Friday, May 7, 2010

Adolph Metzner: Art in Tile

In December 2009, this blog concerned finding the past in cyberspace. My post featured a glass paperweight that revealed the fortunes and conflicts of Hungarian laxative waters a century ago. More recently I purchased a pottery tile that through Internet research has revealed the life and hard times of a talented German immigrant to the United States and his dreams -- and disappointments -- in creating high art through ceramics.

The brown Victorian-style tile, shown here, is marked on the back with the name Hamilton Tile Company. This short-lived firm was the passion of Adolph Metzner who was born in Germany in 1834 and emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1850’s. He settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and learned pharmacy but always dreamed of an artistic career. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the all-German 32nd Indiana Regiment and was made an officer. Shown here in his captain’s uniform, Metzner became the regimental cartographer and artist, creating more than 100 drawings and watercolors of army life. He also was involved in bloody combat at Chickamauga, Shiloh, Missionary Ridge, and other battle sites.

After the war Metzner, apparently at the behest of a fellow officer in the 32nd, settled in Indianapolis. Now married, he put his dreams of being an artist aside and took up pharmacy again, For the next decade and a half, he labored as a druggist. At night, he experimented with making ceramics in a back yard kiln, achieving some proficiency.

When his young wife became ill, he tried to cure her with the medicines he knew, but failed. With her death, Metzner, heartbroken, abandoned pharmacy, pulled up stakes and with his two sons, Otto and Max, moved to Hamilton, an Ohio town near the Indiana border, to pursue his dream. In 1883 he purchased an existing pottery there and set out to make art tiles, which were very popular at the time. He called his operation the Hamilton Tile Company. A contemporary source described Metzner’s efforts:

“There was no money to work with and things looked blue indeed. The tile making was a constant series of hard experiments and the Metzners stood by it nobly. They would work away and get out a batch of tiles and get them in the kiln and would then skirmish around and scare up money enough to buy a load of coal and fire up the kiln and then with anxious hearts they would watch around that kiln hoping for respectable results. When the kiln was opened out would come another failure. And this thing repeated itself time and again. A less hopeful man than Metzner would have quickly given it up.”

But Metzner did not surrender. Beginning in about 1884, with the financial participation of an old Army buddy, success crowned his persistent efforts and the firm produced enameled tiles whose quality was among the highest in the country. Examples are provided here.

Once more, however, Metzner’s dreams were dashed as success was fleeting and lucrative markets proved elusive. By 1901, the pottery had failed financially and was purchased by outside interests. Metzner himself moved to Zanesville, Ohio, to labor for another tile maker. After four years, he moved on to a pottery in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he worked until his retirement. This artistic dreamer, who had seen so much hardship and disappointment, died there in 1918 at the age of 84. His burial site is unknown even to his descendants.

Adolph Metzner’s artistic achievements, however, have been recognized by subsequent generations. Shown here is a tile work depicting Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the work of Metzner’s hand, which recently sold for almost $2,000. His tiles of a monk contemplating a beer was taken by a great grandson to the PBS Antiques Road Show not long ago and priced at $5,000. In death, if not in life, Metzner achieved his dream.


  1. Greetings, we just purchased a home in College Park, GA that had the fireplace mantles and tiles removed (i.e., stolen.) My guess is that they were sold perhaps for money to the highest bidder. I have recently begun researching the history of the home and artifacts and ran across a set of 10 Hamilton O tiles being sold online. I was pleased to find your blog so that I could learn a little more about the value of the intricate work that has gone into the home.

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