Treasures from the Vault: The Overbeck Sisters

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Overbeck Pottery was established in 1911, and continued to operate until 1955. Four sisters founded and ran the business: Margaret, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. The sisters changed their family name from Overpeck to Overbeck shortly before the pottery studio opened as they were persistently teased as children for their name with the taunt: “Over-a-peck, over-a-peck, not quite a bushel.” The choice of new name came from their ancestral German name, “von Overbeck.” 

The pottery studio was located in their family home at 520 East Church Street in Cambridge City, Indiana. The basement was used for classes and a workspace, and included a potter’s wheel, damp closet, and storage for glazes and tools; the studio was on the first floor; and a small, separate building in the backyard housed the kiln.   

The Sisters

The oldest sister, Margaret (1863-1911), was the guiding force behind the pottery studio. Unfortunately, she passed away the year it began, following an automobile accident. Her vision for experimentation, originality, natural motifs, and simple forms continued to resonate at the studio. Margaret studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy under Joseph Henry Sharp and Louis Henry Meakin, as well as with Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University. Dow was a well-respected painter whose work showed the strong influence of Japanese art. Margaret taught at DePauw University and worked as a decorator for a Zanesville art pottery.   

Hannah (1870-1931) attended Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University) and taught in public schools until her health prevented this. She suffered from chronic neuritis, which often confined her to her bed. Hannah was bothered by numbness so much that she required assistance placing a pencil in her hand.   

Elizabeth (1875-1936) took a ceramics course under Charles Fergus Binns, founding Director at New York State School of Clay Workers and Ceramics in Alfred, New York. She excelled at the technical and experimental side and, for the family pottery, formulated glaze recipes, clay mixtures, and worked on the wheel. Elizabeth was honored as a fellow in the American Ceramics Society in 1936. Indiana University approached her to help develop a school of ceramics, but she declined. 

Mary Frances (1878-1955) studied at Indiana State Normal School and at Columbia University under Dow as well. Initially, she worked as a public school art teacher. After Hannah passed away in 1931, Mary Frances and Elizabeth continued to receive recognition for their work. Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1936, Mary kept the pottery running up until her own death in 1955.    

In the late 19th century, painting china was a popular and suitable artistic activity for women, along with flower arranging and needlework, as these were all hobbies that could enhance the home. Middle class women might even find an acceptable means of earning an income through painting china while still remaining in the home. Mary, Margaret, and Hannah dabbled in painting china, but quickly moved into designing pottery.  

By the 1890s, art pottery studios and small factories were flourishing, especially in the Midwest. Their handmade ceramics catered to the interests of the upper middle class who sought pieces to beautify their homes. Ohio, rich in clay, boasted a concentration of popular art potteries, including Rookwood, Roseville, and Weller. Scholars have found that a large number of women were hand-decorating in art potteries.   

However, it is notable just how many women took a leading role in the ceramics field. Maria Longworth-Nichols opened the renowned Rookwood Pottery Company, Cincinnati; Mary Chase Perry Stratton co-founded Pewabic Pottery, Detroit; and Mary Louise Laughlin was the creator of Losanti Ware in Cincinnati. Adelaide Alsop Robineau co-founded Keramic Studio magazine in 1899, which targeted the increasing interest in painting china and ceramics with articles on techniques, design, exhibitions, and competitions for design.  Keramic Studio published designs submitted by Margaret, Hannah, and Mary Frances.   

Overbeck Pottery was equally innovative at that time. The sisters were responsible for all aspects of the creation and operation of a business that provided them with economic self-sufficiency and artistic freedom. The sisters remained unmarried; their mother felt that marriage would limit her daughters’ ability to fulfil their artistic potential.   

During the late Victorian period in England, and later in the United States, the Arts and Crafts Movement advocated for fine hand-craftsmanship over industrial mass-production in the design of furniture, wallpaper, and the decorative arts. This undoubtedly influenced the philosophy of Overbeck Pottery.   

All the pottery was made by hand, and the sisters maintained distinct responsibilities: Elizabeth designed the forms, threw pots on their electric wheel, and developed the glazes while Hannah and Mary Frances did some hand building. Sometimes they used red-firing clay from the orchard in their backyard or from the family farm in Jackson Township. They experimented with blue clay from the area and other clays from Greenville, Ohio; Virginia; North Carolina; and Delaware.   

Their earlier pieces were primarily functional: vases, bowls, tea sets, candle sticks, and tiles. Molds were used to make cups, saucers, and tumblers; otherwise, they preferred to work on the wheel and hand build. Later, Mary Frances used some molds for figurines when she was working alone, but still decorated by hand. 

Hannah provided pencil and watercolor sketches that continued to inspire her sisters after her death. Both she and Mary Frances designed and applied surface decoration. Surface designs were sketched on tracing paper first, then the paper was fixed on the ceramic piece and traced on the surface.   

Ceramics experienced great popularity during the last quarter of the 19th century, especially in the collection of ancient Greek vase painting and Asian blue and white porcelain. However, the Overbeck sisters were intent on creating an American product, free from foreign influence. The two vases in the museum’s collection feature simple, stylized fish, birds, and flowers, avoiding the intricate, undulating forms of Art Nouveau that were popular in Europe. Typically, motifs were taken from plants, trees, birds, and animals indigenous to the Midwest.   

A hallmark of the early years at Overbeck Pottery is the use of transparent matte glazes and soft tones, as seen in both museum vases. It was not unusual for functional pieces to remain undecorated and glazed in a solid color. In later works, they showed a fondness for dramatic colors. While it was possible to purchase readymade glazes, Elizabeth, and later Mary Frances, enjoyed experimenting to make specific colors, never divulging their formulas.   

Marketing was through word of mouth, and they held pottery classes in the basement workshop. In fact, they were listed as one of nine Indiana art schools starting in 1921. The Overbeck School of Pottery offered four weeks of instruction in the summer. Both vases in the FWMoA collection are works created under the Public Works Administration, part of the New Deal program that put artists back to work. Money would have been tight during the Great Depression. At least six works were selected and placed in public institutions in Indiana.   

Overbeck Pottery was exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. The largest collection of their works is located at the Museum of Overbeck Art Pottery in Cambridge City Public Library. The Overbeck studio/home is now a private residence in Cambridge City and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While best known in Indiana, examples of Overbeck Pottery are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met).  


BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Denker, Ellen Paul. “Creating a Life: The Overbeck Sisters and Their Cambridge City Pottery.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 17, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 22-32. 

Postle, Kathleen R. The Chronicle of the Overbeck Pottery.  Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1978.   

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