Pewabic through the years

Pewabic's 120 year history is as storied and vibrant as our many glazes. This timeline features just a taste of our past. When you learn about Pewabic, you learn about the history of Detroit.

founder mary chase perry stratton

Mary Chase Perry was born in 1867 in Hancock in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After her father’s death in 1877, her family moved to Ann Arbor to be close to her older brother Frederick as he attended the University of Michigan. Mary’s love of art developed at a young age, beginning with lessons in watercolors where she often found inspiration in nature. When her brother finished his schooling, the family settled in Detroit where Mary’s passion for the arts flourished. Eventually, she attended the Cincinnati Art Academy where she took up china painting and tried her hand at modeling clay. After finishing her studies, Mary began traveling across the country where she used her skills to teach china painting. Between her travels, she would return to Detroit where her family rented a furnished home in Brush Park. Mary had no idea that her new neighbors, the Caulkins family, would change the trajectory of her life. 

Learn more about Mary Chase Perry Stratton

Founder Horace Caulkins

Horace J. Caulkins was born in 1850 in Ontario, Canada. He made his first big move in 1871 when he came to Detroit at the age of 21. By 1877 he was working as a dealer of dental supplies. During this time, he developed the “Revelation” kiln. This kiln was small but powerful, able to reach temperatures of 2400ºF and created for firing dental enamel. 



Mary was introduced to a Revelation kiln at a local art studio and was impressed by the ease and power of the small kiln, prompting her to purchase her own. Finding out that her neighbor, Horace Caulkins, was the inventor of these modern devices, she partnered with him to act as a saleswoman for the Revelation kilns locally and in her travels.  Mary 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.

Pewabic's early years

1896 - 1900


After years of teaching china painting, Mary had the urge to try something new. She wanted to experiment with ceramic glazes but didn’t know how to make that dream into a reality. After consulting with her now close friend Horace, he was ready to help however he could. Up until this point, Mary had only painted on pre-glazed porcelain and knew nothing about how to work with malleable clay. Mary worked diligently in Horace’s basement, testing clay bodies and learning processes from the ground up. Finally, their experiments were becoming repeatable results and they needed a space to let their work become a business.



In 1900, Mary and Horace found a stable house for rent on Alfred Street behind the Ransom Gillis house in the Brush Park neighborhood of Detroit. The owner, Alanson Fox, was supportive of the idea that his small stable could become their new pottery space and he leased it to them for 8 dollars a month. The new pottery hired its first employee soon afterward. Julius Albus was just 12 years old when he started work in the studio sweeping, cleaning the mills and keeping the new studio organized. After a three week intensive in Alfred, New York, Mary began her true ceramic work, creating lamps, vases and other vessels.



In these early days of experimentation, while Mary was developing glazes and perfecting her processes, her good friend Charles Lang Freer, an industrialist, art collector and patron, pushed Mary to new heights in her artistic goals. In 1902, Freer showed her a small piece of Syrian pottery from his collection that featured a ruby colored metallic iridescent glaze; he challenged Mary to recreate the luster in one of her own pieces. After 4 years and countless trials, Mary presented a sample to Freer which exceeded his expectations. Over the course of her career, Mary created six color variations by adding materials like silver carbonate and copper sulfide to her standard iridescent recipe. This resulted in multiple stunning metallic colors like cobalt blue, rose, green, gold, purple, and copper red. It was innovations like these that cemented Pewabic as a force in the ceramic world.

more about the iridescent glaze



In 1903 Mary brought a few dark green glazed bowls and jars to Burley & Company, a ceramics sales house in Chicago. The samples were a success and they ordered one thousand dollars of whatever the pottery could make. This was the pottery’s first large commission. Up until this time, the maker’s marks on pieces made in the Stable Studio had been inconsistent. Some included Revelation Pottery or Stable Pottery, while others were hand-signed with “Perry” or “MCP”. This large order pushed Mary and Horace to choose “Pewabic” - the name of a copper mine in Mary’s hometown of Hancock, MI - as the new name for their budding pottery. Pewabic comes from the Ojibwe word biiwaabik, meaning iron or metal.

This same year, a second employee was added to the roster - Joseph Heerich. Originally from Alsace-Lorraine, Heerich was a talented wheel thrower with years of experience. Mary would sketch ideas for new forms and Heerich would throw them for her. She would trim the pieces or add decorations to their surfaces. With her extra time, she was able to start experimenting with tile-making and focus on glaze experimentation.



Mary and Horace along with a group of local civic leaders came together in 1906 to create the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts showcasing and celebrating the ideals of the English Arts and Crafts movement. The society’s mission was to exhibit art that embraced the principles of hand-craftsmanship while rejecting the new large-scale industrial world of the 20th century. They offered informal classes taught at their Farmer Street location which grew into a larger creative community. By 1926 they had a formal four-year art program in a larger facility. The school sought pioneers globally and locally to teach painting, sculpting, and other specialty artisanship. Its current location, in Detroit’s cultural center, is an accredited arts college with a new name: the College for Creative Studies.  

1906 - 1907


With their orders adding up and new tile demand, Pewabic was very quickly outgrowing its Stable Studio. In 1906, architects Frank Baldwin and William Buck Stratton were commissioned to design a new building specifically for the pottery. Mary and Buck were longtime friends, having met 16 years earlier. They worked together in the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and both stressed the values of simplicity, utility, and beauty in design. These standards are found in every aspect of the Tudor Revival building designed by Buck which was unveiled in 1907 on East Jefferson.



By 1912, the building was at maximum capacity and there was a need to expand. This new work space was added onto the rear of the building and housed storage and fabrication. It also included the addition of a clay mixer that is still in use today to combine the ingredients that make our stoneware. 1912 was also the year that William Buck Stratton designed a home for Mary on East Grand Boulevard. Their relationship continued to grow through the years and the two eventually married in Horace’s home in 1918.

1913 - 1929


During this time, tile commissions boomed. Pewabic made installations for public and private institutions locally and across the country. Some of the most notable installations include: National Theatre Detroit (1913), Belle Isle Bridge (1913), Detroit Public Library (1920), Sacred Heart Seminary (1924), Detroit Institute of Arts (1925), Detroit Zoo Bird House (1925), Cranbrook Rainbow Fountain (1916) & Christ Church Cranbrook (1928), and Ford Motor Car Co. locations in Highland Park, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Yonkers, and San Juan, Puerto Rico (1911-1920).

map of installations in detroit



In 1923, Horace died unexpectedly. His kiln expertise, strong opinions on glazes and forms, as well as his unyielding friendship were losses that devastated Mary. She had to lean more heavily on her staff and their expertise became more essential in keeping the pottery operating smoothly during this time of transition.



Ecclesiastical installations are a large part of Pewabic’s legacy. Churches around the country feature intricate Pewabic mosaics of geometric designs as well as embossed tiles featuring religious imagery. In March 1924, Mary and her husband sailed abroad to get inspiration for her newest commission- the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. During her travels, Mary visited Portugal, Spain, and Italy; drawing inspiration from Christian and Islamic architecture which greatly influenced her work on large scale installations.



In 1929, The Metropolitan Museum of Art created a display of strictly American artistic home designs called The Architect and the Industrial Arts - An Exhibition of Contemporary American Design. Pewabic partnered with influential Finnish architect and designer Eliel Saarinen to create an eye-catching fireplace in his most critically successful dining room display. The fireplace featured over 500 tiles in deep raisin and silver colors. The fireplace currently resides on Cranbrook’s campus and you can read more about this collaboration on their blog here. The historic exhibit was viewed by over 186,000 visitors and helped spread Pewabic’s name to the greater interior design community. 

Image curtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1927 - 1937


In 1927, Mary and Buck combined their skills to design a home together on 3 Mile Drive in Grosse Pointe Park. Soon after the home’s completion, the country was shaken by the stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. During this time, the once flourishing pottery was in peril. The Great Depression halted new construction which in-turn slowed Pewabic’s tile making. Vases, lamps, and other home decor became a luxury that many Americans could not afford. Even with the pottery’s pivot to smaller, more economical products like buttons and brooches, a tough decision had to be made. Mary had to choose between her beloved home and the pottery. In 1937, she and Buck sold their house and the pottery stayed open.



In 1930, Mary received an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Michigan. Years earlier, she worked with U-M to create its first art program and traveled to the university often as a lecturer. She received an honorary Ph.D. from Wayne State University in 1932. Her years of teaching in the arts and her dedication to collaboration in the ceramics field and beyond have been her legacy. More tangible educational contributions come in the form of tile installations found in schools for students of all ages. Higher education institutions like Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Wayne State and the University of Michigan have historic Pewabic tile murals, facades, and more, while across southeast Michigan, high schools have drinking fountains commemorating class graduations and elementary classrooms have fireplaces featuring animals and storybook characters.

learn about our educational legacy



In 1961, Mary Chase Perry Stratton died. She left her Pewabic shares to Henry Caulkins, Horace Caulkins’ son, who had already inherited his father’s part of the business. This meant that he was the pottery’s first sole owner. With Mary gone, the pottery began to slow and Henry was tasked with determining Pewabic’s next steps, hoping to turn it into an educational facility. During this period, longtime staff member Ella Peters who had been Mary’s bookkeeper and secretary of 37 years oversaw everyday production and was instrumental in keeping the pottery running smoothly.



After presenting the opportunity of ownership to various Detroit institutions, who did not have any interest, Henry asked Michigan State University if they wanted to take over Pewabic. After closing down briefly for renovations, MSU opened the pottery once more in 1967 as a satellite for their ceramics program. During this time, students came to learn the ceramics process from start to finish.

Our connection with MSU

1979 - 1981


By the late 1970s, Pewabic’s outlook was again grim as budget cuts and the pottery’s expensive running costs made running the satellite learning center harder for MSU to rationalize. In 1979, the “Friends of Pewabic” group - eventually becoming the Pewabic Society - was formed. This group of community members concerned for the well being of this historic monument raised money to subsidize the running costs of the pottery to keep MSU’s ownership of the facility possible. Eventually, in 1981, MSU gave the pottery over to the Pewabic Society, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.



The new vision for Pewabic included going back to its roots as a production pottery while keeping the newer educational process added by MSU. The Fabrication department was reestablished and testing began to develop glazes and forms for production and sale. In 1983 the Education studio was created on the second floor in an area formerly known as “The Loft.”



As the years went by, the demand for Pewabic pottery grew and fabrication could not keep up in the historic spaces. A 2,500 square foot addition – the new Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation Pewabic Tile Studio – was opened in 2019 to make room for tile pressing and mold making, while the previous tile making space was used to expand the glazing process. These changes made it possible to ramp up fabrication and keep up with demand.



Pewabic today is an active working pottery, architectural tile studio, ceramic arts education center and vibrant cultural destination that attracts visitors from around the world. Working out of our National Historic Landmark studio on Detroit's east side, we preserve a tradition of hand craftsmanship that has enriched lives for generations. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we continue to be guided by a singular mission: to enrich the human spirit through clay.