American art pottery’s “golden era” started in the late 1880s and ran through the late 1920s. Today, decorative pottery from that period is highly sought after by collectors.
The movement began in Ohio and quickly spread across the country, spurred by a burgeoning middle class. In a matter of two decades, what had started as a “handmade” industry grew into a mechanized one and ultimately a big industry of national importance.
Ohio boasts the “big three” of american art potteries, which we profile below along with two additional Midwest potteries of importance. Remarkably, two of these potteries are still in operation, more than century after they were founded.
The best of what was produced during the golden era is now priced beyond reach of casual collectors, but production of less-expensive lines was substantial, so there’s plenty of choice for the budget-minded collector, too.
Let’s take a look at five Midwestern pottery companies whose wares are collector favorites.
Rookwood Pottery Co., is considered by many to be the Cadillac of American art pottery. Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, a daughter of a prominent Cincinnati family, founded the company in 1879. She hired skilled ceramic workers and top decorators who developed many lines of superior art pottery.
Standard, one of Rookwood’s early lines, was often imitated by competitors. It was a brown ware decorated with underglaze slip-painted nature studies, animals and portraits.
Rookwood also produced pottery in the Japonism trend, after Storer invited Japanese artist Kitaro Shirayamadani to come to Cincinnati in 1887 to work for the company.
In 1894, Rookwood introduced three glazes, Iris, a clear colorless glaze; Sea Green, clear with a green tint; and Aerial Blue, clear with a blue tint. The latter glaze was produced for just one year, but Vellum and Sea Green glazes were used for more than a decade.
Vellum, introduced in 1904, presented a matte surface but through which could be seen the slightly frosted-appearing decoration beneath. It was widely used on scenic plaques, which were framed.
Many of the early artware lines were signed by the artist.
Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Rookwood began manufacturing production pieces that relied mainly on molded designs and forms rather than freehand decoration.
In 1902, Rookwood expanded into architectural pottery. Under the direction of William Watts Taylor, this division rapidly gained national and international acclaim. Rookwood tiles were used to create fireplace surrounds in many homes, and on a grander scale, were used in mansions, hotels and public places.
Following a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the company was hit hard by the Great Depression. Art pottery became a low priority for consumers, and architects could no longer afford Rookwood tiles. Rookwood filed for bankruptcy in 1941 and struggled through ownership changes. Herschede Clock Co., purchased Rookwood n 1959 and moved production to Starkville, Mississippi. Production ceased there in 1967.
A physician and Rookwood collector in Michigan owned the company’s assets for many years. In 2006, new ownership revived the company in Cincinnati. Since then it has been producing ceramic pieces, including architectural tile, using Rookwood’s original designs. Some of the pieces are identical, using molds and formulas from the company’s archives; others are new works. Like old Rookwood pottery, all pieces are marked and dated.
Weller Pottery had a humble beginning, starting out in 1872 in a small cabin with a single beehive kiln in Fultonham, Ohio. In 1882, founder Samuel Augustus Weller (1851-1925) moved the operation to Zanesville, where he recruited many of the foremost names in the business.
Having seen William Long’s Lonhuda ware at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Weller hired Lonhuda to produce faience-glazed pottery. When Long left after less than a year, Weller renamed the tin-glazed pottery line Louwelsa after his young daughter Louisa. It was made in at least 500 different shapes until 1924.
Weller expanded the company’s art pottery offerings around the turn of the century. From 1895-1904, Charles Babcock Upjohn was Weller’s head designer. He developed many fine artware lines, including Dickens Ware, Eocean and Aurelian.
One of the most famous lines was Dickens Ware II, introduced in 1900. The pieces were sgraffito-decorated with animals, golfers, monks, Indians and scenes from Charles Dickens novels on backgrounds that had characteristically caramel shading to turquoise matte.
In 1903 and 1904, Frederick H. Rhead worked at Weller pottery, developing a Japanese-influenced line whose pieces were decorated with Geisha girls, landscapes and birds. Rhead employed a unique look by applying heavy “slip” through the tiny nozzle of a squeeze bag.
From 1902-1907, Jacques Sicard joined Weller pottery and developed a metallic glaze. Teh Sicardo line went into production in the fall of 1903, but the process was difficult, and only about 30% of the finished pots were marketable. The pottery had a metallic luster in tones of rose, blue, green, or purple, with flowing Art Nouveau patterns developed within the glaze.
A desirable later line was named Hudson, first made in the early 1920s. A semi-matte-glaze ware line, it was beautifully decorated on shaded backgrounds with florals, animals, birds and scenics. Hudson pieces are often signed by the decorators.
Weller discontinued costly artware lines in the 1920s in favor of mass-produced commercial wares. The Great Depression brought a steady decline in sales and by 1948 the pottery was closed.
The Roseville Pottery Co. was incorporated in Roseville, Ohio in 1892 with George F. Young as general manager. Buoyed by the success of early utilitarian wares, the company expanded to a new plant in nearby Zanesville. By 1900, Young had controlling interest in the company and had his sights set on entering the highly competitive art pottery market. He hired an artistic designer, Ross C Purdy, who created Rozane, the company’s first art pottery line. It featured dark blended backgrounds with slip-painted underglaze artwork, similar to Rookwood’s Standard glaze.
Roseville’s Rozane Mongol, a high-gloss oxblood red line, won first prize at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Frederick H. Rhead left Weller Pottery to become art director of Roseville Pottery from 1904 to 1909. He created Roseville’s Della Robbia and Olympic lines and designed or oversaw the Juvenile, Mostique and Pauleo lines. His brother, Harry Rhead, took over as artistic director in 1908 and, in 1915, introduced the popular Donatello line.
Handcrafting had virtually ceased at Roseville by 1908, replaced by mass-production methods.
Frank Ferrell, who was a leading decorator at Weller in the early 1900s, was Roseville’s artistic director from 1917 until 1954. He created many of the company’s most popular lines including Pine Cone, Futura, Falline and Sunflower.
Company sales declined in the postwar era as inexpensive Japanese imports flooded the American market. Also, consumer tastes had changed, and Roseville’s mainstay floral designs started to look old-fashioned as a more modern aesthetic emerged. The company went out of business in 1954, selling the facilities to the Mosaic Tile Co.
Pewabic Pottery may be one of the best-kept secrets in the pottery industry – and the studio is still in operation in Detroit. Mary Chase Perry Stratton (1867-1961) and her neighbor and business parter Horace James Caulkins (1850-1932) formally opened the pottery in a Tudor revival-style building on East Jefferson Avenue in 1907.
Perry named the pottery “Poewabic,” said to be derivative of the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, word wabic, which means metal, or bewabic, which means iron or steel. It specifically refers to the Pewabic copper mine in her hometown of Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Some of the early artware was glazed a simple matte green. Occasionally other colors were added, sometimes in combination to render a drip effect. Later, Perry developed a lustrous crystalline glaze. The body of the ware was highly fired and extremely hard. Shapes were basic, and decorative modeling was in low relief.
While never a big operation, Pewabic Pottery became a major name in the Arts and Crafts movement. Under Mary Stratton’s artistic leadership, Pewabic Pottery employees created lamps, vessels and architectural tiles.
The Griswold Hotel in Detroit ordered one of the first tile commissions, and orders from around the country followed. Pewabic tiles grace notable buildings such as the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
After years of experimenting, in 1909 Stratton discovered an iridescent glaze that established Pewabic as one of the most innovative potteries of its time.
Mary Stratton remained active at Pewabic until her death at age 94. The company continued to operate for five years after her death under the direction of Caulkins’ widow, a former assistant and silent partner.
The private, nonprofit Pewabic Society Inc. was established in 1979. The building and its contents were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Today, Pewabic is Michigan’s only historic pottery.
The American Terra Cotta Tile and Ceramic Co., is famous for Teco artware, another favorite among Arts and Crafts Moment devotees. Founded by William Day Gates in 1881 as Spring Valley Tile Works, it became the country’s first manufacturer of architectural terra cotta. Production at the plant in McHenry County plant outside Chicago consisted of drain tile, brick, chimney tops, finials, urns and other fireproof building materials.
Gates used the facilities to experiment with clays and glazes in an effort to design a line of art pottery which led to the introduction of Teco Pottery (TErra COtta) in 1899.
The smooth, micro-crystalline, matte “Teco green” glaze of Teco Art Pottery was developed independently and was not an attempt to copy the famous Grueby green of the Grueby Pottery Co., in Boston.
Teco pottery emphasized line and color rather than elaborate decoration. While most of the 500 shapes created by 1911 were the product of Gates’ efforts, many of the remaining Teco designs were the work of several Chicago architects who were involved in the Prairie School style as expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Teco pottery became closely linked with this style, which emphasized simplicity of design and discipline in the use of ornament.
A victim of the Great Depression, Teco production ceased a short time after the stock market crash of 1929.