Art as a Tonic: Making Pottery and Defeating Tuberculosis at the Arequipa Sanatorium

In the spring of 1913 journalist Elise Roorbach was walking around downtown San Francisco when she passed a gift store. She saw some unusual vases in the window and went into the shop to look. They weren’t finely formed, and they didn’t have shiny glazes in pretty colors. Some were rather crude, with drip marks and uneven carving. But Elise was intrigued and asked the store owner about them. He said they were made by women from a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Marin County village of Fairfax, and the pottery was for sale to help patients pay for their treatment.

Elise was so taken with this story that she decided to visit the sanatorium, called Arequipa. She got on a ferry boat, crossed San Francisco Bay to Marin County, and then took the electric train to Arequipa. It was a beautiful day, so she walked up the gentle hill from the train station and through Arequipa’s wooded entrance, prepared to introduce herself.

She wasn’t the first person to visit the unusual pottery works. In October 1911, Dr. Philip King Brown had opened the Arequipa Sanatorium, a place where women with tuberculosis could take what was known as the “rest cure” to heal their lungs and send them home healthy. Since then, local newspaper reporters had been dropping by to see the operation.

A Pottery is Born

Arequipa Pottery mark, c1916. (Collection of the author)

Dr. Brown’s mother, Dr. Charlotte Blake Brown, was one of San Francisco’s most prominent female physicians and surgeons, and she taught her children (two of whom became doctors) that women deserve proper health care. When Philip Brown saw a rise in women’s TB rates after the 1906 earthquake and fire, he was determined to give them a place dedicated specifically to their needs.

A big part of the TB cure was a positive attitude, and Dr. Brown felt that one way to foster this was to give the women something productive to do. When they were still feverish and bed bound, they could read, knit, or do small handcrafts. He knew that TB sanatoria and other institutions had successful occupational therapy programs, so he decided to offer pottery making to the patients who had improved and were on their way to being cured.

He got the idea from Dr. Herbert J. Hall, who ran the Devereaux Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a sanitarium for people with nervous complaints who needed quiet and therapeutic occupation. Hall offered his patients a number of crafts, but pottery was the most popular. In fact, it was so successful that in 1904 he spun off the venture into a commercial firm called Marblehead Pottery.

Patients at work in the pottery shed, c1912. (Collection of the author)

Dr. Philip Brown wanted to start his studio off right, so he hired a well-known ceramist named Frederick Rhead as pottery director, offering him and his wife a cottage on the sanatorium grounds. Brown bought top-of-the-line equipment and built a special shed near the main building for the women to work in.

But he didn’t see pottery making as mindless occupation. He wanted the women to get something else from their work: money. He spoke with store managers all over San Francisco and convinced them to carry Arequipa pottery on consignment, with a percentage of sales going to the patients who made the pieces. The women then profited from their art, literally putting their cure into their own clay-covered hands.

There was no danger that the TB bacillus could be transmitted to anyone who handled or bought the pottery. For one thing, the work shed was screened in on all sides to allow for maximum exposure to fresh air, a critical part of the TB cure. The sanatorium building itself was also fully screened, with no glass windows anywhere except in the kitchen. Kiln firing the pottery killed any rogue bacilli. And only women who no longer had fevers could do clay work, because a temperature indicated active disease. When the weather was nice, the patients could sit outside and carve their pieces, walking on dirt paths among the bay and oak trees to and from the pottery building.

Spreading the Word

Frederick Rhead left in 1913, and Albert Solon succeeded him as pottery director. Solon had a gift for marketing. In April 1914, for example, he gave a talk at a woman’s club and sold nearly every vase he brought with him. The meeting’s chairwoman encouraged her fellow members to buy pieces of the pottery with a pitch of her own: “Californians should help to push this industry of Californian labor with California material.”1

Arequipa Pottery booth at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, 1915. (Courtesy Fairfax Historical Society, Fairfax, California)

In 1915, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal and the city’s recovery from the disaster of 1906. Exhibition palaces were grouped around a central tower, and the Arequipa Sanatorium took a booth in the Palace of Education and Social Economy. Inside was a model of the sanatorium and a mini-pottery, where former patients who had shown skill in the ceramic arts demonstrated pottery making and sold pieces. They were paid eleven dollars a week to work the fair, which was almost double the weekly wage for a female worker. They also got a ten percent bonus on anything they sold.

Dr. Brown knew that time making vases and bowls was good for his patients. On the wall of the Arequipa booth at the PPIE was a chart comparing cure rates between the women who worked in the pottery and those who didn’t. He also used the fair as an opportunity for further marketing, and closed deals with stores in Chicago and New York for pottery sales.

Fred Wilde succeeded Albert Solon as director in 1916 and his specialty was ceramic tile, which was then added to the pottery’s output. He also perfected the identifying mark that had been carved or painted on the bottom of the molded items: a vase sitting on a ledge underneath the graceful branches of a tree.

After America entered World War I in 1917, the women of Arequipa turned a lot of their personal crafts into goods for the war effort, especially needlework, but only pieces which could be boiled and sanitized. The clay products also did their part. Dr. Brown’s wife Helen presided over sales of the pottery at fundraisers for Belgian relief around the Bay Area.

Final Days, Lasting Legacy

Dr. Philip Brown went to France during the war, serving as assistant director of the U.S. Department of Medical Research and Intelligence. The pottery limped along during his absence and Wilde, the final director, left just as the war ended in November 1918. A few former patients volunteered to help keep things going, but output was sporadic.

Arequipa Sanatorium and pottery works, c1914. (Courtesy the Brown Family)

In 1921, the graduating class of a local high school gave a piece of the pottery to their library as a parting gift, but the glory days were over. With rising costs and no permanent director, Dr. Brown closed the pottery works in 1922. He didn’t give up on occupational therapy, though. Over the next few years Arequipa patients had the opportunity to learn typing, stenography, and laboratory technology, and many women left the sanatorium with new skills.

Arequipa pottery is collectible today, and pieces made by both patients and directors are in museums and private collections. (I own four pieces.) As Elise Roorbach realized on her spring 1913 visit, the appeal of the pottery is not in its appearance, but in its story. She spent hours with the women working in the pottery that day, talking with them and divining their feelings about handling clay and fighting TB. She then walked to the train station as the sun began to set. Elise wrote about Arequipa for the June 1913 issue of Craftsman, titled “Art as a Tonic,” which revealed how profound her experience had been. “As I stumbled along seeking my way, my thoughts were bright, my heart was warm, for my fingers held tightly a little vase. It was a thing of much importance to me, for it had molded a girl into happiness as surely as her fingers had formed and given it color.”2

Notes

  1. Marin Journal, April 23, 1914. Return to text.
  2. Elise Roorbach, “Art as a Tonic,” Craftsman 24 (June 1913): 346. Return to text.

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2 Comments

Janet Lynne Golden

Fascinating history. I love California pottery but I never knew the Arequipa story. I know some of the prewar tiles and pots had really colorful glazes because they used arsenic. Do you know if they avoided this at Arequipa?

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Lynn Downey

Hi Janet – I don’t know exactly what was in the glazes used at Arequipa. And that’s because ceramists kept their glaze formulas as secret as if they were the recipe for Coca-Cola. Glaze colors were proprietary and therefore not shared with anyone. None of the sanatorium’s annual reports mentioned any issues about problems with working with glazes, so it’s likely there was nothing toxic. Thanks for asking!

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