Looking at the Museum's Collection of German-Influenced Pottery

23, March 2011
Brown ceramic jug with snake-shaped handle, made by August Blanck, ca. 1867–1890.

In my research on the Missouri History Museum's handmade ceramics, I came across a very interesting collection of pottery made by German Missourians, especially those found around the Boonville area, in the 19th century. Some of the ceramics in this collection were acquired by Charles van Ravenswaay, former director of the Museum.

The history of ceramic production in Missouri is especially fascinating to me because it is not what I expected. Anglo-American settlers—a large number emigrating from Germany—started producing pottery before the 1830s in Boonville. Those potters who were trained in Germany became the dominant artisans by 1850. Surprisingly, pottery making was not a full-time job. In fact, it was a seasonal undertaking that would allow people to earn money during the months when farming was difficult or not feasible. Even people who weren’t farmers made pottery to supplement their income when their normal occupations weren’t enough. The majority of the potters’ customers were local, too.

By the 1880s, ceramics were dwarfed by glass and metalware in popularity due to new advances in mass production techniques, which allowed glass like the Mason jar to come to the forefront while handmade crafts gradually declined.

There were many popular potters who began in Boonville. For example, John M. Jegglin, originally from Wurttemberg-Baden, Germany, established his pottery in Boonville in the 1850s, during the peak of Missouri German ceramics. August Blanck was a potter who first worked at the Jegglin Pottery before moving to California, Missouri, to start his own pottery business. Another German American was Charles Weyrich, a native of Hesse-Homberg who began working as a potter in Boonville before 1860 and operated his own business by 1870. These men worked in either stoneware or earthenware, or both. Sometimes, they were known for certain kinds of ceramics; for example, Weyrich established a name for himself with his earthenware flowerpots.

I have to admit that the van Ravenswaay collection is captivating. Two of the pieces are ceramic knickknacks or bric-a-brac in the shape of a Turkish slipper and a boot, both dating to around 1880. I was surprised that trinkets were made out of ceramics even in the late 19th century. I had come to think of them as a modern production—mass-produced ceramics made with molding machines. Quite the opposite, these are hand crafted and very charming.

(left to right): Albany slip-glazed ceramic Turkish slipper and miniature brown ceramic boot, both ca. 1880.

Another intriguing piece is a salt-glazed jug with a snake-shaped handle, dating to around 1890 and  on display at the Museum. Although the snake design was a style used at many potteries, this particular jug was made by August Blanck. This in itself deserves merit, but the real show-stopper is the handle that wraps twice around the jug. John M. Jegglin also made a jug with a snake handle (1867–1890), this time with three snakes, each displaying its own pattern—chevrons, scales, or spots. Maybe Blanck was inspired to make his later design when he worked for Jegglin!

My favorite piece has to be the ceramic milk pan with a wooden lid. It’s a grey-glazed stoneware piece with a wide rim. The lid is round and thick, and a nail serves as its finial. I like the combination of the wood with the ceramic. The design is simple yet homey.

Many of the pots in the van Ravenswaay collection have been identified as being locally made or as being in the style of German Missourian ceramics. Much of the time, van Ravenswaay himself found the pieces in Missouri, but the specific potter or pottery manufacturing business has not been identified. This is due partly to the fact that Missouri potters in the 19th century rarely signed their work.

It’s been a pleasure being able to experience the van Ravenswaay collection. The shapes and types of ceramics are very diverse, so I am always seeing something different. There are tall and short ceramics, decorative pieces and plain ones. I come upon new facts while I am researching, and I am sure more are left to be uncovered.

—Alex Choate, Museum volunteer