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An Undervalued Opportunity: The Stoneware of Beaver, Pennsylvania

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

Enthusiasm for collecting a category of stoneware (or any antique for that matter) waxes and wanes. Pieces that spark a clash of Titans at auctions one decade, sell without a fuss or languish in cases at antique malls the next decade. Collecting stoneware is somewhat cyclical like the stock market.

One reason for this cycle is the influence of decorating trends that incorporate a particular type of stoneware. The country kitchen trend of the 1980’s and 1990’s required a copious amount of blue and white pitchers and butter crocks, blue and gray stenciled canning jars, and just about any crock, you could find! As this trend moved to a cleaner, classic kitchen, the demand for this type of stoneware declined with it. Supply increased and prices leveled out. Today it is easy to find these items at reasonable prices.

Another influence on the stoneware market is the loss of prominent and highly motivated collectors who battled each other to build their collections-- sometimes for decades. Their competition kept prices high and the supply on the market low. As they pass away or have all the key items they want, pieces return to the market or are not bought as quickly and prices may temporarily level out. The perception grows that the “bloom is off the rose.”

A third influence in the stoneware world is the rise in demand for one type that leaves interest in its sibling behind. For example, Southwestern Pennsylvania stoneware from Greensboro and New Geneva is a very finely and profusely decorated stoneware. In fact, it is the most profusely decorated of all American stoneware and has a strong following. Other pottery from the same region, while wonderful examples of American stoneware in themselves, may not be as strongly collected.

These influences, especially the last two, are at play right now in the collecting of stoneware from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Major longtime collectors of Beaver stoneware are no longer on the hunt or with us at all. This stoneware is overshadowed by the stoneware of Greensboro and New Geneva from the same region. Beaver stoneware does not get the respect it deserves right now.

A smart collector realizes that this is the time to take another look at Beaver stoneware—an objective look. It is time to rethink this market.

Beaver, Pennsylvania was an important center of pottery manufacture from 1845-1900. Its potters were skilled and left us a sizeable number of beautifully decorated stoneware pieces in all categories, particularly jars. Beaver stoneware has a thick-walled construction which has contributed to the survival of numerous pieces. It is a collecting category that will provide you with lots of buying opportunities. There is no fun in collecting if you cannot continue to find new items. Beaver stoneware is also typically well--decorated with broad brushstrokes of cobalt in vining, tulips, and fuchsia. They have a more substantial, primitive, and earthy presence than Greensboro or New Geneva pottery and actually blend into most décor without dominating the room.

Beaver potters are numerous. They include William “Leet” Hamilton and his brother, James (circa 1840 to circa 1850), Jonathan McKenzie (1845 to circa 1870), Hamilton McKenzie and Thomas Jackson (1860’s and 1870’s), Ralph Russell (1840’s to 1870’s), Enoch Fowler (1850’s to 1880’s), Charles Kelin (1850’s to 1860’s), and John Weaver (late 1840’s to late 1870’s). These potters all decorated their pottery with generous freehand cobalt.

After the Civil War, the pottery in Beaver was stenciled by some potters who came late to the industry. These include Henry Murta (circa 1870), Socrates Johnston (late 1860’s), and J. H. Waggoner (1870’ - 1880's). Even so, that boldness of the stenciling makes the pottery very attractive as pictures here show.

In today’s market, Beaver stoneware still brings good prices, but, in my opinion, is undervalued for the quality of the potting and decoration. You can find jars from $200 to $1000 quite readily, and be getting more for your money than in other stoneware categories. A very impressive collection can be built by the wise hunter in as much time as budget allows. And you will beat the upward curve in demand and prices when new Titans emerge to battle it out at auction.

For more information, see Phil Shaltenbrand, Big Ware Turners, Chapter 14.

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