Pewabic's Early Years

Posted by Frances Ma on

Woman in a black dress interacting with hands-on portion of our new exhibition entitled "Pewabic: Detroit's Pottery".A portion of our new exhibition "Pewabic: Detroit's Pottery"

Our new exhibition, “Pewabic: Detroit’s Pottery” explores Pewabic’s more than a century long history through to the present-day. One facet of the museum looks back on Pewabic’s early years before the construction of the pottery's iconic 1907 studio on the East Side of Detroit. 

Pewabic Co-Founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton enjoyed a successful career as a china painter prior to her venture into handcrafted pottery. She often traveled to teach classes on the subject, which eventually led to her first partnership with dental supplier and kiln manufacturer Horace J. Caulkins.

Black and white film photo scan of Pewabic Co-Founders Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace J. Caulkins. They look to be in discussion about a particularly large vase and are surrounded by other un-glazed pots on shelves behind them.Pewabic Co-Founders Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace J. Caulkins 

In the early 1890s, Horace primarily sold his “Revelation Kilns” for the purpose of firing porcelain teeth. As china painting continued to rise in popularity in the 1870s, Horace pivoted his business to include kilns built specifically to fire pottery.           

Around the year 1897, Mary Chase became a traveling kiln saleswoman hired by Horace to promote the use of the Revelation Kiln to china painting enthusiasts across the country. Mary Chase provided Horace with much needed insight into how these kilns might better serve their makers. Mary's advice and guidance eventually transformed their working relationship into a life-long business partnership.

In 1901, Pewabic Co-Founders Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace J. Caulkins established what would become Pewabic Pottery in a carriage house at the well-known Ransom Gillis House in Detroit’s Brush Park. The budding business was officially named in 1903 after a copper mine near Mary Chase’s hometown of Hancock, Michigan.

Sepia film scan image of the Stable Studio in the Brush Park district of Detroit.Exterior of the Stable Studio in Brush Park circa 1903

That same year in 1903 marked the founding of Ford Motor Company. During this time, Detroit was one of the major U.S. cities at the helm of the Industrial Revolution. Alternatively, the Arts & Crafts movement in America became popular as it responded to the ever-changing landscape–– emphasizing the importance of handcrafted goods and celebrating natural materials.

Film scan of Detroit at Woodward Ave. and Jefferson Ave. in the early 1900s

Artists aligning with the Arts & Crafts style in America tended to embrace the use of machines more readily than their practitioners in the United Kingdom. Arts & Crafts designers in Britain, for instance, typically had a more negative perspective on machine intervention of any kind.

The unifying sentiment between these separate but related art movements centered around the idea that beautiful, intentionally-built pieces help to enhance everyday life. A focus on functionality resulted in many Arts & Crafts artists specializing in decorative arts and architecture rather than what we might consider fine art, such as painting and sculpture.

Sepia film photo scan of Mary Chase Perry Stratton sitting in a long gown, putting the finishing touches on a vase in the Stable Studio circa 1904.Mary Chase Perry Stratton working in the Stable Studio circa 1904


Photo of a matte green glazed lamp from Pewabic's museum collection on display in the exhibition entitled "Pewabic: Detroit's Pottery"Mary Chase’s new ambition was to expand her knowledge of the full ceramic process rather than continuing her pursuit of “hobby” china painting. Ceramic work made by Pewabic during its early years was reflective of the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement of the time. Many pieces during this period were inspired by Michigan’s natural landscape and incorporated modeled sculptural pieces–– all crafted through the lens of the movement. Mary Chase recollects an affinity for nature from a young age.

She takes note of specificities in her unpublished autobiography that are impressive for someone of such a young age. She writes, “I am sure, my subconscious mind began to store away note on design arrangements of areas, and changing borders.”. She continues, “There were other things–– a little turtle with quivering legs… colored singing shells.” Mary Chase’s “flowing matte” green glaze was used almost exclusively during the early days of the pottery. A great example of this glaze application is on display now in "The Early Years" section of "Pewabic: Detroit's Pottery".

Pictured above: "flowing matte" green glazed lamp from Pewabic's museum collection circa 1904-1907


Dark sepia film photo scan of a exhibition that took place in the Stable Studio in 1903. There are ceramic pieces lining the left wall alongside tropical-looking plants and foliage.Stable Studio exhibit featuring Arts & Crafts style pots circa 1903

As their business continued to grow, Mary Chase and Horace set their sights on expansion. Blueprints for the pottery that still operates today as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and National Historic Landmark were drafted in 1906 and designed by William Buck Stratton and Frank Baldwin. William was a friend of Mary Chase and Horace prior to this undertaking. William and Mary wed in 1918, eleven years after the pottery was built in 1907. 

Scans of the blueprints of Pewabic Pottery designed by William Buck Stratton and Frank Baldwin in 1906. This blueprint details the front of the building with Pewabic's signature chimney.Blueprints of Pewabic Pottery designed by William Buck Stratton and Frank Baldwin in 1906

The building itself can be described as Tudor Revival. Designers William and Frank took direct inspiration from the Kent district in England, where Horace’s family came from. The Kentish architectural style was popular and highly regarded during the Arts & Crafts movement.

Black and white photo of Pewabic Pottery's exterior taken pre-1912.Photo of Pewabic Pottery as it stands now pre-1912

As we continue to dive deeper into our archival collection and the stories behind Pewabic's rich legacy, follow along for more about the Arts & Crafts movement in America and its influence on Pewabic’s past and present. We look forward to sharing more about architect, designer, and artist William Buck Stratton, including his years with Mary and the build-out of Pewabic Pottery. Stay tuned and subscribe to our newsletter so you never miss a new story from the archive! 

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  • May I suggest you include a photo and description of the green glazed cups and pitcher made by Mary Stratton? in 1908 or 1909 and gifted by Horace Caulkins to my Grandparents, Dr. Bion L. Bates and his soon to be wife, Wilma, as a wedding present in 1909. I included a hand written letter from Horace to my Grandfather, who was also a dentist. This was a gift to me upon their deaths and I donated it to the Museum at Pewabic a few years ago. Some of the cups have the oak leaf design on the bottom.

    Susan M Smith on
  • I would love to know more about Pewabic’s commission (ca. 1908) for the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. It was a major commission, one that not only occurred at a key time in the pottery’s history and at the height of the Arts and Crafts era, but also a project in collaboration with Ralph Adams Cram, the nation’s pre-eminent gothic revival architect of the time.

    John Abdenour on
  • We love visiting Pewabic Pottery every time we are in Detroit. We always enjoy look among the designs from newer artist but my heart always loves the standard Pewabic pieces. Pewabic has been a large part of Detroit architecture and know it will continue long into the future to influence design.

    Theresa Gardzinski on
  • Love the article! Love Detroit’s own Mary Stratton! What a Blessing to have her in Detroit. Thank you All the care and consciousness for the people who keep Pewabic alive, including my brother who took classes and made beautiful pottery as gifts…. So Pewabic looking too!

    Ronda Shallow on

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