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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Aaron Radley, Forgotten Philadelphia Stoneware Potter

Previously unknown potter Aaron Radley's Liberty Bell mug.
In or about 1873, two local cigar makers and a potter from West Troy (now Watervliet), New York, decided to throw their hats into the competitive ring of Philadelphia stoneware manufacture. The result was the completely forgotten pottery concern of “Salinger, Radley & McCusker.” Located in the Frankford / Port Richmond area of the city, the trio’s pottery establishment was dangerously close to one of the more prominent in the entire country, that of Richard C. Remmey–at the time, the latest fruit from the most venerable tree of American stoneware potters. Why the two cigar makers, John P. Salinger and Patrick McCusker, decided to partner with a 45-year-old, not-particularly-successful potter from upstate New York is a question whose answer disappeared along with the ill-fated firm that bore their name. But that potter was none other than Aaron Oliver Radley, born on November 14, 1828 in Albany, New York. His time and place of birth were opportune for anyone wishing to venture into the stoneware business, the prolific shop of Paul Cushman being in full swing at that time, as was that of Moses Tyler and Charles Dillon. When of apprenticeship age, Radley had many convenient, now-famed stoneware shops in which to try his hand at the wheel, most prominently those of William Warner; Nathan Porter (and his associate George B. Fraser); Israel Seymour; Moses Tyler–all within the Albany-Troy corridor.

Seithers' name on Radley's mug.
Radley was noted as a potter working in West Troy circa 1853-66 by Warren Broderick and William Bouck in their 1995 book, Pottery Works: Potteries of New York State’s Capital District and Upper Hudson Region. By 1860, he had married his wife, Elizabeth, and had a few children. He seems to have ended his long-time tenure in the Albany area and immediately traveled to the City of Brotherly Love, where he was potting by 1867 or so, and it was probably the Remmey manufactory that drew him there. But within about five years, Radley was definitely operating his own pottery, under the moniker of “Salinger, Radley, & McCusker.” And it was probably under the auspices of that firm that Radley produced the sole piece of stoneware attributable to him, a mug decorated with an elaborate Liberty Bell design and the accompanying date “1776.” My belief is that it was made in or about 1876, to commemorate the American centennial. Radley made his mug for someone with the last name “Seithers,” that name appearing to both the left and right of the Liberty Bell design. There were a few different individuals in Philadelphia (a family of barbers) during the time period named “Seither,” but the only one I can find who consistently seems to have gone by “Seithers” is also the only man in the entire country who shows up with that last name in the 1880 federal census index: Charles W. Seithers, a Philadelphia tavern keeper and lager seller working over on South 3rd Street during this time period.

Seithers' 1880 census listing juxtaposed with an 1877 city directory entry.
Charles William Seithers was born on or about September 13, 1838 in Bavaria, and emigrated to America in 1852. By 1870, he had married an American woman, had a little girl, and was working as a hotel keeper in Philadelphia. This occupation may have been essentially the same as “Saloon keeper,” the job he shows up at ten years later, in the 1880 census. But Seithers was not just the proprietor of a bar room, he was specifically involved in the relatively new American business of lager beer.

Lager was not really available in the United States until around 1840; some speculate that its relatively late introduction into American homes and pubs was due to the difficulty of transporting its yeast across the Atlantic. The first known American lager brewery was located in Philadelphia, where a Bavarian immigrant (like Seithers) named Johann Wagner successfully managed to get his yeast over from Germany. Initially popular in German communities, lager spread nationally and by the late 1850’s, it was a bigger seller than either ale or porter in Philadelphia. Charles Seithers’ business came as a direct result of this booming new beer industry, and he shows up around the middle of the 1870’s–about the time Radley made his mug–as a lager dealer, perhaps even a brewer.

Radley's signature on the only known piece attributable to him.
How Aaron Radley knew Charles Seithers–or if they were even friends or close associates–is a question I cannot answer. But based on the fact that his mug was specifically, boldly inscribed to Seithers (and hand inscribed on the bottom by Radley), the mug was pretty clearly a presentation piece, and probably made as a gift from Radley to Seithers–as is the case with other comparable pieces of American stoneware. This puts Radley’s mug in a fairly rare category. We can call it so for a number of reasons–the fairly rare form for decorated stoneware; the almost unheard-of decoration of the Liberty Bell; its signature from a previously unknown Philadelphia potter. But as a vessel apparently used specifically for the consumption of lager, unlike so many of the jugs and other vessels made for ambiguous spirituous (or other) liquids, we more or less know exactly what the mug held on a regular basis.

Aaron Oliver Radley's obituary.
By 1877, Patrick McCusker had left Radley’s firm, and it took on the name of “Salinger & Radley.” By the end of the decade this partnership, too, seems to have dissolved and Radley was out on his own. In his later years (around 1885, when he was about 57 years old), he became a grocer and, eventually, a jeweler, maintaining that profession into his 80’s. Aaron Radley died on Halloween, 1914, of some form of pneumonia. Seithers had died a decade prior, on March 8, 1904, of kidney failure at the age of 65. He, too, had given up his profession of the mid-1870’s, and had moved on to barbering. In Radley’s obituary, those memorializing him called him, “one of the oldest residents of Frankford … who opened the first China and glassware house in that section of the city.” I have been unable to find any reference (though one certainly may exist) to Radley owning a merchant’s shop, selling china or glass, and I believe this is probably the case of time or miscommunication getting in the way of the facts. The writer was probably really referring to Radley’s old pottery.

This is yet another case in which two men who may not even be remembered by their own families today, are memorialized by just one object that happened to survive. Aaron Radley probably made thousands of pots in his lifetime; Seithers likewise would have owned countless objects over the course of his life. But this mug, probably produced in the spirit of giving, now gives us another opportunity to peer dimly into the past.

A Note About Sources: As can probably be gleaned from the text, I used applicable Philadelphia city directories, newspapers, and death records, as well as federal census listings for the bulk of my research. For secondary, modern sources, (as noted in the text) I used Broderick & Bouck’s Pottery Works …; for the section on lager, I used Mark A. Noon’s Yuengling: A History of America’s Oldest Brewery heavily.

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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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Wm. Kelly Young Collection: Anatomy of a Bell Redware Dog

An important large-sized redware dog by the Bell family will cross the block in our January 30th auction of the William Kelly Young collection. Measuring 8 3/4″ long by 8 5/8″ tall, the figure is one of a small number of this size known to have been produced by members of the Bell family in Strasburg, VA and Waynesboro, PA. The standing pose and robust body form, finished with a curled tail and large flattened ears, are characteristic of the Bells’ work. Examples of this general style by various members of the Bell family are documented in The Shenandoah Pottery by Alvin H. Rice and John Baer Stoudt, Folk Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley by William Wiltshire, III, and The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region

Large-Sized Standing Redware Dog by the Bell Family. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.
Large-Sized Standing Redware Dog by the Bell Family. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.

by H.E. Comstock. These pieces include a few by John Bell and his son, Charles Frederick Bell, of Waynesboro, a pair by Samuel Bell of Strasburg, which descended to his son, Ashby, and a pair by Samuel’s son, Charles Forrest Bell, now in the Henry Ford Museum. An oustanding punch-decorated dog with monkey rider, attributed to one of Samuel’s sons, also bears similarities in form and size. Interestingly, the dog selling in our January 30th auction is pictured on p. 264 of The Shenandoah Pottery, catalog-numbered 157, indicating that it was collected by Alvin Rice in the Shenandoah Valley prior to 1929. The damage visible in the photo, including an area where a basket was once connected to its neck, has since been restored.

The dog is constructed from two conjoined, wheel-thrown cylinders, one forming the body and the other forming the neck. (Many of the animals produced by various Pennsylvania makers have a similar hollow-bodied construction.) Several balls of clay were placed inside the dog’s body prior to firing, causing the figure to rattle when shaken. To prevent damage during the firing, vent holes were bored into the corners of the dog’s mouth, the lower breast, and between the back legs. The famous Solomon Bell redware lion in the MESDA collection, as well as a John Bell stoneware lion, are also vented through the breast and mouth, as noted by Shenandoah pottery authority, H.E. Comstock (Comstock, pp. 151, 232).

    As noted by authority, H.E. Comstock, the Bells used a distinctive stamp, composed of an oval with an inner arching line, to produce the eyes and decorated the bases of many of their animals.
As noted by authority, H.E. Comstock, the Bells used a distinctive stamp, composed of an oval with an inner arching line, to produce the eyes and decorated the bases of many of their animals.

The animal’s fur is produced from numerous diagonally-incised lines. The toes with incised demarcations and unusual incised toe nails are also visible on two of the feet. One of the most distinctive “Bell” features of the dog is its impressed eyes, composed of an oval with an inner arching line. This decorative stamp is used to create the eyes and embellish the bases of several animals produced by the Strasburg and Waynesboro Bells (Comstock, p. 155).

The surface is decorated in daubs of manganese and cream-colored slip and coated in a clear lead glaze. The use of a simple lead and manganese glaze is typical of Bell animals, as well as most animals produced by various other 19th century potters. However, the addition of cream slip spotting is unusual for animals made by the Bells (or those by any potter for that matter). The overall color is remarkably similar to a pair of cats and a seated dog attributed to Solomon Bell and pictured on pp. 232 and 233 of The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region.

True Bell animals are quite rare and have been increasingly difficult to find in the antiques market. The family’s notoriety for producing figural pieces, coupled with the desirability of Bell pottery in general, has led to numerous erroneous Bell attributions. (A look at the Sotheby’s catalog for the auction of the Pauline Heilman collection, held way back in 1982, will give you an idea of these frequent errors.) This dog is a different story. With a firm attribution and Rice provenance, this example is the first of its size and origin to sell at auction in some time, with many of the “BELLS” and whistles one looks for in a quality American redware dog.

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