[Note: Extracted with permission from: “Weis Pottery of Shepherdstown,” by Ren and Pam Parziale for the Historic Shepherdstown Commission, April 2008.]
John George Weis was born in Germany in 1721. Weis came to America prior to the American Revolution and settled in Hagerstown, Maryland. It is reported that during the American Revolution Weis served with the Maryland Militia. A potter by trade, Weis established both a pottery and brickyard in Hagerstown.
As early as 1780 John George Weis built a pottery in Shepherdstown. He purchased a lot at the top of the rise on the west end of German Street where he built a frame house. John George died in 1804, and his son George, born in Hagerstown in 1782, took over the pottery operation. In 1815 the first Weis house burned as a result of a kiln fire. George Weis oversaw the construction of the five bay, two story brick house which stands on “Weis’ Corner,” the northwest corner of West German and North Duke Streets. It is not known if the Weis family made the bricks for their home.
The Weis pottery used earthenware, a low-fired red clay that is yet abundant in the fields throughout our county. In the late 1700’s a wagonload of raw clay cost less than two shillings, about the same price as a cord of firewood. The Weis’ clay came from a cliff overlooking the Potomac River, below Bellevue then home to the Swearingen’s and presently home of the Henry Shepherd family.
The Weis family made storage jars, batter bowls, pitchers, and other crockery containers considered utilitarian in its day which now have become collector’s items. The shapes were simple, forthright, functional and uncomplicated. The Weis’ used little or no decoration on their pots other than a thick enunciated “lip.” Like many rural potters, they did not sign their pots. Like many craftsmen of that day, these folks did not see themselves as artists but as tradesmen fulfilling a need for the surrounding farming community.
When George Weis died in 1857, the family pottery in Shepherdstown was operated by son William. Younger brother James moved to Martinsburg and opened a pottery there. About the time of the Civil War, high-fire stoneware was becoming more popular than more fragile earthenware. Stoneware was both more attractive and more durable, the result being that earthenware potteries went into decline. In the 1880s the Weis pottery closed and the remaining unsold pottery was dumped into the Potomac River.
By the mid 1800s, high-fire stoneware was gaining popularity at the expense of the Weis’ family’s low-fired and more fragile earthenware. The public’s desire for high-fire stoneware with its light-colored clay and deep blue cobalt decoration was taking sales from potteries like the Weis’. Stoneware was also attractive because of its greater durability.4 This contributed to the decline of the Weis’ pottery in the 1880s. When the pottery finally closed, the remaining unsold red-ware was dumped into the Potomac River.