Many have asked me and how Polish Pottery came to the US, and why more people aren’t familiar with it. While the history of Polish Pottery stoneware in the US may seem young, it has a rather long and eventful history! Americans first began to collect this beautiful, elaborate, and high quality stoneware shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. It was not long after this that American military wives, stationed in Germany, began to more easily cross the Polish border to visit the small town of Boleslawiec, where the history of Polish Pottery has its roots. It quickly became popular for the military wives to take overnight bus tours to Boleslawiec, where they would disembark in the small, and at-first, unsuspecting town in the wee morning hours. With numerous ceramic shops lining the streets, these women would trek through the streets of Boleslawiec for nearly twelve hours, returning to the bus with boxes full of their new dinnerware to surprise their husbands with! These bus trips were not for the casual shopper. The tours guaranteed at least two seats per passenger (one for the shopper, and one for their new treasures!), and required shoppers to sleep almost two full nights on the bus (one on the way there, and one on the way back). When these military families were transferred back across the US border, they brought home cabinets full of this colorful pottery, and thus the Polish Pottery craze began!
The local Boleslawiec stoneware shop owners have quickly learned that Americans are hungry for their beautiful patterns and high quality stoneware, and there has been a large increase in shapes and patterns now available. And what’s not to love? Besides being a piece of art, the Polish Stoneware is microwave, oven, and even dishwasher safe!
But where and when did the craft of Polish Pottery stoneware begin? Historians suggest that the Polish Pottery art form began as early as the 7th century, where it was a craft of the Silesian region. A thin layer of white clay was first discovered along the Bobr River, in the town of Bunzlauer (later called Boleslawiec). In the 14th century, the towns’ farmers, who were generally out of work during the winter months, began crafting storage jars from this clay. Their unique painting methods (using potatoes as “stamps”) set them apart, as well as their finishing with a chocolate colored glaze. These pieces were for typically for personal use, but were also sold in the local markets.
In the 19th century the focus shifted, and artists began to craft the local clay into functional dinnerware pieces used for dining and display. In 1898, the local government established "Keramische Fachschule" (Ceramic Technical Training School), to assist with developing the beautiful art. The "Peacock's Eye" became the recognized trademark of Polish Pottery—a pattern that is reminiscent of the eye of a peacock feather—and is still the most common and traditional pattern available.
During World War II pottery production was halted, and the town of Bunzlau was annexed to Poland, and the Germans expelled. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the art form was strongly revived, and artisans began to decorate the wares with new patterns, colors, and improved techniques.
Presently, Polish Pottery stoneware is still handcrafted exclusively in this region of Poland, where over ten different factories are producing the well known Polish dinnerware. Some companies are large and well established, such as the Zaklady Ceramiczne factory, which has been producing quality wares since 1947. Others are small operations with only 3 or 4 family members painting equally impressive and beautiful pieces. Polish Pottery is now painted free hand and hand stamped with sea sponges, instead of the earlier method of potatoes. These sponges hold the bright colors and allow for very intricate and elaborate patterns.
Like all crafts, there are beginning artists as well as highly trained and experienced artists. Only the most experienced artists paint “Unikat” (“unique” in Polish) or “Signature” pieces, which are signed pieces that boast the elaborately detailed patterns that Polish Pottery is now famous for.
So, whether you are an experienced collector with military roots, or one of the many now-converted (and potentially obsessed) collectors residing in regions around the world, you can pride yourself in knowing that you own a piece of history. In an age where dinnerware companies come and go (invariably producing their wares in an automated Chinese factory), it is a good feeling to know that your investment in beautiful and functional Polish dinnerware is helping to preserve a rich cultural art that lives on in the Southwest region of Poland.
The Roots of the US Polish Pottery Obsession