Globe South Behind the Scenes

Serving up some Dedham Pottery

The Dedham Historical Society is selling reproductions of the Clover Plate. The Dedham Historical Society is selling reproductions of the Clover Plate. (Mary S. Frazier)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / September 3, 2009

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Though it closed its operations in 1943, Dedham Pottery is perhaps still what the town is best known for. Inspired by the Chinese glazes the company’s founder spied at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia - an early world’s fair - in 1876, Dedham Pottery’s earthenware has been eagerly collected ever since.

The Dedham Historical Society feeds that interest today and raises funds by selling an annual reproduction of one of Dedham Pottery’s signature “crackle’’ finish plates with blue inglaze decorations on white. This year’s reproduction (available for $98) is the Clover Plate, designed with blue three-leafed clovers edging the plate.

Several cases of Dedham Pottery, including pieces that feature the blood-red glaze that founder James Robertson first saw on the Ming ceramic art in Philadelphia, are part of the society’s 150th Anniversary Exhibit.

Although Dedham Pottery remains its chief claim to fame, the society’s collection has much more to offer. The current exhibit distills some of the society’s exceptional and representative pieces, said Ronald Frazier, society director. All the pieces have a connection with the town; many have always been in town. They are beautiful, historical, often valuable, and occasionally “quirky,’’ he said.

“I’m constantly amazed by what I see here,’’ said Frazier.

Works in silver by Paul Revere and other early American masters are abundant, including an ornately fashioned tankard made in 1777 by William Homes Sr. of Boston, one of the few of that era that survived retrofitting into pitchers to make them useful as styles in drinking vessels changed. Originally the pride of a Boston merchant, Joshua Henshaw, who was connected to Patriot leaders such as John Hancock and John Adams, the tankard came to Dedham with its owner when the Revolutionary leadership fled British-occupied Boston. The tankard was donated to the historical society’s museum this year.

A magnificent courthouse bell made by Revere sits in its wooden cradle on the floor of the museum gallery. Frazier makes it ring, gently, to get the attention of visiting school groups - and louder when necessary.

Among other rare and valuable pieces is a French coffer - a carved wooden carrying case dating to 1500 or possibly earlier - brought to Dedham in 1637 by one of the town’s founders, Michael Metcalf.

The collection’s early wooden furniture includes two Queen Anne chairs, coveted by antiques experts, and a Metcalf chair built in Dedham in 1652, said to be the oldest piece of furniture made in America.

Ordinary domestic period pieces in the collection include large painted-wood fire buckets from the early 19th century, when residents kept their own buckets handy so they could form a bucket brigade to fight a fire at a moment’s notice.

Artifacts from the Civil War period include a boldly painted regimental drum, an officer’s revolver, and dolls such as a “Daughter of the Regiment’’ doll wearing the bright red Zouave uniform favored by some Northern units. Another instructive piece of a cruel era is a rusted slave neck chain.

Early American seafarers brought back rare items from overseas, such as an Egyptian canopic jar, used for preserving organs in the mummification process. There’s also an 18th-century mother-of-pearl tea chest from China, regarded as the best of its kind, Frazier said. Also in the collection are two blue rose-pattern funeral urns donated by the Fairbanks family, a prominent local family.

Early America’s devotion to needlework is represented by some beautifully crafted samplers from an age when girls produced pieces accomplished enough to show they were ready for marriage, Frazier said.

The society’s collection of paintings includes a valuable portrait of a boy in short pants by early 20th-century painter Lilian Westcott Hale of Dedham. It was donated to the society, which had it cleaned and conserved.

“My legacy here is to get these things done,’’ said Frazier, the society’s first fulltime director, who plans to retire at the end of the year.

Climate control for the society’s extensive archive, along with conservation of its historic artifacts, has been a major focus in recent years, he said.

Robert Knox can be reached at

150th Anniversary Exhibit Dedham Historical Society

612 High St., Dedham

Open Tuesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m.