Form and Function
Historical Society Exhibit Reveals Style with Purpose
“Design is a funny word,” Steve Jobs, the late Apple computer CEO, once said. “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
In that spirit, the Historical Society of Frederick County is exhibiting 250 years of creativity in its new exhibition, “Frederick County By Design,” which focuses on decorative arts—objects that are both functional as well as beautiful.
Local appraiser James Callear curated the exhibit that includes more than 70 objects, most of which are locally made, including furniture, glassware, pottery, metalware, folk art, silver, textiles, paintings and more. In addition to the education these antiques offer, they also serve as a testament to the ambition, accomplishments and culture of the Frederick County citizens who created them.
Here are just a few of their stories.
John Fessler, 1759–1820
Some of Frederick’s most exquisite clocks were created by John Fessler. Born in Switzerland, he immigrated to America with his brothers, all of whom had been trained by their father in the art of clock making. The brothers eventually moved to Lancaster, Pa., where they were employed by a Swiss clockmaker.
Following the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Fessler joined the Continental Army and saw battle while serving as a private from 1777–1782. Army comrades who lived in Frederick encouraged him to move here after the war. In 1783, he opened a shop at the corner of West Patrick and Publick Street (now Court Street). Fessler imported his clockworks from Scotland and encased them in walnut obtained from Lancaster, which he considered to be of the finest quality.
He is said to have made 1,000 clocks during the course of his career, but was also an accomplished silversmith and instrument maker. In 1807, he and Frederick Heisly, another clockmaker, did the installation of Town Clock in the steeple of what is now Trinity Chapel at 15 W. Church St. Fessler, who was well respected and a devoted member of his church, worked until the year of his death in 1820. His clocks are highly coveted and are valued at thousands of dollars.
James C. Mackley, 1843–1916
Thurmont was once home to many potters, some of whom became renowned for their work. Such is the case with James C. Mackley, who was born in Carroll County and moved to Thurmont in 1865. There he studied with Bavarian immigrant Anthony Bacher, who is now considered to be one of the most influential 19th-century potters of the Shenandoah Valley region.
Mackley specialized in brown-glazed ware that was generally used to make utilitarian pieces such as jugs, plates, bowls, crocks and more. Locally, the clay originated from Graceham, a village just east of Thurmont. In 1867, Mackley began work with Bacher, who oversaw operations of the Jacob Lynn Pottery, located on Catoctin Mountain at Tuscarora Indian Springs. Soon after, Bacher moved to Winchester, Va., and left Mackley in charge.
In addition to the hundreds of simple pieces Mackley made, he also created more elaborate objects such as sugar bowls, vases and flower pots. At age 39, just 15 years after he began work in Thurmont, Mackley stopped making pottery. Mackley’s son said later in a 1956 interview that the glazes his father used made him ill. Many glazes at the time contained lead. It is not known what form of work Mackley pursued thereafter, if any. He is now considered to be one of the best potters of his period. A sugar bowl he created has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection since 1933.
John Frederick Amelung, 1742–1798
In 1784, Bremen, Germany, glassmaker John Frederick Amelung had a plan to establish a glassmaking community in America that would employ hundreds of people and respond to the growing need for glass in the new nation. Amelung borrowed in excess of 10,000 pounds from banks and relatives to secure 3,000 acres near Sugarloaf Mountain, purchase needed factory equipment and charter the ship Fame, which would transport him and his 68 workers on a 16-week voyage to Maryland.
Upon arrival, Amelung and his crew constructed the New Bremen Glass Manufactory as well as accommodations for his employees. The factory opened sometime after February 1785 and was initially successful. Several hundred employees fabricated windowpanes, mirrors, optical glasses, as well as sophisticated sugar bowls, decanters, wine glasses, tumblers and more with intricate engraving.
On May 7, 1790 a fire destroyed the glass factory, resulting in financial calamity for Amelung. Although he appealed to Congress for assistance, it was denied. Penniless, Amelung and his wife moved into their daughter’s home in Baltimore where the entrepreneur died in 1798 at age 57. The 20 to 30 estimated pieces of certified Amelung glass that are known to remain are highly valued and are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and DAR Museum.
James Whitehill, 1799–1875
It is safe to say that many homes in 19th-century Frederick were furnished with at least one or more pieces of James Whitehill furniture. Considered to be among Frederick’s most successful entrepreneurs and civic-minded citizens, Whitehill was a Libertytown cabinetmaker who moved his enterprise to Frederick in 1829 at 48 E. Patrick St. (now the site of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine) where his business thrived. According to an advertisement in an 1856 Frederick Examiner, he had hundreds of chairs, bedsteads, tables, sofas and more in stock.
The emphasis of his business would shift dramatically just a few years later with the onset of the Civil War. Having also become a skilled undertaker, his place of business served as an embalming station for General Hospital #1 (the Hessian Barracks, located at what is now the Maryland School for the Deaf) after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, during which time tens of thousands of wounded and dead were evacuated to Frederick. Embalming was an evolving practice growing in use during the Civil War as families wanted to see their fallen family members one last time. Whitehill provided the hospital with coffins, wooden headboards and hospital furnishings. In 1870, he sold his business to C.C. Carty and got into the brick and lumber business, yet another enterprise, until his death in 1875.
“Frederick County By Design” is on display through Dec. 10, at the Historical Society’s Museum of Frederick County History at 24 E. Church St. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Special thanks to the staff of the Historical Society of Frederick County and the C. Burr Artz Public Library Maryland Room for their research assistance with this article.