Meet the Potters
St. Louis has a long tradition of cultivating both artists and avenues for delivering their work to receptive audiences. River Styx magazine, for one, has been a vessel for poetry, art, fiction, and nonfiction since 1975, presenting work from Pulitzer Prize winners, poets laureate, and novices alike.
But before River Styx there was The Potter’s Wheel, a handmade magazine featuring original drawings, calligraphy, poetry, and photography. (You can browse several of the issues here.) It was a passion project produced monthly from November 1904 to October 1907 by a group of young women who called themselves the Potters.
The decades preceding The Potter’s Wheel were volatile ones for women in St. Louis and across the country. Women's suffrage still wasn't especially popular in the broader public, as evidenced by former president Grover Cleveland's remark in a 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal essay that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Views of higher education for women were also less than positive in certain circles. Influential psychologist G. Stanley Hall argued in his 1904 book Adolescence that women shouldn’t be allowed higher education at all because it ruined their reproductive systems and undermined their “natural roles” as wives and mothers. Nonetheless, the idea of the New Woman had taken root, and feminism had begun to grow.
The Potters were mentored by Lillie Rose Ernst, a woman who, to put it mildly, excelled in higher education and in her career. Ernst graduated with magna cum laude honors from Washington University in 1892 and was the first woman appointed assistant superintendent of instruction in the St. Louis Public Schools system. She had a deep devotion to art and nature, telling her students, “It is our playtime that should net us re-creation, enthusiasm for work, joy for living, ever-widening fields for thought, deeper thrillings of the soul, reverence, and an ever growing consciousness and comprehension of truth and beauty and law.” The Potters were just as devoted to Ernst. They described themselves as “idolatrous females worshipping a yellow-haired Amazon,” calling Ernst a “blond brute . . . the star of our existence.”
The Potters—all women in their late teens and early 20s—were budding creatives, some of whom left indelible imprints on the arts. St. Louis native and Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Teasdale was a Potter. So was sculptor Caroline Risque, who attended Washington University School of Art before founding the art department at John Burroughs School. Sisters, and respected photographers, Williamina and Grace Parrish were proud Potters too.
The group welcomed criticism, both from their mentor and each other. According to Katharine T. Corbett's book In Her Place, the Potters “circulated the completed magazine for the members to record their critiques. As serious artists they did not hesitate to criticize each other’s work. They did not feel compelled to be polite or diplomatic; such traditionally ‘lady-like’ behavior would not improve their skill as artists or enhance the quality of their production.” They filled booklets with their critiques, four of which can be found within The Potter’s Wheel Collection, housed in the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center.
As unabashed as their criticisms of one another were, so too were their frequent affirmations of solidarity, as displayed in Williamina Parrish’s poem “Rubaiyat of Friendship”:
The desert path is dry and hot and wide,
And shifting ever is the desert tide,
But with glad heart I join the caravan,
For art thou not to journey at my side?
When, in the winter thou went numb with cold,
I opened wide my garment’s ample fold,
And took thee in, and breathed upon my hands,
And saved thee, O, more-loved than wine or gold!
For the women who produced the magazine—and the women inspired by it—calls for sisterhood and unity would echo throughout the feminist movement, even long after the Potters went their separate ways.
—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor