The terms “head vase,” “lady head vase,” or “head planters” refer to a style of ceramic vase popularized during the 1950s and generally featuring the head or bust of a person, usually a woman. Originally, head vases were produced by florist companies to hold the bouquets they sold. Their small openings helped to maximize sales by limiting the number of blossoms each container held.
Early American head vase manufacturers include Betty Lou Nichols, Ceramic Arts Studio, and Dorothy Copley. Betty Lou Nichols opened her first ceramics studio in 1945. Nichols’ distinctive vases often showcase ladies with intricately curled hair and fabric ruffles along with pouting lips and her signature three-dimensional black eyelashes, all in hard ceramic.
Head vase subjects ranged from Disney characters to exoticized foreign females to the Virgin Mary. Today, many of the most collectible head vases feature the likenesses of familiar celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.
The sudden growth of the Japanese economy following World War II created a new source of potential head-vase manufacturers, and new firms like Enesco, Lefton China, Napco, and Ucagco soon joined the game. These imports were generally much cheaper than those made domestically by Nichols and others, and the Japanese suppliers were soon beating their American counterparts.
As the style spread, similar designs were made for a wide variety of uses, from umbrella holders to head-shaped lamps. Other head vases were accessorized with jewelry, added after firing, and some featured a flat side so they could be mounted as wall pockets. By the 1970s, though, the head-vase fad had run its course, and demand decreased to the point that most companies stopped producing these pieces altogether.