The Bell Pottery Collection At The Renfrew Museum In Waynesboro, Pa.

November 30, 2018

The Renfrew Museum in Waynesboro, Pa., has been a must-see destination on my radar for several years, but living near Boston, Mass., it has been a little out of the way. During a recent trip to the Mid-Atlantic, I made it a priority to make it to Waynesboro to see this small museum’s permanent exhibit of red earthenware and stoneware, which happens to be the country’s largest public collection of pottery from the Bell family of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
While on the trip, en route to the museum, I had a chance to acquire a 19th-century red earthenware apothecary jar. In fact, the characteristic that really spoke to me about this jar is that it retained its original merchant label from Houser’s Drug Store on West Main Street in downtown Emmitsburg, Md., a historic little town located about 15 miles southeast of Waynesboro. A previous owner had left a note adhered to the interior of the original tin lid, suggesting that John Bell (1800-80) may have made the jar in Waynesboro. Potters in the Waynesboro area were small, family-oriented businesses and manufactured wares for the surrounding communities.
According to the Renfrew Museum, “The historic folk potteries of the Franklin County region were part of a larger folk art tradition that developed and flourished in the Cumberland and Shenandoah Valleys of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. They supplied a variety of wares that met the food preparation and storage needs of nearby farm families and communities, often associated with the Pennsylvania German cultural tradition. They also met the aesthetic needs and norms of rural life.”
The Renfrew Museum was established in 1973 through a generous bequest on behalf of Emma Geiser Nicodemus (1892-1973). The original farmstead was owned by Daniel Royer (1762-1838) from the 1790s through the 1830s and later owned by the Nicodemus family. Much of the pottery collection is displayed in glass cases inside the Visitors Center, which happens to be a converted barn original to the property.
If you are not familiar with the Renfrew Museum, it is a must-visit. The picturesque landscape surrounding the farm buildings is breathtaking, and there is more to see than simply pottery.
Of course, the focus of the pottery collection centered around John Bell. Born in Hagerstown, Md., Bell learned the potter’s trade from his father, Peter Bell (1775-1847), and he later emerged as one of America’s preeminent red earthenware and stoneware potters once his pottery opened in 1833.
In many ways, Bell’s techniques and innovative glazes are among the best produced during the period; many scholars even refer to some of Bell’s red earthenware production as the best in America.
Upon Bell’s death in 1880, his son, John W. Bell (1828-95), who worked for his father for many years, gained ownership of the pottery and operated the Waynesboro business from 1881 until his death in 1895. There was a fire in 1899, and the Bell pottery ended production all together in Waynesboro in 1908.
An employee of the Bell pottery, not largely recognized today, Mary Elizabeth, was John W.’s sister and was employed during his tenure as a decorator. She also signed pieces. To my knowledge, she’s one of the few females associated with utilitarian pottery production during this time period.
As I entered the museum Visitors Center, my eyes were immediately drawn to the crystal clear glass cases that lined the back half of the room. Inside these cases were dozens of original molds used at the Bell pottery in the 1800s. Surrounding the molds in every direction was stoneware and red earthenware, as well as some original photographs and a book preserving birth and death records. Resting in front of the exhibit was a painted rooster weathervane that once stood atop the Bell pottery.
I quickly noticed red earthenware impressed with John Bell’s first known mark, “I. BELL,” but there were also many pieces stamped with some of the Bell pottery’s better-known marks, like “J. Bell,” “John Bell,” “John Bell / Waynesboro,” and “John W. Bell / Waynesboro.”
Red earthenware from other potters is also represented in the collection, such as Bell’s brother, Solomon Bell (1817-82), in Strasburg, Va.; another brother, Upton Bell (1820-99), in Waynesboro; Daniel M. Baker’s Pottery in Waynesboro; Anthony Baecher in Winchester, Va.; Jacob Heart in Chambersburg, Pa.; and the J. Eberly & Company pottery, also in Strasburg, Va.
Displayed directly in the middle of the exhibit are five exceptional objects; these pieces must attract attention from just about anyone who walks through the barn doors into the Visitors Center. As I walked closer, I came face-to-face with three extraordinary and rare large lions, expressing dramatic facial features and manufactured with a tremendous amount of skill. Two of the lions were stamped “S. Bell & Son / Strasburg,” decorated with a polychrome glaze, standing almost 15 inches tall and nearly 21 inches long. A third lion of comparable size stood to the left, adorned in a subtler glaze attributed to John Bell. Similar, but smaller lions made by both Bell brothers are also in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winterthur, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Standing proudly to the right of the lions is a large two-piece water cooler made by John Bell, manufactured with two dolphin handles, many decorations in relief, an accomplished glaze and a wonderful lid with intricate ornamental design.
Hanging above the lions and water cooler is a late 19th-century pastel portrait on paper of John Bell attributed to Tillie Bell, whom some presentation jars are known today inscribed with her name. This was also a topic of interest published in the 2005 edition of Ceramics in America, titled, “Bell Family Presentation Jar.”
As I stood, admiring these objects and consuming the local history that surrounded me, the museum’s executive director, Dade Royer, arrived to give me a tour.
The Nicodemus Center for Ceramic Studies, a nonprofit organization in Waynesboro, which preserves, collects, exhibits and interprets historic folk pottery, recently permanently loaned the Renfrew Museum 59 pieces of pottery made by John Bell, Daniel Baker, Jacob Heart, Peter Bell, Upton Bell, as well as other potters and unmarked wares.
These pieces are all displayed on the second floor of the circa 1812-15 Royer-Nicodemus House, located directly in front of the Visitors Center. The most significant piece of pottery from this collection is likely a small, tin-glazed red earthenware jar with cobalt decoration made by John W. Bell, which has been inscribed around the rim “April 22, 1858 Waynesboro.” Furthermore, the base is inscribed “JWB,” and the jar has also been stamped “John Bell.” This type of tin-glazed red earthenware is well-known from the Bell pottery today but is also considered very rare.
Two slip-decorated bowls in the exhibit were commissioned from John Bell (about 1840) for the Snow Hill Society. Even though these bowls are widely published today, I never get tired of seeing them. A large group of “Nunnery bowls” sold in 1997 when the contents of the Snow Hill Nunnery were sold by Horst Auctioneers in Ephrata, Pa. It was published in Maine Antique Digest that 40 matching bowls were made for the society, reportedly used to serve stew during a ritual love feast by the German Seventh Day Baptists of the Snow Hill Society. Snow Hill was in Quincy, Pa., close to Waynesboro.
This church may have been a regular customer of the Bell pottery, seeing that other marked wares from John Bell were at Snow Hill.
All in all, it took me a few hours to see the entire pottery collection, and it’s an experience I will never forget. Witnessing all of this material together really composes a larger landscape of the skill possessed by the Bell family and Waynesboro potters. This area’s production is an importnant story for anyone interested in utilitarian wares and folk pottery.
Upon leaving the museum, I asked the location of where John Bell’s pottery stood and was told although it is gone, it was nearby in downtown Waynesboro. An old building partially occupies the site along with a parking lot; however, seeing this site completed my trip. I saw hundreds of pieces of pottery made in Waynesboro in the 1800s and now stood at the location where much of it was made, the spot where much of the best red earthenware and stoneware in 19th-century America was produced.
The Renfrew Museum and Park is located at 1010 E. Main St., Waynesboro, Pa.
To learn more, visit www.renfrewmuseum.org.
Photos by the author with permission of the museum.


Sources:

Comstock, H..E. The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region. The University Press of North Carolina, 1994.
Manger, Connie and George Manger. Pottery from the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. Hagerstown, MD: Dr. George and Connie Manger, 2003.
Rice, Albert H. and John B. Stoudt. The Shenandoah Pottery. Shenandoah Publishing House, 1929.
Smith, Jane M. Historic Folk Pottery from the Collection of the Renfrew Museum and Park. Renfrew Committed Inc., Nicodemus Center for Ceramic Studies Inc. and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, October 2005.
Wiltshire, William E. Folk Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company Inc., 1975.

 

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