Mary with large vase in 1929, photographed by Mach
“Aretha Franklin, Rosa Parks, Gilda Radner, Martha Dodge, a list that screams Detroit’s defining women. Often one person is left off that list…Mary Stratton, the mother of Pewabic Pottery.” explains WWJ 950’s Zach Clark in a segment for International Women's Day this year. Zach Clark took a look at the century-long legacy of one of Michigan's finest artists with Pewabic’s Education Director and Archivist Annie Dennis and the Detroit Historical Society’s Manager of Education and Public Programs Kimmie Dobos Wolfe. You can listen to the full story here.
As we honor the 156th anniversary of Mary’s birth, we are thrilled to celebrate her life, legacy and impact on Detroit, Michigan, and beyond.
Mary Chase Perry was born on March 15, 1867 in the mining village of Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to parents Dr. William Walbridge, the local physician, and Sophia (Barrett) Perry. She would go on walks with her father around the Pewabic copper mine, which was close to their house.
Her father’s untimely death in 1877 spurred the family’s move to Ann Arbor, MI where her brother Frederick studied to become a Pharmacist at the University of Michigan. After Frederick’s graduation, the family moved to Detroit in 1881 where Frederick Perry established a pharmacy on Woodward Avenue in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood.
Mary’s passion for art started at a young age. She learned charcoal drawing from Detroit artist Colonel Charles Lum, got involved with the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts) while attending Detroit High School, attended various art lessons and the Art Academy of Cincinnati. While in Cincinnati, Mary was introduced to China Painting.
This application of mineral paints onto pre-made pottery created a watercolor effect that was extremely popular among women during this time period. Mary traveled around the country teaching lessons in China painting. In 1984 Mary was introduced to the Revelation China Kiln being used in a local studio and purchased one to use for her own China Painting work.
Lo and behold, one of Mary’s neighbors in Brush Park was Horace J. Caulkins, the inventor of the very kiln she was using. Horace hired Mary to promote Revelation kilns locally in 1896 and by 1897 expanded her work to a national scale because of her connections through the National League of Mineral Painters. By 1899 Mary was listed on Revelation Kiln promotional materials as a partner to Horace.
Just four years later, in 1903, Mary and Horace founded Pewabic Pottery out of a stable studio in Brush Park. Their business quickly outgrew the space, spurring the design of the iconic pottery building by renowned architect William Buck Stratton. The operation moved to the new studio on East Jefferson Avenue in 1907, which quickly became too small, and the building was expanded in 1912.
Mary was running a business during a time where she could not legally own her own business or even vote. Despite this she found a way and built a business with Horace that is around over 100 years later.
A young Mary Chase Perry works in the pottery studio on Detroit's east side.
“Because of laws being the way they were in the early 1900s, Horace Caulkins, Stratton’s business partner, played a huge part in the company’s success, though his biggest strength was supporting her.” explains WWJ’s Zach Clark.
Mary Chase Perry and Horace J Caulkins inside the new Pewabic Pottery Studio on East Jefferson Avenue.
“That's what was great about Horace, he never tried to take ownership of that, it very much was a partnership, but he was fine with lifting her up. He really believed in her vision... He was always a champion of Mary.” explains Annie. “I really think she wouldn't have been able to make all the moves that she did at the time that she did them without a man as a [business] partner.”
Annie continues, “She was a hard worker, driven with a clear vision. This [pottery team] was her family. Everyone she worked with was here for over 40 years. This pottery was her whole life and you can feel that still today.”
“The Pewabic pottery itself is made for display in a home or business, the Pewabic tiles, they’re built in art. It doesn't hang on the wall, it is built into the floors and ceilings and outside of our favorite places.” explains Zach.
“The Strattons along with Horace Caulkins together would help inspire Detroit’s skyline.” Annie explains, “Mary and Horace and Buck weren't the only ones thinking like this. There was actually a whole Society of Arts and Crafts. They were all founding members. It was those connections that they made in this group that actually led to some of the largest architectural tile installations that Mary did. And so there was this kind of network of people that were thinking the same way. William Buck Stratton was really one of the leads of what architecture should look like through an Arts & Crafts lens and these other really important artists and architects in Detroit that shaped the visual landscape that we see today.”
Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Detroit Historical Society Kimmie Dobos Wolfe explains, “In the broader story of the history of Detroit there are so many landmarks and places that people frequently go to that have these tiles. And people specifically bring their out of town guests to see it. I think that is a mark of the importance that people feel and the connection they have [to Pewabic] all around the city”
Snapshot of Mary Chase Perry Stratton looking at the future location of the Rainbow Fountain at Cranbrook.
Zach continues, “From the Guardian Building, to the homes of Indian village, to Comerica park and all the way out to Detroit Metro Airport, you can find Pewabic throughout Detroit and southeastern michigan. In fact you can find it at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. and the Nebraska state capitol.”
“She wasn’t just an artist, she had an interest in the chemistry of ceramics. She was our in-house chemist. She really was one of the first people to formulate iridescent glazes here in western culture… She formulated hundreds of glazes.. some of those are still a jumping off point for the glazes we use today.” expressed Annie.
Kimmie explains “Mary Stratton has left this mark [on Detroit]. She was part of a larger context of women. At the end of the day her work is really something that is special and meaningful to Detroit. In the context of women in Detroit she is among the top and that is something really special.”
As we reflect on Mary’s life and legacy on this anniversary of her birth we look to the past and the present. “This notion of being timeless. It is not old, not new, but it just is.” expresses Zach. Annie continues, “Detroit feels that way. It is new, emerging, classic and timeless and layered. I think this organization is a huge reflection of the city it has been sitting in. As time goes on, we understand more and more how important it was what Mary did. Bigger than just creating art, it was something that was pretty substantial at this time. So I think we will have an even better understanding of the full scope of her impact and hopefully have a better understanding of our story after her, because I think we are still kind of defining that.”
Mary Chase Perry Stratton in her Detroit studio in 1956.
Thank you to WWJ 950 host Zach Clark, Pewabic Education Director and Archivist Annie Dennis, and Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Detroit Historical Society Kimmie Dobos Wolfe for celebrating Mary’s Legacy and impact on Detroit for International Women’s Day. Check out the full interview here. Shop some of Mary’s original designs through our Heritage Collection.