Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sherwood Brothers: Under the Radar

Almost two decades ago, I wrote an article entitled “Who Made America’s Whiskey Ceramics?” At that time I was convinced that most, if not all, of the fancy jugs and bottles were made in Scotland or England and shipped to our shores. Alan Blakeman, the leading guru on British bottles, disagreed. He argued that the U.S. must have had
pottery firms with the capability of designing and executing even intricate transfer designs. Alan was right.

I saw the proof for myself in 1998. It was a small stoneware crock, a salesman's sample for the Sherwood Bros. Pottery of New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Shown here in a detail, the crock is drawn with an elegance and precision equal to anything the “Old World” could produce. The ad copy on the item offers to provide underglaze transfer printed items of equal perfection to Sherwood Brothers clients.

With about 7,000 population New Brighton is nestled in the western Appalachian mountains not far from Pittsburgh. Founded in 1815 and shown here in an 1883 sketch, the town is situated on a bluff on the west bank of the Beaver River. Because of good clay sources in the region, the town spawned a number of ceramic manufacturers. About 1879, the Sherwood brothers, G.W. and W.D., founded their pottery. By 1895 they were employing as many as 140 workers and had the capacity to produce two railroad carloads of pottery per day. Their success extended into the 20th Century.

For most of its existence Sherwood Brothers had a highly skilled force of pottery workers and artisans. Unlike other American potteries of the time, this firm had mastered the art of the underglaze transfer. This process requires great skill and precision. Sherwood Brothers boasted of its “Sherwood Ware” as a “decidedly superior line, made up in a decidedly superior way.” Its transfer work, the company said, was accomplished “from fine designs cut in copper, bringing out patterns than cannot possibly be reproduced by a rubber stamp.” Stamping was a more commonly used, and cruder, method of inking a design or label on pottery. The firm bragged about its workforce: “Sherwood artists, experts who devote all their time to this work, are constantly producing some strikingly beautiful results.”

A catalog from early in that period shows Sherwood Bros. Company offering a wide range of stoneware items, including whiskey jugs, stoneware bottles, inks, canning jars, jelly crocks, mugs and steins, pitchers, teapots, stacking bowls, cuspidors, match scratchers, and water coolers, chicken watering fonts, ice tubs, butter and preserve jars and -- not to be overlooked -- chamber pots. Shown here are examples of their jugs.

Because a major component of the firm’s trade was whiskey containers, the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 was serious blow to its business. This shock was compounded by the onset of the Great Depression a few years later. Business directories indicate that by 1931 the number of employees had dwindled to 40 and by 1935 was only 35. About 1939 Sherwood Bros. went out of business.

Other defunct potteries such as those in Red Wing, Minnesota; Knowles, Taylor & Knowles in East Liverpool, Ohio; and White’s of Utica, New York, have continued to attracted the attention of generations of collectors to their ceramic containers. Sherwood Brothers, perhaps because they did not always mark their products, consistently have flown below the collector radar. As America’s foremost transfer printing pottery of the 19th and 20th Centuries, they deserve a much better fate.

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