From Adams County to Iowa: The Redware Career of Isaac Boyer

The Isaac Boyer sugar bowl.
The Isaac Boyer redware sugar bowl we will be selling as part of our November 3rd stoneware and redware auction was of a mysterious origin until very recently. (Click here to read our catalog description of this piece.) It seemed to belong to Pennsylvania or elsewhere nearby, but as is always frustrating, Boyer did not bother to state where he was making his “Sager Bole”–and we could not be sure. We received an email from a kind individual who informed us that an Isaac Boyer was a potter in Vernon, Van Buren County, Iowa, beginning around the end of the 1850’s. Digging deeper into this, we found that that Isaac Boyer was born in 1828 in Pennsylvania–making the bowl (dated 1848) a product of a twenty-year-old, and one who very well may have yet resided in his home state at the time of its manufacture. That this is the same Isaac Boyer is a fact basically beyond question, and it seems that, after evaluating the evidence, his bowl was in fact a product of the redware center of Adams County, PA.

While I could provide a detailed run-down of the various census and other records that help flesh out Boyer’s life, the following paragraphs taken from a 1977 genealogy book basically do better than I could with only dry census data. While there is certainly a chance that some of this is at least slightly inaccurate, this is a remarkably detailed narrative of the life of a man who, when still apparently an apprentice, threw a pot that still interests us 150+ years later:

Isaac [Boyer] was the son of Martin Sr. and Hoover Boyer, and was [born December 5, 1828] in Adams County, Pa. … [His parents] lived and died [there]. [The] family used to go to Chesapeake Bay to gather shellfish. The father [died] in 1853 and the mother [circa] 1860, and the family drifted westward. [Note: I believe the correct date for the father’s death is 1833.] Isaac’s brother, Jacob, was the first to come to Iowa. He came with [two associates], bringing a load of liquor on a flatboat to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi and the Des Moines River to Farmington. He was in Indianapolis … from 1832-1842, and when he came to Iowa purchased 160 [acres] of land in … Henry Twp. of Van Buren County … . He married … and remained on the farm where [he and his wife] reared five children. … Isaac, the younger brother, had lived with a cousin, John Boyer, until he was 18 years old. He was then bound out for three years to learn the pottery trade. It was difficult to make a choice between pottery and carpentry, but his aversion to climbing on buildings caused him to complete the pottery apprenticeship. Training completed, he traveled from his Pennsylvania home with a wagon train bound for northern Illinois. He came on a steamboat down the Mississipi to Keokuk, and up the Des Moines River to Vernon [Van Buren County, Iowa], where his brother, Jacob, lived just west of the settlement. He obtained work at the Vernon pottery shop.

[Isaac married his wife, Sydney Harryman, on October 27, 1853 at her home in Van Buren County.] [The couple] lived in Vernon until 1839 [Note: this should read 1859, I believe–certainly not 1839] and [Isaac] continued to work in the pottery shop. He then bought a farm three miles west of Vernon … to which they moved. … In 1864 they bought the Harryman family farm from the heirs. They remained on the farm until 1893 when they moved to Keosauqua where he [died January 23, 1903].

(The above comes from Elijah Harryman … by Ethel Irene Harryman, 1977.)

Bottom of the bowl, inscribed, This Sager Bole was made by Isaac Boyer 1848.
Boyer’s bowl, then, would have been made while he was a couple of years into his apprenticeship in Adams County. Almost all of the records I have seen for Boyer list him as a “farmer,” and this was quite common for American redware potters–a subject I take up in an article I wrote last year about Philip Sipe of Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. Notice also that Boyer’s life is quite similar to that of Pennsylvania potter Adam Ownhouse, who crafted the outstanding redware inkstand we sold in March 2011 (and also a bird whistle in the collection of the Met, I recently learned)–and then, too, left for Iowa.

Boyer’s “Sager Bowl” stands as a remarkable example to which we can attach rare biographical data–and one that, unlike the many anonymous pots of people we will likely never identify as anything more than “farmers,” we can now firmly attribute as a rare signed example of beloved Adams County, Pennsylvania, redware.

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A New Pennsylvania Redware Discovery

Finely-made redware spittoon–possibly the only surviving example by York County, Pennsylvania, potter Philip Sipe.

There were far fewer stoneware manufactories than redware potteries in the United States. While now and then a farmer would build a kiln in his backyard and start making stoneware to supplement his income, the all-around investment in founding a stoneware operation was clearly more substantial than that required to start producing redware. This investment included a kiln capable of achieving and withstanding the higher temperatures needed to fire stoneware; a knowledge of the more complicated stoneware production process (including how to properly salt glaze); and procurement of proper stoneware clay, not as easily found as earthenware clay. In viewing their surviving works, it is often quite easy to tell which potters used clean stoneware clay obtained from a “reputable” source, and those that pulled it out of the backyard or otherwise dug it themselves. Redware, on the other hand, was comparatively easy to make. Good clay could, in fact, be frequently found in a potter’s backyard, or in a farmer’s field. The temperature the potter needed to reach in the kiln was several hundred degrees Fahrenheit below stoneware temperatures.

Because of this, rural redware potteries abounded in nineteenth century America. People who were primarily farmers but had been trained to throw on a wheel would, in fact, build a kiln on their property and sell their wares to their community and beyond. One such artisan was Philip Sipe, a York County, Pennsylvania, farmer born around the turn of the nineteenth century. The only contemporary document of Sipe’s career as a potter that I have ever seen is his impressed maker’s mark, found on one finely-made redware spittoon. In letters belonging to a bygone time, the potter stamped the bottom of the spittoon with a larger, more elaborate mark than that usually seen on American redware: “P. SiPE & SONS / LEWiSBERY / YORK Co PA.” But aside from the fact that a man named William Sipe was later a notable stoneware potter working in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the mid to late nineteenth century, I had never heard of Philip Sipe. Perhaps owing to what seems to have been Sipe’s insistence on calling himself a “Farmer,” people who have spent a lot of time researching central Pennsylvania redware potters have never heard of him, either.Sandy Wexler film trailer

P. SiPE & SONS maker's mark on Philip Sipe's spittoon.

Jeannette Lasansky, who wrote two great, concise books on both central Pennsylvania stoneware and redware (Made of Mud … and Central Pennsylvania Redware Pottery …) performed exhaustive work in her research of these redware potters. According to Lasansky, there were many potters working in the vicinity of Sipe’s pottery from at least the late 1810’s, but Philip Sipe was not one of them. In the 1850 census, again, many potters are listed in Lewisberry Borough (quite small at the time) and adjacent Newberry Township–the latter being the apparent actual, proper site of Sipe’s works. In that same census, Philip “Seip” is listed as a farmer, born in Pennsylvania around 1802; apparently a widower, his oldest family member was his son, William, also called a farmer.

But these men were just as adept at turning pots as they were at turning up fields. In the 1860 census, Sipe was still telling the census man that he was primarily a farmer, as was his close neighbor, John Knisely–an otherwise-documented redware potter whose son, Henry, was the only person on Sipe’s census page that year willing to call himself a potter. John Knisely’s potting career is noted in Lasansky’s Central Pennsylvania Redware …; it wasn’t until the 1870 census rolled around that he finally gave his occupation as “Potterer.” That the Kniselys were somehow involved with the Sipes and their heretofore forgotten pottery seems fairly evident.

One of these Sipes, the aforementioned William, was, in fact, the potter who made his way up the now-Route 11 and 15 corridor and was making stoneware by sometime in the 1860’s. Salt-glazed stoneware jars made in the predominant central Pennsylvania style bearing the marks “SIPE & SONS” and “SIPE, NICHOLS & CO.” are the products of William Sipe’s shop. An 1892 book, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (by John F. Meginness), confirms William’s potting lineage: “WILLIAM SIPE, deceased, was born in York county, Pennsylvania, in 1826, and was a son of Philip Sipe. He settled in Williamsport in 1863, where he soon after engaged in the pottery business, which he had learned from his father … .” Lasansky’s book on stoneware, Made of Mud, is also one of the best sources on William Sipe’s Williamsport shop. In it, she repeats the History of Lycoming County account, but–again owing to the paucity of proper references in the historical record–did not know where Philip worked, or what he made.

Philip Sipe’s spittoon is an example of a piece of pottery that transcends its status as a decorative arts object and plays the role of a paper document, imparting information where the historical record is less than forthcoming. Sipe’s potting career reminds me of another deft Pennsylvania potter whose primary career of farming sandbagged all modern attempts to connect an artist with his work. Absalom Bixler, whose redware stands today as some of the finest ever produced in the United States, was, as Lasansky wrote in another work on Lancaster County redware, never called a potter in contemporary documents. No trace of his career as a potter could be found on any period piece of paper. As late as 2003 a great, comprehensive article on Bixler’s work appeared in The Magazine Antiques, and even the author of that article was unable to take a definitive stance on the authorship of the “BIXLER” pieces. It was not until early last year that the surfacing of a small pot stamped “A. Bixler” (in a manner only performed by potters themselves, and in a typeface consistent with Absalom Bixler’s known career as a printer) enabled me to once and for all conclusively establish Bixler as the maker of his own work. (You can read my article on Bixler here.)

It is somewhat bizarre, or ironic, that people who lived lives spent, mostly, away from the potter’s wheel, are now remembered only for what they did while at it. An activity undertaken only in the winter months, or otherwise when farming was inconvenient or impossible, has come to define so many of these sorts of redware potters. But where so many others came into this world and then slipped from history, these men who made objects to fill the needs of their community have somehow managed a different fate. Even when paper documents fail us, and family members have forgotten they existed, their work remains to do the talking for them.

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