the humanity of their makers. These ideas circulated in Philadelphia with the formation of art guilds modeled after those in England, popular periodicals such as The Ladies’ Home Journal (established 1883 in the city), and vibrant personal exchange among artists and designers on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the time of the Centennial, several Philadelphia designers were already promoting aesthetic visions rooted in romantic notions of medieval Europe, rejecting what they considered the formality and ostentation of the neoclassical styles dominating the profession. Architect Frank Furness (1839­–1912) and cabinetmaker Daniel Pabst (1826­–1910), generally considered “Victorian” figures, nevertheless drew upon the ideas of their English contemporaries, design reformers Owen Jones (1809–74) and Christopher Dresser (1834–1904)—Dresser had attended the Centennial and lectured in Philadelphia—in their emphasis on stylized, organic ornamental schemes. Around the same time, architect Wilson Eyre Jr. (1858–1944) was instrumental in reviving an English vernacular style in and around Philadelphia. These designers laid important groundwork for the area’s later Arts and Crafts activity.

Additionally, young institutions such as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (founded 1876, later separated into what would become the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts), the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (1848, later Moore College of Art and Design), or Trenton, New Jersey’s School for Industrial Art (1898, later part of Thomas Edison State College) were modeled after European precedents and attempted to address perceived low standards of design in manufacturing. Through instruction, exhibitions, and lectures by prominent artistic figures, these organizations became important vehicles for the theories of design reform, advancing the notion of craftsmanship in relation to modern manufacturing.

Arts Colonies and Craft Production

Outside of these official institutional efforts, one of the most ambitious undertakings of Arts and Crafts advocates was the establishment of utopian communities to promote aesthetic excellence and social unity through the crafts. Often framed as political acts and conceived in broadly anti-capitalist terms, they attempted to provide solutions to the uneven economic opportunity of the American Gilded Age. These communities drew upon design reformers’ cultural critiques—especially Morris’s views on art and labor—while their picturesque, vernacular-styled physical environments were inspired by the work of reformist architects such as Eyre.

[caption id="attachment_15816" align="alignright" width="300"]English ceramicist William P. Jervis used hand and machine techniques in producing his works (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) English ceramicist William P. Jervis used hand and machine techniques in producing his works. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

The Philadelphia area was host to a particular concentration of arts-focused community experiments. Most prominent among them was Rose Valley, established near Moylan, Pennsylvania, in 1901. With the production of “artistic handicraft” as one of its core charters, the Rose Valley Association built its arts colony in and around an abandoned textile mill, a potent symbol of disenchantment with mechanized industry. The village was largely the project of Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price (1861–1916), whose early career included a stint in Frank Furness’s office, and his partner M. Hawley McLanahan (1865–1929). By 1905, the community included a furniture shop (for which Price designed many of the pieces), metalworking and pottery shops, and a bookbindery in addition to individual artists’ studios. Rose Valley also maintained a “city office” and a press in Philadelphia, which sold and promoted work from the shops. However, their production ultimately proved financially unsustainable, and the Rose Valley Association was disbanded by 1910.

The year before the founding of Rose Valley, Price helped found another experimental community. Arden, Delaware, just north of Wilmington, was a joint venture between the architect and Philadelphia sculptor Frank Stephens (1859–1935) and was based on the “single-tax” theories of American economist Henry George. Stephens and Price couched George’s radical economic principle in medievalizing terms—what they saw as the democratic, “charming” character of the Middle Ages—and borrowed from the English Garden Cities movement, designing a woodland village with two central greens. While the scale of craft activity in Arden was more modest than at Rose Valley, the village was host to a furniture workshop, a printing shop, and the commercially successful Arden Forge, which operated until 1935. In both colonies, social life was equally integral to the utopian vision; theater, poetry, dancing, and music all played important roles in fostering both community spirit and a holistic approach to artful living.

Philadelphia-Area Artists and the Medieval Ideal

[caption id="attachment_15819" align="alignright" width="300"]Key Lock Gothic ironwork reborn in Samuel Yellin's lock set. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Amid the influence of Philadelphia’s arts institutions and utopian colonies, the work of several individual artists in greater Philadelphia also relates to Arts and Crafts principles, particularly the emphasis on medieval models. The Polish-born master metalworker Samuel Yellin (1885–1940), who studied and later taught at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, used traditional techniques and structured his Philadelphia workshop around longstanding European craft practices. Yellin’s student Parke Edwards (1890–1973) contributed significant metalwork to the Bryn Athyn Cathedral (built 1913–19) in the eponymous Swedenborgian community north of Philadelphia, where workshops established for the building project were consciously shaped after medieval precedent. And amid a prevalent Gothic revival, painter William Willet (1869–1921) formed a stained glass studio in 1898 with his wife Anne Lee Willet (1867–1943). Inspired by the English Pre-Raphaelites, a group with close ties to Arts and Crafts, Willet diverged from the vogue for opalescent glass in the American movement, strongly preferring medieval techniques and materials.

[caption id="attachment_15904" align="alignright" width="188"]These stained glass panels by William and Ann Lee Willet possess the gothic-revival style popularized by the Pre-Raphaelite artists working in England (Corning Museum of Glass) These stained glass panels by William and Ann Lee Willet reflect the Gothic Revival style popularized by the Pre-Raphaelite artists working in England. (Corning Museum of Glass)[/caption]

The Pre-Raphaelite influence, as well as involvement of English illustrators such as Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway in design reform, also provided important precedents for some Philadelphia-area graphic artists. Wilmington-based illustrator and author Howard Pyle (1853–1911) published a well-known cycle of Arthurian illustrations (1903–10) that played upon contemporary interest in the Middle Ages. Pyle taught at the then–Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry until 1900, later opening a teaching studio at his own home. His instruction proved so popular that an informal colony of illustrators formed in Wilmington. A number of his students, including Violet Oakley (1874–1961), a Philadelphia illustrator, designer of stained glass and mosaics, and muralist for the Pennsylvania State Capitol), and the painters and illustrators Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) and N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945) went on to prestigious careers.

In Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856–1930) founded the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in 1899. Building on his prolific career as an archaeologist, historian, and collector, Mercer’s initial ambition was to revive disappearing Germanic pottery techniques from early America. However, he also drew significant inspiration from the Middle Ages for the Moravian ceramics, whether in conventional shapes, pictorial “mosaic” tiles, or the distinctive high-relief designs (known as “brocade” tiles) he used in larger narrative compositions. In addition to his membership in the influential Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, Mercer was well-connected with nearby Arts and Crafts advocates. William L. Price, for example, used Moravian tiles in several of his buildings, including Jacob Reed’s Sons’ store in downtown Philadelphia (1903) and the façades of Rose Valley houses. Mercer’s lectures and writings further illustrated his conviction that learning from the past was critical for the arts of the industrial era.

Decorative Arts Farther Afield

[caption id="attachment_15814" align="alignright" width="240"]The Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, New Jersey integrated glass and ceramic elements in this glazed ceramic lamp (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) The Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, New Jersey, integrated glass and ceramic elements in this glazed ceramic lamp. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

Beyond Philadelphia, a number of commercial firms responded to the growing American taste for the Arts and Crafts, although these tend to be less well-documented. One of the most successful was the Fulper Pottery in Flemington, New Jersey, which had operated since the early nineteenth century but released a popular “Vasekraft” line of art pottery by 1909; Trenton-based Lenox’s Ceramic Art Company (founded 1889; from 1906, Lenox Incorporated) likewise produced Arts and Crafts wares. In southern Pennsylvania, the York Wall Paper Company offered several designs that echoed William Morris’s well-known wallpapers and textiles, while glass firms such as Gillinder and Sons in Philadelphia and the Dorflinger Glass Company in White Mills, Pennsylvania, produced works with organic ornament that would have fit well within an Arts and Crafts interior.

By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Arts and Crafts ideals were subsiding in the face of shifting tastes, the disbandment of arts colonies, and the increasing economic pressures of industrial production. Some individual firms and makers nevertheless continued their craft-derived work; Samuel Yellin continued forging iron into the 1930s. Ultimately, Greater Philadelphia’s Arts and Crafts history is especially notable for the close-knit nature of the artistic community and the generally high quality of its output. In many ways, Pennsylvanian reformers came as close as any Americans did to realizing the medievalizing ideals of Ruskin and Morris, albeit in short-lived fashion. The Arts and Crafts legacy, furthermore, set an important stage for the rise of the studio craft movement in postwar Philadelphia.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.

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