Discouraged from marrying so as not to curtail their creativity, the Overbeck sisters of Cambridge City launched their ceramics enterprise as a way to establish economic independence. In 1911, their timing was fortuitous.
Having flowered in England, the Arts and Crafts Movement held sway on the American decorative arts scene, of which the American art pottery movement was a part.
Margaret Overbeck and her sisters embodied the Arts and Crafts commitment to original artistic expression, removed from industrial fabrication, and taking its inspiration from natural forms.
Having received their art training at the Cincinnati Art Academy and Columbia University, among other institutions, the four sisters established a cottage operation to make their deliberately homespun objects.
Overbeck was Indiana’s first pottery to produce hand-made art ceramics.
Using as their first material clay dug from their family’s Wayne County farm, the women set up a home studio with an electric potter’s wheel, home-made clay sifter and coal-fired kiln, kept in an outbuilding where they would fire their pieces.
Only Elizabeth Overbeck used the wheel, though; the other sisters modeled pieces entirely by hand.
The studio’s output was relatively small. Apart from a series of figurines, Overbeck pottery was mostly functional—bowls, vases, and teapots.
Although their design was simple, it was of paramount consideration, and there was no tolerance of the happy accident. If a piece did not successfully convey the designer’s intention, it was scrapped.
With the teaching experience gained at DePauw University, among other places, the sisters also provided instruction at their Cambridge City studio.
Produced between 1911 and 1955, Overbeck pottery was informed by the Art Nouveau and, in turn, Art Deco trends in design, although the sisters hoped to eschew any outside influence, especially European or Japanese models.
“Whatever else an impartial judgment might find concerning the merits or demerits of Overbeck pottery,” Mary later reflected, “it would seem that it would at least award it the distinction of being a thoroughly American product.”
The “thoroughly American product” won accolades on the international stage when exhibited abroad, or at such forums as the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, or the Century of Progress International Exhibition in Chicago in 1933.
Although far less well known than, for example, Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery, Overbeck pieces are nonetheless highly collectible in the antiques market. The Overbeck Pottery Museum is housed in the Cambridge City Public Library.