Message on a bottle brings one family's history home

March 01, 2003|By James Bready | James Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Her maiden name was Herrmann, so it caught Patty Smith's eye when an ad for an Emmitsburg antiques auction listed an earthenware jug with "P. Herrmann, 1 Gal." stamped into it.

"My great-great-great-grandfather's name was Peter Herrmann," Smith said to her husband, Don. They drove to the sale, looked at each other in alarm as the bidding reached $90, but bought the jug and put it on a shelf in their living room.

That was in 1995. By now, the Smiths, of Finksburg, are hunter-collectors, owning several dozen jugs, crocks, milk pans, cake and butter crocks and other pre-plastic household containers - all bearing the incised P. Herrmann seal. They are also ancestor tracers learning details about Herrmann (1825-1901), who emigrated to this country from Bavaria in 1844 and, for a half-century, was a Baltimore potter.

The Smiths consulted scholars, among them Luke Zipp, who's writing a book on Baltimore's 19th-century commercial potteries. P. Herrmann and six or eight competitors turned out utilitarian objects, in the heavy-baked clay called stoneware. (Today's collectors point out that stoneware, unlike china, glass or wood, lasts indefinitely.)

Herrmann set up business on Mullikin Street, across Orleans Street from what is now Johns Hopkins Hospital. Search as they may, the Smiths have found no instance of print advertising by Peter Herrmann.

But he did put his name on his product, and in that he stood alone. "It's hard to figure out personality, across so many years," Patty Smith says. "But here's a man with pride in his handiwork. That's sort of nice."

A decorated, undamaged Herrmann crock now brings several hundred dollars. Antiques show entrepreneur Bill Thomas says, "That set-in-concrete signature also jacks up today's price tag on a jug or crock by $25, sometimes $50."

The Smiths became repeat visitors to the Maryland Historical Society, the Hall of Records and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, delving into death certificates, federal census returns and newspaper obituaries. Herrmann, it seems, was buried in Baltimore Cemetery, at the east end of North Avenue. The Smiths arrived; there indeed was the family burial plot, with perhaps nine occupants. On the headstone was a Star of David.

Patty Smith, brought up Roman Catholic, has been unable to find mention of her great-great-great-grandfather in the records of Baltimore's early Jewish congregations. Was he observant? She has constructed a spreading family tree - Herrmann's wife, also from Bavaria, was Mary A. Hart.

Toward 1880, Herrmann shifted operations to Baltimore County, buying a 270-acre farm near Rossville. He may have been in business until his death. Last fall, at a Timonium show, antiques dealer Jerry Blevins of Freeland arrived bearing a Peter Herrmann crock that also said, in cobalt script under the glaze, Rossville Pottery. It was the first whole one found, and it made the Smiths' year.

Not that people haven't looked. Herrmann's kiln stood on what today's maps show as Pottery Farm Road. Apart from the clay pits, the place is mostly county-owned woods. Back in the city, legends of shards persist, but one after another of the old pottery sites has been destroyed during later construction. At Rossville, though, entire school classes have poked around. So has much of the membership of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club.

The club holds its 23rd annual show and sale tomorrow in Essex. "That one day," says club president Steve Charing, "it's as if eBay had never happened."

Don and Patty Smith, eyes flashing, elbows out against the danger that a very rare Peter Herrmann churn will be sighted first by some lesser collector, expect to be there.

The Baltimore Antique Bottle Club Show and Sale runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Physical Education Center, Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Blvd. Admission is $3. Call: 410-531-9459.

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