Mary Chase Perry and the Origins of Pewabic Pottery
Mary Chase Perry in her “stable studio,” Detroit, Michigan, 1903. / THF700807
Before establishing what would become Detroit’s renowned Pewabic Pottery, Mary Chase Perry got her start in china painting. She was among countless women taking up the hobby as the Arts & Crafts movement gained momentum in late 19th-century America. China painting was considered a socially appropriate activity that offered women a creative and social outlet. While most china painters remained amateur artists, some managed to turn this pastime into a full-time profession. An exceptional few, including Mary Chase Perry, evolved beyond decorating blank pieces of china to become successful artists, creating, decorating, glazing and firing their own pottery. In her fearless pursuit of an ambitious vision, Perry developed the experience and confidence required to guide the successful operation of a large-scale pottery at a time when avenues to independence for American women were few.
View of Hancock, Mary Chase Perry’s birthplace and early childhood home, from Houghton, Michigan, circa 1905. Perry’s father provided medical services for workers at the Atlantic, Franklin, Quincy and Pewabic copper mines. / THF118857
Mary Chase Perry (later Stratton, 1867-1961) nurtured an interest in art from her earliest years in Hancock, located near the northernmost tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her father worked as a doctor for area copper miners and their families. She drew design inspiration later in life from childhood memories, recalling that “colors affected me tremendously, making for cheer or gloom in my surroundings...” After her father’s death in 1877, Perry’s mother moved the family to Ann Arbor and later to Detroit. During her teenage years, Perry developed drawing and painting skills through informal study, correspondence courses and lessons with local artists. This artistic exploration intersected with the china decorating craze, as Detroit became a hotbed for china painters in the 1880s. “With this contagion in the air,” she explained, “I took two lessons from a celebrated china decorator.”
The year after Perry’s high school graduation, she began a formal art education. Perry completed two terms at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1887-89. Here, she first worked with clay, became acquainted with leaders in the world of china decorating and visited the area’s commercial potteries. Perry entered the china painting business in the summer of 1891, when she purchased a portable kiln and set up a studio in Asheville, North Carolina. Teaching herself along the way, Perry offered classes and painted her own work for sale. By fall 1893, she occupied a studio back in Detroit. Perry committed herself seriously to improving her own craft and advancing American ceramic arts more broadly. She taught drawing classes for china painters and exhibited her own pieces, earning acclaim for original designs that diverged from more typical copies of popular patterns.
Mary Chase Perry taught typical patterns, like the botanical designs seen on these plates by amateur china painters around 1891. But her own work diverged from tradition, featuring original floral designs and human figures. / THF139333
A boost to Mary Chase Perry’s career came around 1896, when Horace J. Caulkins (1850-1923) asked her to help promote his Detroit-based company’s new “Revelation” kilns. He hoped to capitalize on surging demand from china painters for small, affordable kilns in which to fire their decorated pieces. Perry traveled widely, demonstrating and taking orders for Revelation kilns in cities across the country while also becoming increasingly involved with ceramic art organizations (including the influential National League of Mineral Painters), contributing to various china painting magazines and fostering a vast network of professional contacts.
Despite her success and growing role in china painting, Perry envisioned more for herself and was eager to expand her skills. Around 1900, some leaders in the American ceramic community began encouraging china painters to take up studio pottery. This challenging transition appealed to Mary Chase Perry’s appetite for further artistic expression.
Vase made by Grueby Faience Company, a commercial pottery in Boston, 1897-1910. While helping to install a Revelation kiln at Grueby in 1900-01, Mary Chase Perry observed the pottery’s operation in detail. / THF176917
Mary Chase Perry knew little about making pottery, but she knew what it took to learn new things — research, training, experimentation. Perry had become interested in both pottery making and underglaze decoration — decoration applied before glazing and firing — which yielded different results from overglaze china painting. (China decorators typically painted on blanks that had already been glazed and fired, sometimes overlaying their decorated work with glaze and firing again in a kiln.) Perry read all she could and made careful study of museum collections. She took classes with leaders in the field and attended a rigorous program at the New York State School of Clay-Working and Ceramics, where she learned to prepare clay, make forms, and create and apply glazes. She used her sales role for Revelation kilns to investigate American pottery production, touring several major commercial potteries (even working at one for a time, as the firm’s first female employee) and writing others with questions about the pottery-making process. Throughout, Perry kept a careful record of her lessons and observations.
Vase made by Mary Chase Perry to demonstrate the potential of a new kiln for studio potters, 1901-1904. / THF176713
Simultaneously, Perry worked with Horace J. Caulkins and others to develop a new, high-heat kiln that would allow ceramicists to create pottery with underglaze decoration in their own studios. After much experimentation with clay formulation and firing techniques, Perry and Caulkins unveiled Revelation Kiln No. 3 in 1901. Perry created demonstration pieces like the vase above (stamped “Revelation Pottery”) to illustrate its potential.
Perry finally felt ready to begin a studio pottery. In the fall of 1901, with support from Caulkins (who would remain a constant friend and business partner until his death in 1923), she arranged to rent and renovate an unused carriage house. In this “stable studio,” Perry designed vessels and formulated glazes, and she and Caulkins continued their firing experiments. Through research, communication with experts and, of course, experimentation, Perry began to develop her own style, increasingly pursuing pottery that resembled ancient forms and colorations. She produced enough stock for sale and small exhibitions, steadily growing public interest in the “stable studio” operation. By the end of 1903, Perry had hired a professional potter (freeing her up to focus on ornamentation and glazes), secured the pottery’s first large commercial order and chosen the trade name “Pewabic” — a nod to her birthplace near the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and to the copper used in some of her glazes. (Based on the report of an acquaintance, Perry misunderstood the meaning of “pewabic” to have been associated with copper in the indigenous Ojibwe language.) Pewabic Pottery’s reputation grew quickly through advertisements, exhibitions and word of mouth. Glowing reviews lauded Pewabic’s simple forms and unique glazes. In these early years, the pottery produced vessels of all kinds, as well as lamps and tiles, and quickly outgrew the small “stable studio.”
This Pewabic vase, 1903-1907, is representative of pieces made in the “stable studio,” with forms thrown by potter Joseph Heerich (1853-1938) and applied decoration and glazing by Mary Chase Perry. It was done in a popular matte green, but Pewabic produced pottery in numerous colors and textures. / THF176898
Pewabic Pottery moved in 1907 to a new building designed for Caulkins and Perry by architect and friend William B. Stratton (whom Perry would marry in 1918). In the new building, Perry focused on developing the simple forms, iridescent glazes and architectural tile installations that made Pewabic famous nationwide. She determinedly guided the pottery’s operation until her death in 1961, drawing on the same ambition, commitment to learning and skillful confidence that had characterized her remarkable china painting career.
Later examples of Pewabic Pottery vessels and tile, circa 1920-1950. / THF176894, THF176893, THF176757, THF176705, THF191935
Mary Chase Perry stood among other noteworthy entrepreneurs. Explore these links to learn about some exceptional women in art pottery, including Susan Frackelton and Maria Longworth Nichols, and view highlights from our art pottery collection online or on exhibit at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. For more on Pewabic Pottery, see Cara Catallo’s Pewabic Pottery: A History Handcrafted in Detroit or Thomas W. Brunk’s definitive Pewabic Pottery: The American Arts and Crafts Movement Expressed in Clay (sources of the quotations excerpted above).
Saige Jedele is associate curator at The Henry Ford.