John Frank founded Frankoma Pottery in 1933, when he was still an art professor at the University of Oklahoma. At first Frankoma produced vases and other types of art pottery, using a beige clay from the Arbuckle Mountains, which today is known among Frankoma collectors as Ada clay.
In 1936, Frank quit his position at the university and in 1938 he moved with his wife, Grace Lee, to Sapulpa, Oklahoma, on Route 66 just outside of Tulsa. For another 16 years they would transport Ada clay 150 miles to their pottery in Sapulpa, but in 1954 Frankoma switched to a local material, a reddish clay used by an area brick company.
Today, Frankoma pieces made from 1954-on are described as being made out of Sapulpa clay. Collectors often try to tell the difference between the two by rubbing a wet finger on the unglazed bottom of a Frankoma piece—the color of Ada pottery will remain unchanged while Sapulpa pieces will darken.
Prior to the change in the clay body, Frank was changing the types of products his pottery was producing. In particular, Frankoma was moving from art ware to dinnerware, most famously, in 1942, with introduction of a Southwestern line that featured a bas-relief wagon wheel as its central design motif. This Wagon Wheel Dinnerware featured plates, cups and saucers, pitchers, candlesticks, and, of course, salt-and-pepper shakers—the most popular early Wagon Wheel color was Prairie Green.
Another early line, from 1947, featured a Mayan-Aztec design—pieces in Peach Glow and Peacock Blue are among the most highly sought colors in this series, although pieces of any color with the original Frankoma “Pot & Puma” mark are most desired. The Plainsman dinnerware line followed in 1948. Again, green was a favorite color, but early sets in Woodland Moss, Turquoise, or Redbud command premium prices.
Other dinnerware lines included Lazybones (1953), whose salt-and-pepper shakers, in colors such as Desert Gold, were attached to each other—salt came out of the “S” dot pattern on the taller of the two shakers, pepper poured from the “P” dot pattern on the shorter shaker. The Westwind dinnerware line followed in 1962.
While Frankoma focused a good deal on dinnerware, it also produced miniature figurines of horses, elephants, swans, and objects such as cowboy boots. Hybrid figurines included salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like jugs, teepees, oil derricks, pumas, snails, cucumbers, and bulls...
A man of faith, Frank also produced Christmas cards—made of clay, of course—beginning in 1944, and Christmas plates beginning in 1965. For the most part, the cards were simply decorative, but some acknowledged major events (the U.S. moon landing in 1969) or changes in management at Frankoma (the card from 1972 features three vases on it, meant to symbolize the role of the Frank’s daughter, Joniece, in the company’s management; a year later, her father passed away and she was given the company’s reins).
Politics also played a role in the output of Frankoma. The company’s first foray into the political-pottery arena was a John Frank political campaign token in 1962. In 1968, Frankoma produced a White Sand colored elephant-shaped mug as a fundraiser for the National Republican Women’s Club. GOP Elephant mugs followed through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, although Joniece kept things balanced by creating Democratic Donkey mugs from 1975-on. Both series ended in 2005, when the Frankoma factory finally closed its doors.