Since the Middle Ages, the history of Bolesławiec has been closely associated with pottery. The city and surrounding area, located in the Bober and Kwisa Rivers basins, abound in rich deposits of clays suitable for the stoneware production. They include also clays used for glazing, resulting in a slightly glassy, brown surface, so-called earthen glaze, typical of Bolesławiec products.
The oldest mention of a potter from Bolesławiec is found in the Świdnica city records under the date 1380. The first information about five potteries existing in the city appeared in the chronicles of the 15th century. Four workshops were located in the Lower Suburb, one was located in the Upper Suburb. The earliest source information about the Bolesławiec potters’ guild comes from 1511, but there is no doubt the guild had been established earlier.
The oldest examples of Bolesławiec ceramics were obtained for the collection in the course of archaeological investigations conducted in the city. This group includes a watering can from the 2nd half of the 13th century, discovered in the Bolesławiec Market Square in 2007. Other items were excavated the same year in the area of the oldest modern-time pottery in Bolesławiec at Piaskowa St. They are mostly dated to the 16th-mid 17th century. The exhibition at the Museum presents several dozen reconstructed vessels, including richly decorated, cobalt glazed pitchers with depiction of the Crucifixion, brown pitchers decorated with knurls, pharmacy bottles and vessels as well as a unique ceramic toy – a horse. The Museum also possesses a unique collection of the 17th-century vessels, the so-called „Bolesławiec Treasure”, obtained with the financial support of businesses operating in the city and district. These products are distinguished by a rich decoration made of overlays covered with the same coloured glaze as the whole vessel. Plastic overlays were made using initially wooden, and then ceramic moulds.
In the late 17th century, Bolesławiec potteries started to produce pitchers with smooth or slantwise grooved bellies. Initially, the pitchers had spherical bellies. From the mid-18th century, oval forms gradually replaced them. The older pitchers were decorated with wide, often vertically arranged ribs; the newer vessels feature finer and denser ribbing, applied slantwise on the belly. Apart from the earthen glaze, glaze with various shades of green was used. The vessels were equipped with tin lids attached to handles. Often, tin fittings were applied on upper edges and bottoms to prolong their life. Dates or initials were often engraved on the lids. On the inside surface of the lids, one can find signature-marks of craftsmen who made the fittings. The Bolesławiec vessels themselves were not signed at that time.
In the 18th century, as in previous centuries, pottery masters in Bolesławiec carefully guarded the privilege of maintaining a constant number of five workshops. The number of workshops sanctified by tradition was most likely abandoned in the 1790s. In 1806, there were 10 masters in the city, in 1829 – 13 masters (associated in the guild) and two non-associated potters.
In the 18th century, potters made coffee and tea pots, butter and snuff containers, pitchers, steins, bottles, pots, vases, inkwells and fonts, bowls, chamber pots, retorts and other utensils for laboratories. Smooth brown vessels for everyday use dominated the range. A smaller group of vessels, distinguished by their artistic values, included vessels decorated with ribbing and plastic overlays. In the 18th century, vessels (especially coffee and tea pots) decorated with white or cream plastic overlays that contrasted with the brown glaze covering the body became the most popular. Around the mid-18th century, potters started to apply “cold-painted” overlays and gilding. Decorations made with this technique depicted various iconographic motifs, such as Adam and Eve under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Bolesławiec potters’ guild’s crest), Agnus Dei motif, St John of Nepomuk, Crucifix and Crucifixion group, the Habsburgs’ imperial coat of arms, as well as coats of arms of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Duchy of Saxony and the city of Bolesławiec.
The museum exhibition also presents a copy of the Great Pot made by master Joppe in 1753, which became a symbol of the Bolesławiec potters’ craft skills. The Pot had impressive dimensions: height – 2.15 m, circumference at its widest point – 4 m, capacity – 1970 l, and weighed 600 kg. Initially, it stood in a wooden house at Zgorzelecka St. After 140 years, in 1893, it was moved to the tower by the city pond, where it could be admired along with other products of local crafts. In 1909, after the Municipal Museum had been founded, it was placed in one of the museum halls. Until 1945, it was one of the most valuable exhibits. Its further fate remains a matter of speculation; the same applies to other museum exhibits that disappeared at the end of World War II.
In 1793, the Minister of Silesia, Count Karl Georg von Hoym, took steps to support the stoneware production in Bolesławiec. At his command, professor Carl Daniel Bach, painter and headmaster of the Wrocław School of Art, sent drawings of vessels he had designed in classical style to Bolesławiec. Bolesławiec potters liked Bach’s vessels, but due to the large number of orders, they did not decide to introduce the novelty. It was not until 1802 that Ernst Samuel Gotthard made a set of vessels after Bach’s designs. In 1825, other potters in Bolesławiec followed in Gotthard’s footsteps and began to produce vessels of this type, decorated with overlays featuring antique motifs, with depictions of Cupid, dancing goddesses and vestals, putti, tendrils, garlands and acanthus leaves.
The biggest changes in Bolesławiec pottery were associated with the activity of Johann Gottlieb Altmann, who significantly raised the artistic level of Bolesławiec products. He also introduced many technological innovations. As early as 1818, he began experiments aimed at improving the pottery mass so as to obtain a material similar to porcelain. In 1825, he invented a new, safer type of glaze with a low lead content and an additional advantage of low production cost. Apart from utility vessels, Altmann’s plant produced vases, containers, jugs and cups with saucers as well as elegant coffee sets decorated with reliefs featuring antique motifs, often modeled on Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s designs. Altmann’s greatest successes include an honorary award at the prestigious Craft Exhibition in Berlin in 1844 and a gold medal at the famous Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
Around 1882, in addition to the vessels coated with earthen glaze and decorated with overlays, a new type of decoration – called stamping – appeared, made with a sponge, in the intense cobalt and green colours. Bolesławiec potters less often applied other decorating techniques, such as marbling and inlay.
In 1897, the Royal Vocational School of Ceramics was established in Bolesławiec. It was managed by Dr Wilhelm Pukall, an outstanding chemist associated for many years with the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin, author of an innovative educational programme closely combining the development of artistic skills with technological knowledge. The School was a kind of research institute whose task was to study local production conditions, and then to prepare proposals for the modernisation of Bolesławiec pottery. Its teachers prepared new formulas for masses and glazes, new methods of forming, decorating and firing to be used by potters; they also gave advice on solving technological problems. The School influenced the process of mechanisation at Bolesławiec potteries; the old clay preparation methods were replaced with elutriation, the former earthen glaze was replaced with artistic earthen glaze and casting in plaster moulds was introduced. As a result, the vessels featured greater body tightness and smoothness, and more precise and complicated vessel forms could be produced. The firing process was also improved with new types of kilns.Another important task faced by the Vocational School of Ceramics was the introduction of new, more elegant forms and new decorating techniques. New designs were developed not only by the School teachers, Ernst Heinecke and Wilhelm Waldeyer, previously associated with the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin, but also by the famous Dresden sculptor and artistic craft designer Karl Groß, one of the greatest artists of the art nouveau period Henry van de Velde and the famous Berlin sculptor August Gaul. During the interwar period, Artur Hennig, a teacher at the School, joined the group of recognized designers.
The Vocational School of Ceramics introduced innovations also in glazes and decorations. Underglaze paints were improved to harmonise them as best as possible with the light gray tone of fine stoneware. New formulas for drip glazes, inspired by the Far East ceramics, were developed. Crystalline and matt glazes were used; the art of ceramic inlay was also improved; and in the 1920s, the techniques of painted and stencil sprayed decoration were perfected.
The potteries that closely cooperated with the Vocational School of Ceramics, i.e. those of Kurt Randhahn, Alfred Seiffert, Hugo Reinhold, Robert Burdack, Julius Paul and Karl Werner, not only exploited the new techniques in full, but also collaborated with artists-designers and followed the changing trends in art, creatively using the inspiration of art nouveau, Vienna Workshop, art deco and New Objectivity. Ceramic products created in these plants conquered markets almost all over the world and won numerous awards, including at the World’s Fair in St. Louis (1904) and Brussels (1910).
On the initiative of the headmaster Eduard Berdel and teacher Fritz Theilmann from the Vocational School of Ceramics, a union of six ceramics plants was established under the name „Bunzlauer Braunzeug” in 1936. A characteristic feature of the products manufactured by the affiliated plants were brown vessels with white decoration made with a cone. They also returned to traditional pottery-making methods, including wheel-throwing.