This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Boston's Paul Revere Pottery: An Inspiring Experiment in Social Philanthropy
The finely crafted dishes, cups, bowls, vases and other items produced in the 1908 to 1942 period by Boston’s Paul Revere Pottery command hefty prices in today’s active antique market. Their appeal is greatly enhanced by the unique and inspiring history of the pottery.
The pottery's story begins with the establishment of a club called the Saturday Evening Girls, which operated out of the North End Branch of the Boston Public Library, then situated in the North Bennett Street Industrial School.
Living conditions in the immigrant North End at the turn-of-the-century were appalling. The tenements into which the neighborhood’s residents crowded were old and dilapadated, being mostly three to five story walkup apartments lacking private baths or central heating. Three out of four of these housing units shared toilets. One in six shared water. The district's child mortality rate was the highest in Boston. The North End was by far the most congested district in the city.
It was with a view to enriching the lives of the young women of te neighborhood that the Saturday Evening Girls Club was established by North End branch librarian Edith Guerrier, a twenty-nine years old woman from New Bedford who had attended the Museum School. Guerrier’s goal was to furnish constructive after-hour activities for the daughters of the district’s mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant families.
In her memoirs, published in 1992 under the title An Independent Woman, Guerrier recalled the little speech she gave at the club’s first meeting: "Someday you girls are going to enter the business world," she declared. "You will need to know how to use the tool called mind, so that you can do your own thinking. You will need to know how to cooperate, and how to give and take with good-humoured self-control. You will need to have a well-informed mind, and if you are to win positions with people you respect and admire, you will need to have a sense of the values of good literature, good music, and good recreation."
The club's meetings always began with a business session (in which its members learned the value of cooperation and planning), followed by a story-hour (to encourage reading), and such intellectual and artistic activities as singing, dancing, play writing, and dramatic performances.
The Saturday Evening Club soon attracted the attention and support of an important Boston philanthropist, Helen Osborne Storrow, then serving as Chairperson of a committee of a Boston School Department to look into the social service work of the Boston Public Library. Her husband, investment banker and progressive reformer James Jackson Storrow, Jr., sat on the Boston School Committee. Without the unremitting support and generous financial backing of Helen Storrow it is unlikely that the pottery venture would ever have emerged.
Another key figure in the Paul Revere Pottery story was Edith Brown, Guerrier's close friend. The two young women had met at the Museum School, and soon after become housemates. It was while they were travelling in Europe in early 1908 (a trip paid for by the ever-generous Mrs. Storrow), that they hit upon the idea of establishing a pottery to provide the Saturday Evening Girls with reliable, healthy, and financially rewarding employment.
Upon returning to this country, Guerrier and Brown began experimenting with potterymaking in the basement of the house they owned in Brookline’s Chestnut Hill section. In 1909 Mrs. Storrow threw her financial resources behind the venture by buying a tenement at 18 Hull Street in the North End to serve as the pottery’s headquarters. This structure stood but a short distance from the Old North Church where Paul Revere had hung his historic signal lanterns---thus the choice of the name Paul Revere Pottery for the enterprise.
The Hull Street building was quickly renovated to meet the needs of the pottery. A shop and kiln room were installed at the basement level, pottery workrooms occupied the first floor, and an assembly room established above that. The building’s top floors contained "model" apartments. One of these units accomodated Guerrier and Brown. While the former acted as the pottery’s business manager (in addition to continuing to serve as North End Branch Librarian), the latter---an artist by temperament as well as training---served as its artistic director.
What makes the story of the Paul Revere Pottery especially interesting were the superior working conditions that prevailed there in a day when the daughters of immigrants often labored in sweat shops for pitifully low wages. The work rooms at the Paul Revere Pottery, in contrast to the dreary and unhealthy factories of the day, were well-lit, well-ventilated, and always decorated with flowers. And while Paul Revere workers went about the business of creating beautiful hand-crafted items, the works of Dickens, Shakespeare, and other great authors were read aloud to them for their intellectual edification.
Wages and benefits at the Paul Revere Pottery were also much better than those available in factories. The work day at the pottery never exceeded eight hours, as compared to the 10 to 12 hours in other establishments. In addition, Paul Revere workers got a half day off on Saturdays (a full six day work then being almost universal) and a two-week paid vacation every year.
Job training at the Paul Revere Pottery was also enlightened. New girls learned by sitting beside and assisting more experienced workers, a method of training echoing the dying apprenticeship system that had dominated the handicrafts trades before the rise of the factory.
Since Paul Revere ware proved immensely popular, the pottery's relatively cramped North End facility was soon outgrown, and the two Ediths began searching for a more ample suburban setting for their enterprise.
They thought they had succeeded in early 1915, when they made a down payment on a parcel of land near the old Belmont Reservoir, but this money was soon returned to them when the people of that upscale community raised objections to having a "foreign" enterprise in their midst. This reaction reflected the powerful anti-immigrant bias that then existed in the United, and that was particularly strong in the more affluent suburbs. "We heard ourselves," Guerrier wrote in her memoirs, "described as factory owners who intended to bring to a peaceful neighborhood foreign laborers who might scatter bombs in the streets or burn up the town and roast its inhabitants in their beds."
A short time later the Paul Revere Pottery acquired a piece of land in the Aberdeen section of Brighton, atop Nottingham Hill (later renamed Nottinghill), the highest elevation in that community. Guerrier described the hill on which the pottery’s new home was built as a "puddingstone mass" over which "the dust of centuries had drifted until the stone was covered with a carpet of forest grass, shaded by oaks and white birches." The new location was an "Elysian spot," she recollected---a place of "lush grass(es) starred with innocence, cinquefoil, mouse ear, and violets; [in which] gray squirrels leaped from limb to limb of the tall oaks; and robins and bluebirds sang in the birch copse."
The Paul Revere Pottery new headquarters at 80 Nottinghill Road was built between September 16 and November 29, 1915---in a period of just ten weeks. This English-style stucco cottage, which Guerrier and Brown themselves designed, sat on a three acre lot that commanded a stunning view of the surrounding countryside, a sharp contrast to the pottery’s previous home in the congested and noisy North End.
The first gathering of at the new site occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1915. The pottery’s workforce then comprised twelve Jewish and Italian girls (who commuted to the site from their homes in the central city), an English “jigger man” (a pottery wheel operator), two Italian potters, and an Italian Evangelicel Minister (one Antonio Santino) who whose job it was to fire the kiln and to act as watchman. Shortly thereafter Guerrier and Brown took up permanent residence at Nottinghill.
The Paul Revere Pottery continued to operate from its Brighton headquarters until 1942, when its doors finally closed, ringing down the curtain on a unique and inspiring experiment in social improvement. The historic building still stands, having been converted into condominiums. It is a building of major importance in the history of social philanthropy that deserves to be designated a City of Boston Historical Landmark.