In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Arts and Crafts movement took hold in America. Artists focused their creativity on natural design and hand made goods. The Hoosier state was not immune to its influence. In the sleepy town of Cambridge City, Indiana, a group of sisters founded the famed Overbeck Pottery Studio.
From 1911 to 1955, Overbeck Pottery operated out of the home of four sisters. Their parents were farmers, who raised six daughters and one son. All seven children attended college, which was unusual for the time. Encouraged by their daughters’ great talent, their parents urged the girls not to marry. Instead, they were advised to devote themselves to their craft.
The pottery studio began as the brainchild of Margaret Overbeck, an art teacher at DePaul University. In 1907, she suffered injuries as a result of a car accident. She would never recover. In 1911, Margaret had the idea to start a family pottery business out of their home. She died from her injuries in August, but her sisters determined to carry out the plans to open a pottery studio.
After Margaret’s death, her sister, Elizabeth, became the studio’s main potter. She also created the glazes. Another sister, Mary, created the designs for the pottery. Hannah, who was an invalid, often helped create the pottery designs.
The sisters put a great deal of energy into their designs. They considered each piece to be a work of art, taking time to perfect every item. Inferior pieces were destroyed. Each design was unique – every shape and pattern was only used once. The sisters completed a few hundred treasures a year.
Such was the Overbeck’s devotion to their craft that they even dug their own clay from the orchard behind their home. The sisters only imported clay if they needed a special type.
By the 1920s, the Overbeck sisters had become well-known artists. Their financial success was short-lived, however, as the country was soon plunged into the Great Depression. When the sisters needed money, they sold figurines on the streets of Cambridge City. Eventually, the sisters were invited to participate in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, taking an artistic commission to produce a piece of pottery. The result was a set of 23-inch tall green and white vases with a pony design.
Mary especially enjoyed making clay figurines. She made a beautiful pirate ship for the Cambridge City Public Library, complete with a set of pirate figurines that visiting children could use. When Mary died, the library moved the ship to a display case, since Mary was no longer able to fix or replace broken pirates.