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Family Platters

July 2024
1min read

From Germany and Switzerland, farmer-potters transplanted their skills to Pennsylvania and produced a distinctive ceramic found nowhere else in America


THE YEAR 1983 marks the three hundredth anniversary of the initial German settlement in the United States at Germantown, Pennsylvania. To celebrate, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Winterthur Museum have mounted a comprehensive exhibit of Pennsylvania German art dating from 1683 to 1850. The show includes everything from furniture and weapons to printed books and Fraktur . Among the most beautiful and skillfully wrought objects are the earthenware dishes, some of which are reproduced here. Made from the local clays of southeastern Pennsylvania, which, whether gray, blue, red, or yellow, all turned a red color when fired, they were decorated by the use of slip, clay mixed with water to a creamlike consistency. In most of these dishes a layer of slip has been evenly applied over the entire surface and the design has been scratched through the slip to reveal the body color underneath. The slip could be varied in color by applying metallic oxide prior to the final firing. Traditional motifs abound: tulips, double-eagles, animals, hearts, and more rarely, the human figure. Plates so elaborately designed were not for everyday use but were lovingly made as special gifts or presentation pieces. Their survival over so many years is undoubtedly due to the fact that they were displayed on mantelpieces or in cabinets as prized household possessions. Many carry inscriptions, usually in vernacular German dialect and rooted in German folklore and superstition. Such inscriptions often bear no relation to the accompanying pictorial motifs. For example, around the rim of the plate at right, which shows two sedate couples dancing to a fiddler’s tune, is the disconcerting message: “Our maid, the ugly pig, always wanted to be a housewife. O you ugly slut—1786.” An entirely appropriate inscription, however, is shown on the dish with twin birds (opposite page): “Catherine Raeder, her dish. Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”


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