The pottery of the Shenandoah region was influenced primarily by immigrants and first or second generation German tradesmen. English influences were significant but played a lesser role in the overall Valley tradition.
Between 1745 and 1750 pottery began to be processed in the Valley. In Frederick County, Maryland, which at that time included Washington County, Lawerence Sproutsman, potter, was active. John George Weis arrived in the Hagerstown area around 1750 and his major influence on Valley pottery-ware has earned him the distinction of being called the father of the Shenandoah Valley pottery tradition. Much of Weis' techniques in decoration and form of utilitarian ware can be seen throughout the years of the Valley production. A Sabbatarian commune advanced to Strasburg, Shenandoah County, from the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, and produced pottery. This group arrived about 1757 and in 1761 their pottery production began. Their output was so limited that it did not affect the Valley style. One or two of their pottery artifacts possibly exist today; authentication has never been produced.
In Winchester production began, as far as is known, around the early 1770s. At that time Philip Woolwine was producing pottery. His artifacts have not been authenticated. Peter Lauck also made pottery in Winchester around the same time; possibly as early the late 1760's. His site has revealed significant evidence.
Other Valley communities supported potters early in history. The Pitmans were working in Stephens City, Frederick County, in the 1770-80's, perhaps earlier. Strasburg's Peter Grim and his sons produced pottery commercially around 1783. In Woodstock, Shenandoah County, Frederick Wolford was possibly producing pottery there as early as 1772. In 1804, potters were leaving a competitive production climate in Hagerstown and moving up the Valley, especially to New Market, Shenandoah County. Some of these potters moved on into the Midwest. These particular potters, and others, have propagated the Shenandoah style into the manner in which many of mid and western American local styles are defined. In Harrisonburg the Logans, father and sons, emigrated from Ireland to produce there around 1820. Here, Andrew Coffman, who learned his trade in the Hagerstown style in New Market, set up a shop in Rockingham County. He trained and employed many potters of the extended Coffman family. This group became so large and productive that a tradition and style within a style emerged. This Rockingham style is completely a scion of the Hagerstown format. Very little 'out of Valley' influences were interjected into this isolated Rockingham County area of the times. Although earthenware was abundantly produced there it became a major American stoneware source. Going south up to Lexington, Rockbridge County, Benjamin Darst, who learned his trade in Shenandoah County, was producing around 1785.
Abundant and rich Valley earthen and stoneware clays were an enticement to potters. Here they could possibly own a shop and clay source at the same location, or at least very close. The agrarian society had great needs for pottery products. The Valley was distance impaired from major towns and import prices were subject to freight costs. This gave local potters with cheap resources at hand, clay, wood, and some glaze ingredients, a financial trump over tradesmen from the larger towns, Alexandria, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
For the sake of a more orderly discussion, the history of the Valley pottery will be presented by identifying three distinct chronological periods and their characteristics.
First Period: 1750 to 1820, the Valley's colonial and Neoclassical eras. In this period potters were arriving and establishing their shops. Apprenticeships were primarily limited to family members. This process limited competition and allowed the potter more cash to invest in land. Many of the potters became quite wealthy.
Second Period: 1820 to 1870, the Empire and antebellum years. In this period is found an awakening of potters, who were producing primarily utilitarian devices, to the awareness of values from a more varied ceramic expression. Incomes did not leave much investment leverage.
Third Period: 1870 to 1933, the time of reconstruction and what has been called the "Golden Age" of Valley pottery production. The ravages of the War Between the States were very severe in the Shenandoah Valley. Many potteries stopped production during that conflict and the rebuilding and new production was slow and financially cumbersome. Workers were abundant but salaries were below normal for the ten years following 1865. Competition was keen in this period and the phrase "poor as a potter" came into use. This "Golden Age" was the result of much stoneware production. The Shenandoah and Rockingham County pottters were transporting their stoneware throughout the eastern south and many northern states via the railroad.
In the 1750's the Shenandoah Valley was America's new frontier. Indian incursions were not uncommon. Freedom from competition was an apparent factor for the early potters settling in the region. The lack of competition in these population exploding settlements gave the early potter a chance for cash and trade. The 'great wagon road,' which passed through the Valley, was replete with wagons moving families south and west. This migration had its positive effects on Valley tradesmen. By parlaying these assets into real estate investments, some potters were considered wealthy. Hagerstown primarily and Winchester and Frederick County secondarily were the centers of ceramic production during this period.
In this period stoneware was produced in the Valley little to none at all. Merchants were want to import such ware from Alexandria, Virginia. In Alexandria, the potteries of Henry Piercy, Hugh Smith, and John Swann supplied the Valley region. The absence of sufficient potters in the northern Valley brought about much ceramic commercialism between local merchants and the pottery industry of Hagerstown, Maryland. One period Winchester writer explained that when people wanted beautiful pottery it was purchased from Hagerstown. For this desirable reason, many Hagerstown potters who were temporarily out of work would become a welcome itinerant throughout the area. This fact became one of the cardinal reasons that the Hagerstown techniques became well dispersed throughout the Shenandoah style.
In this period the majority of utilitarian ware was quite bulbous. Flower pots were large in circumference and storage jars were common in six to ten gallons. Rectilinear forms were not as common. Art forms were quite limited and consisted primarily of presentation writing on the surface of hollow ware. Items which became production casualties in this period were lamp stands, betty-lamp forms, possets, and others.
In this period potters were likely to be community and church leaders.
The second period was encumbered by increased competition, a poor economy throughout the first fifteen to twenty years, and foreign and domestic imports. The potter's incomes were not in step with the economy and various ware decorations, which were time consuming, suffered. Potters began producing more art, molded, and toy forms to increase saleable items and compete with imports. John Bell became associated with Jacob Heart of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and there learned the art of molding which was common to English ceramics but absent in Hagerstown's strong German styles. Solomon Bell learned this molding art from his brother John in 1840 and brought it to the areas of Winchester and Strasburg. This molding technique did not advance south of Strasburg until Emanuel Suter of Rockingham County, who was trained by Andrew Coffman, sometime after 1864 most likely brought it from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was employed at Cowden and Wilcox. The War Between the States was a major interruption to Valley production. As reconstruction advanced the industry became more of a recognized force, primarily due to the availability of shipments by rail. The Bell family was the primary pottery production force during this period; John and family in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, Peter in Winchester, and Solomon, Samuel and his family in Strasburg. During this period Hagerstown was in major decline for pottery production. One major reason for this decline was John Bell's voluminous and artful production; just a few miles distant. Bell's products were pervasive throughout the area.
During the second period more rectilinear forms came into the production schedule of Valley potters. The isolation of the first period Valley potters came under the scrutiny of out side influences; especially with more rapid production skills and in kilning techniques. Stoneware was not known to have been produced until the early 1820 's when Adam Keister, Sr. began making it in Strasburg. Peter Bell began production about 1830 and it was not until around 1850 that John Bell became a first time, but major, producer. Most of the new producers of stoneware were located in Strasburg and south through Rockingham, Augusta, and Rockbridge Counties.
The biggest production casualty in this period was the considerable loss of the bulbous jar and jug forms.
All product forms that tend toward a tradition seem to have a time reference known as its golden age. During the first twenty five years of this third period production was "booming." Stoneware finally came of age and was abundantly more in production than earthenware. Around 1875, in the areas of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, Strasburg and Rockingham County, the Valley's 'golden age' of pottery production had started. It lasted for the next fifteen years.
During this period the Eberly works came to the forefront as Strasburg production dominated the Valley output. Rockingham County potters and John Bell's shop were none the less major contenders. The Eberly's employed many different potters. One notable employee, Levi Bagerley from England, was a considerable influence on his employer and the Valley style. Letcher Eberly who was responsible for the polychrome glaze, now associated with Strasburg, was making a real effort to produce art pottery. In this period the Valley tradition was also influenced in a major way by a new injection of German form styles, an inheritance from Anthony Wise Bacher who moved to Winchester about 1854. The War Between the States caused major unemployment in Strasburg and one master potter, Lorenzo Fleet, became employed at the Bacher shop in Frederick County, Virginia. Fleet carried the Bacher techniques to the Bells and Eberlys in Strasburg, thus adding those German influences to the Valley style.
Valley pottery production deteriorated, due to major imports and new canning devices. Between 1897 and 1915, a once burning Valley production was reduced to smoldering. Almost all remaining potters in the Valley area were taking other employment.
Between 1928 and 1933 the Round Hill pottery came into existence in Frederick County, Virginia. This works, starting as a hobby, became a formidable producer, for its time, of art ware. Theodore "Thedy" Fleet one of the all time master potters in the Valley, a long time employee of the Eberlys, became the chief and only production potter. Today artifacts form this site are mostly collected locally. They have however, reached to considerable values.