William A. Potthast (1862-1935)

William, Vincent, Theodore, and John Potthast, all of whom had trained as cabinetmakers in their native Germany, built up a successful Baltimore furniture company that specialized in producing replicas of eighteenth-century American furniture. Over time, the Potthast brothers established a reputation for putting Old World European craft skills to use in the manufacture of Colonial Revival pieces.

Updated: April 21, 2016

Introduction

William (Wilhelm) Albert Potthast was born in 1862 into a Westphalian family whose connection to the furniture-making trade stretched back more than two hundred years.[1] In June 1892, at age twenty-nine, Potthast left his native village of Borgholz and travelled to Baltimore, departing by steamship from Bremerhaven. He had set out for Baltimore at the urging of his younger brother Vincent, who had settled there almost exactly a year earlier. Vincent had been amazed by the speed with which he had found a job there (at the Knabe Piano Factory), and he had encouraged William, who, like himself, was a trained cabinetmaker, to join him in the United States. Upon his arrival, William also found a job at Knabe, a well-known German-American firm. A few months later, he and Vincent began repairing furniture in their living quarters during off-hours. Their fledgling effort soon blossomed into a joint business venture, in which they repaired used and antique furniture and also made new furniture modeled on the classic styles of well-known eighteenth-century English cabinetmakers such as Heppelwhite, Sheraton, and Chippendale. The partnership, which eventually expanded to include their younger brothers John and Theodore (who arrived in Baltimore in 1894 and 1899, respectively), became officially known as Potthast Bros., Inc.

The history of Potthast Bros. furniture can be divided into four periods, each lasting approximately twenty years. The first phase extends from William’s arrival in 1892 and the founding of the business to the First World War. It was a period in which the Potthasts established a reputation for high-quality furniture restoration and began to manufacture period reproductions. The second dates from about 1914 through the start of the Great Depression. It was a period of continued growth and expansion during which the Potthasts became increasingly involved in the manufacture of Colonial Revival furniture. The third period comprises the years of the Depression through the end of the Second World War. This period saw the death of William Potthast, in 1935, and the rise of the second generation of Potthasts, who began to assume leadership roles in the company. Despite the impact of contemporary events, this phase, too, was one of prosperity and growth. The final phase includes the postwar years and extends to the retirement of John’s son Theodore J. Potthast, Sr., in 1975 and the closing of the business.  

Although the firm was a family affair from inception to dissolution, William Potthast is generally acknowledged as its driving force. During its eighty-three year existence, Potthast Bros. became a Baltimore institution whose name was recognized far beyond Maryland’s borders. Over the years, the firm had its ups and downs, but it managed to survive – and even flourish – over decades that witnessed worldwide economic crises, two World Wars, and anti-German sentiment.[2] Today, Potthast furniture is highly regarded by collectors and fetches significant prices at auctions and estate sales.[3] Many Potthast pieces are still in use: in fact, the mahogany desk that sits in the governor’s private office in the Maryland State House bears the Potthast label.[4]

Family and Ethnic Background

The story starts at Castle Maygadessen, located in a thinly populated area at the far Eastern border of the current federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The castle and the surrounding estate lie about twenty kilometers from Borgholz, a Westphalian village within the jurisdiction of Borgentreich in the vicinity of Höxer, the current Kreisstadt, or county seat. On June 18, 1831, one Franz Potthast was born at Castle Maygadessen. Franz, who worked as a furniture maker, would ultimately marry Caroline Gertrud Gutbertlet,[5] who herself came from a family of cabinetmakers in Borgholz. Franz and Lena, as Caroline was known, had ten children, four daughters and six sons, including William, Vincent (1865-1911), John (1870-1962), and Theodore (1875-1962). The family was Catholic and the children were raised accordingly.

As a youth, William Potthast, who eventually became the unofficial leader of the Potthast Bros. firm, trained as an apprentice cabinetmaker with his father. Thereafter, he went to Berlin, where he received further training as a journeyman cabinetmaker with a prominent firm, which was largely patronized by the nobility.[6] William’s younger brother Vincent (Adolph Vinzenz) trained as a cabinetmaker, as well. According to family lore, in May 1891, twenty-five-year-old Vincent found himself in a situation that would ultimately change his life path (and also those of William, John, and Theodore). As the story goes, one night, Vincent attended a party in Borgholz. The festivities got out of hand, and Vincent found himself in a fight. He knocked his opponent down. When his adversary failed to get up, Vincent assumed that he had accidently killed the man. He quickly fled the scene, hurrying some 300 kilometers up the nearby Weser River to Bremerhaven, where he boarded the first available ship, which happened to be sailing for Baltimore. As it turned out, Vincent had not killed anyone. His opponent had merely been knocked out. The man said he bore Vincent no ill will, and a messenger was dispatched to Bremerhaven to convince Vincent to return to Borgholz. However, by the time the messenger arrived, Vincent’s ship had already departed.

Although the specifics of Vincent’s departure from Borgholz are difficult to document, there is evidence that he arrived in Baltimore from Bremerhaven on July 2, 1891, abroad the München, a medium-sized Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship, which made round-trip voyages from Bremen to Baltimore once or twice a month. He found employment almost immediately as a cabinetmaker at the Knabe Piano Factory. Encouraged by the relative ease with which he had found work, Vincent wrote to his brothers in Germany and urged them to come to Baltimore, where he was certain they would find good jobs as well. At the time, the prospects for financial security seemed much rosier in Baltimore than on the other side of the Atlantic. William arrived in June 1892, John (Johann Anton) in November 1894[7] (on his twenty-fourth birthday), and Theodore (Theodor Joseph) finally came on September 1, 1899.[8] 

On the whole, Vincent, William, and John Potthast brothers followed similar patterns in their journey to Baltimore and in their behavior once they had disembarked. (Because Theodore arrived significantly later, his experience was somewhat different.) For instance, each of the three traveled on a medium-sized Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship from Bremerhaven to Baltimore, with possible intermediate stops at Southhampton or New York. After reaching Baltimore, all three found jobs at Knabe Piano almost immediately.

Both Vincent and William Potthast married within a year or two of their arrival. Each married young women who had recently emigrated from Germany as well. Vincent married Anna Caroline “Lena” Rehrmann on August 30, 1892, a little more than a year after settling in Baltimore. The couple moved into a home at 124 W. Saratoga in Baltimore, near Park Avenue and the St. Alphonsus Catholic Church. Between 1894 and 1909, they had seven children, three sons and four daughters, at approximately two-year intervals. When William first arrived in Baltimore, he lived with Vincent and Lena. But after his own marriage, to Anna Leib (1867-1923), on September 12, 1893, he and his new wife moved two blocks away to 609 W. Mulberry. Over the next twenty years, the couple had nine children, three sons and six daughters. Three of their children died before reaching maturity. John Potthast married on May 9, 1899, almost five years after he arrived. His wife, Margaret Leib (b. 1874), was the younger sister of Anna Leib. John and Margaret lived in the seven hundred block of West Saratoga. Theodore arrived in 1899, the same year as John’s marriage. He initially lived with William and Anna. He worked from the beginning in the family furniture business, which was reasonably well established by then. In 1911, Theodore married Maria Schenke, who, like himself was a first-generation German immigrant. All of the Potthasts married in the Catholic Church: Vincent was wed at St. James Roman Catholic Church; William, John, and Theodore were married at St. Alphonsus, which was located in their neighborhood. 

The Founding of Potthast Brothers: The Historical and Local Context

Potthast Bros. always dated its founding as 1892, the year in which William arrived in Baltimore. Indeed, William’s crucial role in the founding of the firm was highlighted in a 1904 article in Der Deutsche Correspondent [The German Correspondent], a German-language newspaper published in Baltimore from 1841 to 1918. The article identifies William as the primary founder of what was, at the time, a “modest” firm.[9]

On the surface, the 1890s would not seem a particularly propitious time to leave Germany for the United States. Economic conditions in the United States were certainly better than those in Europe, but even those with economic clout struggled during that decade. Indeed, in its day, the Depression of 1893 was the steepest financial decline ever experienced in the United States. Hundreds of banks closed, railroads were forced into bankruptcy, thousands of businesses failed, crop prices fell, and farms ceased operation. Although the statistics differ slightly from source to source, all agree that unemployment rose steadily during the 1890s, peaking at mid-decade at around fifteen percent and returning to earlier levels only in 1899.

Vincent and William Potthast arrived early enough to experience the worst of the economic downturn. Still, they were able to start and grow a business that achieved tremendous success. To be sure, the training and skill that they had acquired in Germany was a major factor in their success. At the same time, however, it must be said that the brothers benefitted from circumstances that were virtually unique to Baltimore in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Three factors, in particular, converged to benefit their company, which specialized in repairing, restoring, and reproducing antique furniture: the expansion plans of the Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship company, the growth and expansion of the Knabe Piano Company, and the geographic location of Baltimore, a port city that was at once the northernmost Southern city on the Eastern seaboard and the southernmost Northern city in the mid-Atlantic region.

The town of Baltimore was originally laid out in 1730. The original “Baltimoretowne” consisted of sixty lots of approximately one acre each rising from a riverbank in the south (today’s Inner Harbor) to high bluffs in the north and to the marshes adjacent to Jones Falls in the east. At the midpoint of the eighteenth century, Baltimore was “a mere village of twenty-five houses,”[10] although growth accelerated during the 1760s. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, there were almost 600 houses built on approximately 200 acres.[11] The little town was clearly expanding, both in area and population, but it was no rival to New York or Philadelphia. Although Maryland was a proprietary colony that was tolerant of diverse peoples and faiths, particularly Roman Catholics, it was too small and too ill-served by the various shipping companies to attract the earliest groups of German immigrants, such as the Palatines. Those German-speaking immigrants who settled in Maryland in the early days came largely over land from Pennsylvania.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Baltimore had grown to more than 40,000 residents and had an export trade volume of more than $15,000,000 in merchandise per year ($15 million in 1800 is equal to approximately $227 million in 2011[12]). By 1815, the long series of wars in Europe had come to an end, but crop failures all over Northern and Central Europe in 1816 and 1817 meant that, despite the peace, many people saw little improvement in their everyday lives. Some 60,000 Germans, mainly from Swabia and the Rhineland left home. In the years following the Congress of Vienna (1815/16), Baltimore became a gateway for those and other German emigrants. By 1820, thanks in part to this emigration wave, Baltimore had become both the third largest port and the third largest city in the United States, officially surpassing Philadelphia in the period 1830 to 1860.[13]

In the 1820s, German shipping lines grew and prospered due to the profitability of bringing German emigrants to American shores. (For the return journey, the vessels could be loaded with hogsheads of tobacco or other American staple products.) While relatively few German ships had come to America in the earlier days, the Hanseatic seaports made great strides in regaining their one-time importance. The growth of transatlantic trade from the ports of Bremen and Hamburg coincided almost precisely with the expansion of the port of Baltimore, and a close relationship ensued, especially between Bremen and Baltimore.

Baltimore was particularly well situated to accommodate incoming trade from Europe, because it lay in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay with easy access to inland shipping along river waterways like the Susquehanna. However, the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 and created a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean at the Port of New York to the Great Lakes, gave New York City an edge. In fact, New York eclipsed Philadelphia in importance after the opening of the canal. Business leaders in Baltimore were concerned and came up with a strategy: the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered, incorporated, and organized in 1827. Although the B & O was not the first rail company in the United States, it was the first to offer regular passenger and freight service between major American cities, making Baltimore an attractive port city through which to access significant markets all over the United States. By 1857, through the building of its own rail lines and a series of strategic mergers and acquisitions, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad offered service as far as St. Louis, effectively connecting the Eastern seaboard with the Mississippi River.

The American Civil War interrupted transatlantic trade mid-century, but during Reconstruction and thereafter, as the economy recovered and industrialization brought increased demand for the type of cheap labor often supplied by immigrants, Baltimore was well positioned to accommodate the growing numbers of German immigrants who arrived in search of homes and jobs. The Library of Congress identifies 1882 as the year in which the largest number of immigrants from German-speaking areas entered the United States. One-quarter million individuals entered in that year alone, with 1.5 million arriving over the course of the whole decade. According to records in the Enoch Pratt Free Public Library, 41,739 of the approximately 250,000 German-speaking immigrants who arrived in 1882, or a little more than one-sixth, entered through the port of Baltimore.[14]

By 1880, Baltimore was the seventh largest city in the United States in terms of population with slightly more than one-third of a million inhabitants. Almost twenty-five percent of Baltimoreans were immigrants from German-speaking areas or the children of those immigrants. If it wasn’t already, Baltimore was rapidly becoming an attractive destination for immigrants from German-speaking areas of Europe. In his definitive work The Maryland Germans, Dieter Cunz notes that:

On March 30, 1868, a bill became law: ‘Every public general law …shall immediately after its passage be published, at the expense of the state, daily for one week in two daily newspapers of the city of Baltimore, one of which shall be printed in the German language….’ This law remained in existence for more than seventy years; it was abolished only during the second World War [sic].[15]

As Baltimore became a more popular destination for emigrants from the German Empire, it also became a more attractive site for business. On February 20, 1857, the same year that the B & O extended its service as far as St. Louis, the Nordeutscher Lloyd Steamship Company was founded. Ten years later, on January 21, 1867, Norddeutscher Lloyd contracted with the B & O to combine services and permit passengers embarking in Bremen to purchase a single ticket for passage via steamship and then rail from the Baltic through to Chicago or other Midwestern destinations, thus further enhancing Baltimore’s attractiveness for German emigrants. In 1888, Norddeutscher Lloyd commissioned the first of eight medium-sized steamers dubbed the “city class” [Städte-klasse].[16] As each was launched, it was put into service on a number of routes, but almost invariably the run from Bremerhaven to Baltimore (often with intermediate stops in Southhampton and New York) was among the itineraries. The wisdom of that decision and the popularity of the route is, in fact, born out by the experience of the Potthast brothers. Vincent Potthast arrived on the München, William and John on the Stuttgart, but two years apart, and Theodore on the Mainz. For virtually any emigrant departing from Westphalia, a voyage to the United States almost necessarily ended in Baltimore.

In the meantime, the economy was improving across the United States, and Baltimore, primarily because of its geographic location, benefitted in a number of ways. For the future well-being of the Potthast brothers, the most important development was the Knabe Piano Company’s decision to renovate and expand its facilities in Baltimore. Knabe had been founded in 1839 by first-generation German immigrant William Knabe. Thirty years later, the company, now run by his sons William Jr. and Ernest, decided to construct bigger quarters. In 1869, Knabe built a new factory on the corner of West and Eutaw, where the home stadium of the Baltimore Ravens is currently situated. The building was immense, filling approximately the same space occupied by the stadium complex today. Knabe had its own railway spur to deliver lumber and employed over 200 men in its new five-story, L-shaped building, which was crowned on the Eutaw Street side by a huge and distinctive cupola that eventually came to function as an unofficial company emblem. Business was thriving, and the company was in desperate need of qualified skilled labor. Knabe carried out every step of the piano-building process within the new facility. By 1890, the company employed over 300 men and produced as many as seventy pianos a week. The situation was made-to-order for a skilled cabinetmaker from Europe, and it is hardly surprising that William, Vincent, and John Potthast found work so quickly.

If Baltimore’s standing as one of the leading port cities in the United States during the nineteenth century was important for German immigrants like the Potthast brothers, then its location midway along the Atlantic seaboard between the industrial Northeast and the agricultural South was just as critical for the development of Potthast Bros., Inc. During the American Civil War, Maryland remained in the Union, but sentiment for the Southern cause was rife throughout the state. The war itself ultimately destroyed an established way of life and left devastation in its wake. Many a Southern gentleman or gentlewoman found him- or herself impoverished and destitute. The trappings and accoutrements of a former way of life – including eighteenth-century mahogany furniture handcrafted in Britain and transported to the New World by early colonists in Virginia and the Carolinas – fell into disuse and disrepair. For two enterprising young Baltimore cabinetmakers, the opportunity to establish themselves in the business of repairing and restoring antique furniture lay just to the south in Virginia. Baltimore was a gateway to the South, but it was fortunate in that it had suffered less under the vicissitudes of war. Wealthy, older residents were largely able to maintain their previous lifestyles. There were immigrants and freed blacks to help rebuild, and the city was connected by rail not only to the developing West but also to the markets of the North, particularly New York City.

The Growth and Development of Potthast Bros., Inc.

Shortly after William arrived in Baltimore, he and Vincent began repairing furniture in their living quarters during the evenings. Much of the work was solicited locally, but from the beginning they also sought out commissions further afield. The rundown estates and manor houses of the South were among their best customers, and those jobs paid double dividends, so to speak. If a customer wanted a piece repaired, for instance, the brothers would pick it up, carry out the repair, and return it to its owner. While the item was in their possession, they would also make sketches, or even wax impressions of the piece, which they would then use as the basis for later replicas. Years earlier, during his apprenticeship in Berlin, William had trained as a graphic artist, and he put those drawing skills to good use on behalf of the new firm. In addition to sketching pieces that had been taken in for repair, William also visited museums, where he sketched antique furniture that was on display. Sometimes, when the guards weren’t looking, he even backed up to the carved leg of a table or chair while palming a ball of modeling clay – all in an effort to secure an impression that could prove useful later.

When a Potthast Bros. client received his or her piece back, it was restored to its original condition and included a label that listed the firm’s business addresses (factory and showroom). The label attested to the quality of the repair, but also served as a marketing device insofar as it included contact information. Thus, repair work proved beneficial to the firm not only as a source of income, but also as a marketing strategy and as source of information. Eventually, the information that the brothers obtained during repairs enabled them to create brand new replicas, which they would then sell with yet other labels (here, ones attesting to the quality of the product rather than the repair). Over time, they built a reputation both for their expert restorations and their reproductions.

By 1895, Vincent and William Potthast were living on Howard Street, which is known to this day as Antique Row. For a number of years, one or the other lived over the shop at 321 North Howard. By 1899, the firm relocated to 507 North Howard Street; by then, the Potthast brothers (John and Theodore had since joined them) themselves lived elsewhere but none of the four was more than five minutes on foot from the business. In 1903, they decided to separate the sales and manufacturing sides of the business. In 1904, five years after moving into 507 North Howard, Potthast Bros. acquired additional space at 506-508 North Tyson Street. At that point, the Howard Street address became a showroom, and the Tyson Street location became the new workshop. The opening of the workshop in the spring of 1904 was greeted with enthusiasm by Baltimore’s German-language press. On April 29, 1904, the Deutsche Correspondent, which was full of praise for the new three-story workshop (and the business as a whole), noted that within a month, the facility would be in “full operation,” providing jobs for numerous cabinetmakers. While their praise may have been slightly partisan, it was not unwarranted: over the course of their first decade in operation, the Potthast brothers had built up a solid book of business, and the enterprise was on excellent footing. Moreover, the business was lucky enough to have survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which had occurred only two months earlier. Neither the showroom nor the factory suffered damage, as both were located north of the affected area.[17]  

By that time, Potthast Bros. had already acquired such an excellent reputation for their restorations that many American museums were sending them antiques in need of repair. Likewise, important collectors relied on them as well. The brothers’ clients, for example, included Baltimore physician William Crim, who was one of America’s foremost collectors of antiques. Some years earlier, Dr. Crim had acquired a Chippendale chair, which he sent to the Potthasts for repair. According to descendent Georg Potthast, while the chair was in the brothers’ possession, William made Plaster of Paris molds of it.[18] Apparently, William also took measurements and made drawings of this and other pieces in Crim’s famous collection.[19]

Crim died in 1902 and his entire antique collection was sold at auction in Baltimore in 1903. The enormous auction and its record-setting prices drew much public notice, and the brothers decided to capitalize on what they rightly viewed as a significant sales opportunity. They went back to the drawings and casts and made reproductions of several items in the auction catalog, including the Chippendale chair. In light of the increased public interest and demand, these items became best sellers.[20] The reproduction of the Chippendale chair, known as the “Crim chair,” proved the most popular and profitable item. According to Potthast scholar Catherine Rogers Arthur, this “best-selling model” continues to remain popular today.[21]

The success of the Crim series must be viewed within the context of the contemporary vogue for reproductions and period furniture. At the turn of the century, a range of publications – from art books to women’s magazines to interior decorating guides – helped spark a national interest in American antique furniture. Moreover, the influential interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe, a Potthast client, emphasized the merits of reproductions, which she deemed preferable to rare antiques for everyday use.[22] The Potthasts benefitted enormously from this historical context, and their enterprise grew accordingly.

To be sure, growth was not without its difficulties. The year 1907 is a case in point. By that time, Potthast Bros. had both an excellent reputation for Colonial Revival furniture and a sizable inventory of reproductions. The firm lent seventy-nine pieces to the Jamestown Exhibition in Norfolk, Virginia, a world’s fair celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The fair ran from April through November 1907, and the Potthasts took part in the exhibition with the intention of bringing their work to a wider audience and ultimately selling some pieces after the fair’s conclusion. Although participation in the event likely enhanced the company’s reputation, it did not yield the expected financial return. To make matters worse, in October 1907, just as the exhibition was winding down, a failed attempt to gain control of the United Copper Company led to a run on the New York Stock Exchange and the imminent threat of a nationwide bank collapse. At the time, there was no Federal Reserve system to shore up failing banks, and, in the end, J. P. Morgan himself almost singlehandedly restored financial order by pledging his own funds to rescue the banks and by encouraging his very wealthy friends to do the same. A crisis was ultimately averted, but after that few businesses had an appetite for speculative or unnecessary purchases. Contemporary correspondence between Potthast Bros. and Tiffany Studios in New York (with whom the Potthast brothers had already had numerous business dealings) shows that the Potthasts had hoped to negotiate a bulk purchase of the inventory from the exhibition in Norfolk. Unfortunately, in the wake of the financial panic, nothing came of their efforts.

Despite this and other setbacks, Potthast Bros. furniture found a way to continue thriving. Payroll and sales records dating from around 1905 point to an increase in both staff and sales. On the whole, documentation of this sort is helpful insofar as it can reveal the specifics of customer relations and chart the ebb and flow of the business cycle. It is more difficult, however, to reconstruct the thinking that informed the brothers’ business strategy. It would appear that their business decisions were practical and pragmatic, and based largely on the tastes and desires of their clientele.

Here, company letterbooks, which go back further than the payroll and sales records, constitute a rich source of information. The letterbook for 1914, for instance, includes a letter to Baltimore socialite and art collector Etta Cone concerning additional pieces for a bedroom suite already purchased for her sister-in-law, Mrs. Ceasar Cone.[23] The typewritten letter provides the specifics of the order and includes a careful drawing of one of the pieces. In their time, Etta Cone and her sister Claribel were part of Baltimore’s intellectual and cultural elite. Today, the sisters are remembered fondly in Baltimore, because they ultimately willed their extensive collection of modern European art to the Baltimore Museum of Art, effectively assuring the museum’s role as a premier venue for the art of the classical Modern period. The Cone Collection includes major works by Henri Matisse and many of his contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Gaugin, and Paul Cézanne. Etta Cone was a long-time customer of Potthast Bros. Although perhaps not a typical customer, she was the type of client – e.g. wealthy and cultured – that the firm cultivated as its reputation for fine furniture grew. The brothers believed that these sorts of clients would be interested in learning about their pieces, and that this education would lead them to value the pieces even more. Thus, as Catherine Rogers Arthur has argued, the Potthasts sought to “mentor” their customers and “positioned themselves as arbiters of taste to their well-established, predominantly upper-class clientele.”[24]

Like the Potthast brothers, the Cone sisters were German-Americans and were heavily involved in Baltimore’s German community, particularly within German-Jewish circles. Their father, Herman Cone, had emigrated from Bavaria as an eighteen-year-old in 1846. He eventually settled in Baltimore, where he operated a successful dry goods business. Etta and Claribel’s two brothers, Moses and Ceasar, founded a phenomenally successful cotton mill in North Carolina. Although wealthy German-Americans, such as the Cones, provided the Potthasts with substantial business, the brothers’ clientele extended well beyond the city’s German-American community. Their aim was to sell to all of high society, regardless of ethnicity. This may be one of the reasons why they never explicitly traded on their German heritage.

Regardless of the reason, this strategy proved wise after the outbreak of World War I in Europe. With Germany widely perceived as the aggressor, the war caused anti-German sentiment to flare on both sides of the Atlantic. For many German-American businessmen, especially brewers, the war years brought hardship, declining sales, and even bankruptcy. This was not the case, however, for the Potthast brothers. The year 1914, which witnessed the start of hostilities in Europe, marked the beginning of the second phase of the firm’s history. That year, they moved their showroom north on Howard Street to larger quarters; it was the first in a series of relocations and expansions that occurred during this prosperous phase. In 1921, the brothers purchased property in southwest Baltimore (less than a mile to the west of the Knabe Piano factory) and built their own factory at 1438 Wicomico Street, replacing the Tyson Street location. The final phrase of the expansion came in 1925, when the showroom was moved to 924 North Charles Street, where it remained until the closing of the business. During the 1920s, when the business was at its peak, the firm employed about eighty men. The three brothers, William, John, and Theodore (Vincent had died in 1911 at age forty-five), drew about twelve dollars a week in pay, the equivalent of about $150 today. In lean times or when cash was short, they each took less pay, always being sure to meet payroll and pay off their debts.

The brothers’ success during the war years and in the immediate postwar period was surely attributable to the quality craftsmanship for which they had become known. They may have also been helped by wartime restrictions on European exports, which gave American manufacturers a boost. It is also possible that the very focus of their firm, which by that time specialized in Colonial Revival furniture, helped them survive, and even prosper, during the war years. The Colonial Revival, for instance, offered consumers a connection with a heroic moment in America’s past, and such associations may have been particularly welcome during wartime. As Catherine Rogers Arthur has noted, “the colonial revival and its material culture satisfied the needs of native-born Americans who wished to maintain and assert their heritage.” At the same time, she notes, the style also satisfied the needs of immigrants, who, like the Potthasts “endeavored to be more like” their native-born peers.[25] Thus, the brother’s focus on Colonial Revival furniture may have enhanced their “American” credentials, and served as a boon to business, especially during times that were difficult for many of their German compatriots. Interestingly, when President Woodrow Wilson left the White House in 1921, having seen America through World War I and the first few years of a difficult peace, he ordered a dining room suite from Potthast Bros. for his own private use.[26]     

During the 1920s, the second generation of Potthasts, all of whom had been born in America, entered the business. They included William’s sons, Frank J. (1894-1942) and George J. (1895-1988); John’s sons, William A. (1902-1971) and Theodore J. (1905-1998); and Theodore’s sons Michael Potthast (1911-1973) and Berthold (1913-1981). All six studied architectural drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and started their careers with apprenticeships at the firm. None of Vincent’s sons joined the firm, perhaps because Vincent himself died in 1911, when his three boys – John (1896-1971), Joseph (1907-1938), and Charles (1909-1987) – were still very young.

The original Potthast brothers in America – Vincent, William, Theodore, and John – were demanding of themselves, and they expected the same discipline and work ethic from their sons and nephews, who were carefully schooled in all aspects of the business, including the production of drawings. Company letterbooks provide at least a glimpse into the nature of that training. For example, one unsigned, undated note to a son or a nephew contains some stern but not unkind words about the unevenness of the young man’s dedication to his studies.[27] On the whole, the determination to provide a quality product at a fair price seems to have governed everything they did. Certainly that spirit pervades the record of interactions with customers as preserved in other letterbooks. Most quotes on potential jobs included the phrase “guaranteed to be first class in every respect,” a sentiment that was later incorporated into the certification label attached to every reproduction that left the shop.

In October 1929, when the U.S. stock market crashed, Potthast Bros., Inc., entered its third phase, which lasted through the end of the Second World War. The stock market crash ushered in a ten-year depression, during which businesses across the country floundered and closed. The Potthast brothers, however, weathered the 1930s extremely well, mostly because of prescient decisions and skillful advertising. In the late 1920s, the company decided to partner with various museums to manufacture handcrafted reproductions of pieces from certain historically significant museum collections, mostly antiques from the eighteenth century. The most popular of those collections was the Mount Vernon series (and within that collection, the Mount Vernon sideboard became one of the company’s best-known pieces). The company also created furniture series based on collections from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. In a stroke of marketing genius in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Potthast brothers developed an advertising campaign featuring a series of brochures devoted to reproductions of pieces from these important museum collections. The campaign was an immense success. The Potthast brothers’ reproductions of famous eighteenth-century pieces accorded with the zeitgeist, specifically with Americans’ revived interest in their national heritage, and their furniture appealed to the tastes of wealthy and influential citizens. The decision to reproduce famous period pieces helped the brothers survive, and even prosper, during the years of the Great Depression. In fact, in the mid-1930s, when most businesses struggled, the Potthast brothers purchased additional space at 926 North Charles Street and set up showrooms in the adjoining buildings.[28]  

In 1935, firm founder William Potthast died. By that time, the second generation of Potthasts was ready to assume leadership roles within the company. By the late 1930s, William’s son Frank J. was secretary-treasurer; his other son, George J., was general manager of the cabinet shops. John’s sons, William A. and Theodore J., were the assistant secretary-treasurer and manager of the shops, respectively. Theodore’s son Michael was office manager; his other son Berthold was assistant manager in the shops. Like their fathers and uncles, these younger Potthasts made pragmatic decisions when it came to the internal functioning of the company. Even during the Second World War, they managed to recalibrate their output and adjust to wartime demands. During the war, the firm manufactured cases for sensitive equipment and completed various defense-work projects for the U.S. government.[29] That Potthast Bros., Inc., was chosen as a defense contractor during the Second World War shows the extent to which it was perceived as an American – not a German-American – firm, at least in that particular instance. 

The end of the war in 1945 marked the beginning of the fourth, and final, phase of the company’s history. Whereas the firm had prospered during the 1920s and 1930s, it struggled during the postwar period for various reasons, not least on account of changes in the industry and shifts in consumer tastes. One major problem was that Cuban mahogany, which had long been the standard for furniture-grade mahogany, had become increasingly scarce since the late 1920s. By the postwar period, it had been all but replaced by Honduran mahogany, which was itself expensive and often hard to obtain. Moreover, the shortage of skilled craftsmen, which had first become evident during the war, continued to worsen, and the Potthast brothers found it increasingly difficult to hire the type of highly skilled cabinetmakers capable of producing intricate handcrafted pieces. The number of people Potthast Bros., Inc., employed dropped from a high of eighty to around twenty.

Changes in consumer tastes also slowed the demand for period furniture. In the postwar period, younger consumers wanted lighter, more modernist designs, and Colonial Revival furniture seemed out of place in living rooms that now accommodated – or even featured – television sets, radios, and record players. Moreover, the Potthasts’ intricate, hand-carved furniture was ill-suited to the demands of mass consumption. But it was not just society that was changing: the Potthast family was changing as well. The third generation of Potthasts, the grandchildren of the founding generation, included eight young men, none of whom was interested in taking up a career in furniture making. In the 1970s, as the remaining members of the second generation passed away or retired, the business, which had always been a family concern, inevitably wound down. In 1975, when Theodore J. Potthast, Sr., (John’s son) decided to retire from the presidency of Potthast Bros., Inc., at age seventy, there was very little choice but to close the business. The company factory in the 1400 block of Wicomico Street and the retail store at 924 North Charles Street were sold. The Charles Street store became the Brass Elephant Restaurant, which itself closed in August 2009.

Community and Ethnicity

The brothers spent their entire adult lives in an area of West Baltimore that was no larger than about two square miles. As they became older and presumably more financially secure, they moved a few blocks further west, still within the city limits but a little closer to the more suburban developments that would become Catonsville. At the time, the area from Charles Street (which still functions as the central axis of the downtown business district and the dividing line between east and west) to Bentalou Street was a mix of heterogeneous neighborhoods. The blocks nearer Charles Street had been developed in the 1830s as the city began to expand dramatically. By the 1890s, many of the buildings had been divided up so that multiple families often occupied a single dwelling. Even those who owned their own homes frequently took in lodgers. The area was home to numerous immigrants, the majority of whom were Irish or German. Indeed, the area had a distinctively German character, as was noted by one of its best known residents, the journalist and satirist Henry Louis Mencken, who spent most of his life in a house on Union Square, the geographical center of the area, and who was also a customer of the Potthast brothers.  

As mentioned previously, all four Potthast brothers married recent immigrants from Germany. Thus, it is presumable that German was spoken in their homes and that their children learned the language as well. In fact, at the time that the brothers settled in Baltimore, one could speak German virtually exclusively (with very little English) and still live a full life, both personally and professionally. This would have been true at least until the First World War. Despite becoming American citizens,[30] the brothers remained loyal to their German roots throughout their lives. Their training in cabinet making, of course, was very much in the Old World tradition, and they continued to work in this tradition even after arriving in the United States. That being the case, the Potthast brothers often sponsored skilled young craftsmen from abroad. In many instances, they even made arrangements to bring specific individuals from Borgholz, or elsewhere, to work in the shop. There is also evidence that they recruited within Baltimore’s German-American community. The August 21, 1899, edition of the Deutsche Correspondent includes a German-language job listing by the Potthast brothers, who were looking to hire “numerous carpenters” to work on “fine furniture.” In another listing, from the April 22, 1901, edition, they expressed interest in hiring a “first-rate carpenter” for a permanent position. Since the Potthast brothers advertised in a German-language newspaper, it is presumable that they wanted to hire immigrants who, like themselves, had been trained in Germany.    

After the Potthasts achieved a measure of success in America, they began making return trips to Germany to visit friends and relatives back home. In May 1909, for instance, William Potthast applied for a U.S. passport, which was issued on June 1 of that year. He sailed to Bremen from Baltimore on June 16,[31] and returned to the United States from Cuxhaven, Germany, in September 1909.[32] At the time, the Potthast brothers still had three sisters living in Germany: Mrs. Anna Marx, Mrs. Mary Epping, and Miss Josephine Potthast.[33] Three years later, John Potthast made a return trip as well. According to Der Deutsche Correspondent, John was one of the “many prominent Baltimore Germans” to return to “the old homeland” on the steamship Rhein, which departed from Baltimore on June 15, 1912.[34] 

Travel to Germany would have been difficult during World War I (1914-1918), and also during the first years of peace. In the mid-1920s, the Potthast brothers started travelling to Germany again. In April 1924, Theodore applied for a U.S. passport to travel to Holland and Germany. On his passport application, he listed the purpose of the trip as “visit relatives” and “sightseeing.”[35] In 1925, William made another trip back to Germany, presumably to visit with family members.[36] Apparently, the Potthast family tradition of trips to Germany still continues to this day, with family members travelling from Baltimore to Borgholz and other destinations in the Federal Republic. 

The Potthasts’ engagement in Baltimore’s German-American community is reflected in Der Deutsche Correspondent, which frequently featured advertisements for the firm. The brothers’ names (and those of their wives and children) also found mention in the paper’s society columns, which reported, for instance, on their attendance at various social events within the German-American community, including lavish anniversary parties. According to an obituary published in The Report, the journal of the Society for the History of the Germans in Maryland, William Potthast “was interested in all matters concerning his fellow racials [sic] and German-American organizations.”[37] He was a long-time member of the city’s German Society, and he supported Baltimore’s German Aged People’s Home. Additionally, he served as treasurer of the Schley Unit of the Steuben Society. Within the broader community, he served as director of St. Joseph's Hospital and as a director of St. Anthony's Orphan Asylum. Though he died relatively young, Vincent Potthast was also an active member of the German-American community: he was a member of the Seventy German Brothers’ Association and, according to his obituary, “took an active interest in the work of St. Alphonsus’ Catholic Church.”[38] Once described as the “German cathedral,” St. Alphonsus served the German Catholic community in Baltimore.[39] By all appearances, all four Potthast brothers remained true to their German Catholic upbringing throughout the duration of their lives. The same could likely be said of the members of the second generation of Potthasts in America. For example, Theodore J. Potthast (1905-1998), the last president of Potthast Bros., Inc., was a member of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore and the German Society of Maryland.[40]

Conclusion

In certain respects, the Potthast brothers and the company they founded and managed were not exceptional. The work was hard, and the economic conditions often difficult. No one became extraordinarily rich or famous; there are no monumental achievements to celebrate. Nonetheless, the story of Potthast Bros., Inc., is remarkable, not so much because it is the story of William Potthast and his three brothers, but because together they brought the company through prosperous times and lean times, from the boom years of the early twentieth century, when Baltimore was a decidedly German city, through the anti-German hysteria of the First World War, the Great Depression, yet another world war, and finally the postwar period. Over time, Potthast Bros. furniture did, of course, become famous, or at least extremely well known and valued in certain circles. Their customer list doubles as a directory of presidents, governors, and artists; among their clients were the social elite of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, not to mention the abundantly wealthy across the United States and overseas. Yet, it was always the furniture that was the star. The names of the individual brothers or other family members were hardly ever mentioned. Virtually all correspondence, every drawing or invoice was produced and issued in the name of Potthast Bros., Inc. In this respect, with its collective emphasis, the company operated along the lines of an Old World guild. In the final analysis, the company always had a remarkably clear sense of itself. It dealt with each customer with respect, yet was always guided by a sense of fairness that brooked no nonsense when anyone demanded the impossible or offered lame excuses for shortcomings.

Certainly there was some element of serendipity in the long-term success of the firm. As it turned out, Baltimore was a good place for a young German cabinetmaker like William Potthast to land, and the artistic movements of the era placed valued on Old World craftsmanship. Yet, it took perseverance, ingenuity, skill, and certain flair for marketing to make Potthast Bros.’ furniture a household name in Baltimore and beyond. To achieve success, the brothers combined traditional European craft training and a certain German frugality with American ingenuity and savvy; in the end, Potthast Bros, Inc., was a German-American entrepreneurial undertaking that looked back to the Old World and ahead to the New. The company’s slogan, “The True Antiques of Tomorrow,” which the brothers adopted in 1931, was thus well chosen.

Notes

[1] “Rites Tomorrow for W. A. Potthast,” The Baltimore Sun, August 4, 1935, 17.

[2] The summary will include findings gathered from the manuscript collections of the Maryland Historical Society, the private archives of the German Society of Maryland, and the family records and recollections of the Potthast family.

[3] In fact, an Internet search will yield a number Potthast pieces on offer for prices rivalling those of most fine antiques, with the exception of the eighteenth-century British masterpieces after which they were modeled.

[4] The firm also made a desk for Governor Theodore McKeldin (1900-1974) from a large branch that fell from the Wye Oak, then the state tree. McKeldin was governor of Maryland from 1951 to 1959 and served as mayor of Baltimore twice (1943-1947 and 1963-1967). McKeldin took the desk when he left the governorship and went back to City Hall as mayor of Baltimore for the second time.

[5] Or Gutbertlett, the spelling varies as is often the case in older documents.

[6] “In Memoriam: William Potthast,” The Report of the Society for the History of the Germans in Maryland, vol. 24 (1939): 62.

[7] In John’s case, surviving documentation provides additional details on his voyage. According to a passenger list, he arrived in Baltimore in November 1894, on the Stuttgart. He was identified on the manifest as a twenty-three-year old “joiner” who had last resided in Hamburg. His passage was apparently paid for by his “brother” (the manifest does not specify whether it was Vincent or William), and he arrived with twenty-four dollars. Johannes Potthast, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1964. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, DC; Records of the US Customs Service, RG36; Series: T844; Roll: 6. Accessed through Ancestry.com.

[8] Family records and a few other sources mention the year 1899 and the steamer Rhine. Even Theodore himself mentions alternative dates on other documents, but the passenger manifest for the SS Mainz for September 1, 1900, is clear: Theodor Potthast of Elberfeld (a municipal subdivision of Wuppertal), Westphalia, arrived in Baltimore on September 1, 1900, with twenty dollars to his name, headed to the home of his brother William in Baltimore.

[9] “Eine neue Möbelfabrik,” Der Deutsche Correspondent, April 29, 1904. At the time of Vincent Potthast’s death in 1911, that same paper would identify him as only a “junior member” of the Potthast Bros. firm. See Der Deutsche Correspondent, August 13, 1911, 7.

[10] Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore, the Building of an American City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 1.

[11] Olson states that there were 564 buildings by 1774; Ibid., 10.

[12] All current values (in 2011 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, using the Consumer Price Index.

[13] The claim is based on census records, which somewhat misstate the situation. Until 1860 census figures for Philadelphia did not include the area known then and now as Northern Liberties, which had both a sizable population and a large number of German immigrants. The German Society of Pennsylvania is still housed today on Spring Garden Street in Northern Liberties.

[14] In a vertical file marked “Emigration and Immigration,” as cited in Dean R. Esslinger, “Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” in Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, ed. M. Mark Stolarik (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1988), 70.

[15] Dieter Cunz, The Maryland Germans: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 321.

[16] Arnold Kludas, Die Seeschiffe des Norddeutschen Lloyd 1857 bis 1970 (Augsburg: Weltbild [Bechtermünz imprint], 1998), 6.

[17] See “William Albert Potthast,” Geneology.net Last accessed August 18, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Catherine Rogers Arthur, “‘The True Antiques of Tomorrow’: Furniture by the Potthast Brothers of Baltimore, 1892–1975,” in American Furniture 2000, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2000), 31-58. [available online]

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Maryland Historical Society Manuscript Collections, item MS 2183: Letterbooks, 1908-32. Potthast Brothers, Inc. 1892-1975. Box 1: Book One, page 96, December 1914, Miss Etta Cone, Marlborough Apts.

[24] Arthur, “‘The True Antiques of Tomorrow.’”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Maryland Historical Society Manuscript Collections, item MS 2659, Correspondence, 1933-34, n.d. Potthast Brothers, Inc.

[28] Arthur, “‘The True Antiques of Tomorrow.’”

[28] Ibid.

[29] Arthur, “‘The True Antiques of Tomorrow.’”

[30] Over time, all of the brothers became naturalized American citizens. Naturalization records can be located for three out of the four: William became a naturalized citizen in 1899, John in 1900, and Theodore in 1906.

[31] See “Ueber’s Meer,” Der Deutsche Correspondent (Baltimore), June 16, 1909, p. 3. 

[32] See William Potthast, in the New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Year: 1909; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 1337; Line:18; Page Number: 66. Accessed through Ancestry.com.

[33] The sisters’ names appeared in Vincent Potthast’s 1911 obituary. At the time of his death, Anna resided in Barman, Prussia; Mary in Cologne; and Josephine lived in Terporten, Prussia, where she apparently served as the long-time housekeeper to a Count von Loe. See “Dies from Brain Abscess,” Baltimore Sun, August 12, 1911, 9. 

[34] “Zur alten Heimath,” Der Deutsche Correspondent, June 15, 1912, 5.

[35] Theodore Potthast, in U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Roll #:2467; Volume #: Roll 2467 - Certificates: 390850-391349, 09 Apr 1924-10 Apr 1924. Accessed through Ancestry.com.

[36] See William Potthast, in the New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Year: 1925; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 3738; Line: 1; Page Number: 135. Accessed through Ancestry.com.

[37] “In Memoriam: William Potthast,” 62.

[38] “Dies from Brain Abscess,” 9.

[39]St. Alphonsus Church,” GermanMarylanders.org Last accessed August 18, 2015.

[40] “Theodore Potthast Sr., 93, furniture maker at family firm,” The Baltimore Sun, October 19, 1998.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"William A. Potthast." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved May 25, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=254

Chicago Style

Donaldson, Randall. "William A. Potthast." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified April 21, 2016. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=254

MLA Style

"William A. Potthast," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 25 May 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=254>

Four Potthast Brothers, ca. 1903

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