Collecting 200 years of vintage Pfaltzgraff

Covered butter dish in the Village pattern, which was launched by Pfaltzgraff in 1975 can be found for as little as $10. Photo courtesy

Collectors are starting to tiptoe back into the pottery market as they celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pfaltzgraff, initially produced on a small potter’s wheel and kiln on a 21-acre homestead in York County, Pa., during the early 1800s.

This cobalt-decorated stoneware jug, decorated with tulips and marked “H B Pfaltzgraff York PA 2” on the shoulder, stands 13 1/2 inches high. A 1-inch darkened chip to handle wasn’t enough to dissuade a bidder from paying $700 at a November 2007 Cordier Auctions sale.

Eileen Maxwell of Wexford, Pa., is digging out Pfaltzgraff cups and plates that she received 29 years ago as a wedding present to celebrate the pottery’s anniversary. Irene Dunn of Middlebury, Vt., has to transplant her late husband’s ashes so she can proudly display her heritage set of Pfaltzgraff dinnerware for the upcoming holidays. And Jennie Cornelius of Slippery Rock, Pa., is scrambling through her attic to reclaim her Pfaltzgraff Christmas dishes for a long-awaited family reunion.

“I think people are really avid collectors because the Pfaltzgraff brand has long been associated with high-quality ceramic products available for the home,’’ said Cornelius. “I just adore it because it is so lovely and functional.’’

Pfaltzgraff’s milestone bicentennial is also testimony to the power this respected brand has and its ability to change with the times, and repeatedly give consumers a useful and aesthetic product for any finicky dinner table.

For the avid antique collector, only a handful of distinct vintage patterns flicker across the Internet for sale. But when they are offered, serious collectors stampede to the cyber auction block.

“Heritage and Yorktowne are the two most collectible older patterns. It has been difficult to reproduce most of the older patterns as the original production plant in York, Pa., was closed prior to Lifetime Brands purchasing the Pfaltzgraff Company,’’ said Gwen Opfell, vice president and chief marketing officer of the Housewares Tabletop Division of Lifetime Brands Inc.

Pfaltzgraff joined the Lifetime Brands Inc. family of products in 2005. Lifetime Brands is a leading designer, developer and marketer of home products by some of America’s best known and respected brands including: Mikasa, Faberware, KitchenAid, Cuisinart, Kamenstein, Wallace and a host of others.

Antique dealers report that many of the Pfaltzgraff patterns will certainly be buoyed by an economic downturn which always creates a clamor for all things nostalgic, particularly if they are infused in Americana.

“The baby boomers really love this pottery because you can throw it around and it does not break,’’ said Bob Simon, owner of Royal York Auction Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pa. “When I get any of the older patterns on the auction floor, it sells like hotcakes.’’

Historian Ralph Burks of Hershey, Pa., thinks the real draw for most collectors is the fact that this pottery began with a German farm family immigrating to the U.S. for a better way of life.

An unusual circa 1880 Pfaltzgraff York, Pa., advertising shoulder jug sold for $431 at Crocker Farm’s Oct. 31, 2009 auction.

“Founder George Pfaltzgraff was a farmer, like most of his neighbors, which enabled him to anticipate their needs,’’ said Burks, an avid collector. “The original Pfaltzgraff production included pitchers, plates and mugs, as well as utilitarian storage vessels like crocks, jugs and jars necessary for food storage and preservation,’’ according to Burks.

But it was the second generation of the Pfaltzgraff family that set the pace for the company’s successful legacy. The Pfaltzgraff Company began advertising its products in 1873 and also imported a higher quality clay than the local red clay of York, Pa. Unlike other competitors, the Pfaltzgraff family had a keen grasp of what the Industrial Revolution was doing to America – moving a once totally agrarian society to a manufacturing-driven economy. So, in 1895, they built a modern plant streamlining operations and moving into stencils which jump-started mass production.

Just before World War II, the company was purchased by entrepreneur Louis J. Appell, who was married to a Pfaltzgraff, placing the company in the hands of the Appell family for the next 70 years.

Under that new ownership, the company employed thousands, opened more than 70 retail stores and licensed its designs in more than 30 categories, and literally cornering the market for casual dinnerware.

One of the winning franchises was Winterberry, which is celebrating its own anniversary this year. It’s 20 years old.

“The early crocks and bowls sell for hundreds of dollars at antique malls and auctions, but no matter what you own it is all very special,’’ said Wilma Rand, a retired school teacher from Madison, Wis. “I just purchased a Christmas Heritage Bowl for $45 for my daughter and plan to give it to her for her birthday later this year,’’ said Rand, who received a similar Pfaltzgraff birthday gift more than 30 years ago.

Jane Roesch, owner of Merryvale Antiques in Pittsburgh, Pa., said Pfaltzgraff is extremely popular with bridesmaids. ‘‘The older pieces are more difficult to obtain.’’

In fact, John Brown of Waynesburg, Pa., recently drove more than 150 miles to his grandmother’s home in West Virginia to fetch two vintage Pfaltzgraff salt shakers for his bride-to-be. “Marriage is all about give and take, and I wanted to give her something special,’’ said Brown.

Bobbie Russ of Greensburg, Pa., is anxiously awaiting some of the newer Pfaltzgraff designs. “I’m amazed at all the wonderful new designs and the ongoing functionality of the product,’’ said Russ, a retired chef. Pfaltzgraff stoneware locks in heat. Unlike more delicate stoneware, Pfaltzgraff pieces may be washed in a dishwasher, frozen in a freezer, and even baked in the oven.

“The new classic Pfaltzgraff patterns that were shown at the October New York Tabletop Market will be available in the second half of 2012. The newest Pfaltzgraff pattern, Scarlett, will be available in January. Our new patterns are hand-painted florals as well as some decal florals in a variety of colors and they have matching accessory themes,’’ said Opfell of Lifetime Brands, Inc.
Still, collectors find old is best.

Susan Jenkins of York, Pa., has an original Pfaltzgraff mug, and has been offered more than $1,000 for it. “I think I’ll hang on to it for awhile. I still like sipping my morning coffee out of it.’’

For more information, visit Pfaltzgraff’s 200th anniversary website for news, new releases and more.

Pfaltzgraff Pfacts

  • Pfaltzgraff Pottery is the oldest family-owned pottery company continuously producing in America.
  • Pfaltzgraff started dinnerware production in the 1930s. A pattern designed by George Briad, named “Heritage,” is the longest-running and was introduced in four colors: Bennington Brown, Williamsburg Green, Burnt Olive and York White.
  • Pfaltzgraff has used earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and bone china at some point in its history. Current dinnerware patterns are made primarily of stoneware and earthenware.
  • Gray marks or “scratches” on dinnerware occur when metal utensils come into contact with hard glazes. Usually there is no damage to the glaze or the stoneware body and the deposits can be removed with Bar Keepers Friend.

Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World. Swaney also is an avid antiques collector. 

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