When German immigrants settled in the Mississippi River grain town of Red Wing, Minnesota during the 1860s, they noticed that the local clay was perfect for producing stoneware such as crocks, jugs, and other forms of pottery used for food storage and preparation. These immigrants had an eye for such things because they had arrived in the upper Midwest as skilled potters.
In 1877, Red Wing Stoneware Co. began producing hand-turned jugs, water coolers, and butter churns, some with capacities of up to 40 gallons. Many of these earliest pieces had glassy, mottled, salt-glazed surfaces, the result of rock salt being tossed into a kiln while the piece was being fired. Decorations on these utilitarian light-brown or tan farmhouse pieces were limited to a single hand-painted blue flower, a tornado shape, the piece’s capacity, or perhaps a small bird. Rims were thick and rounded, while clay for the handles were pressed into the piece and shaped by hand. For these reasons, along with their general scarcity, salt-glaze Red Wing stoneware from the late 19th century is highly collectible.
As the 20th century dawned, Red Wing was the largest pottery in the United States. To keep up with demand, the company imposed new, more efficient production methods such as slip casting on its workforce. Gone were the days when an artisan would see a piece through from start to finish, and the surface of a piece was dependent on the amount of salt he happened to throw into a kiln. It was the age of the assembly line, with rows of motorized wheels and jigs manned by specialists.
Bristol glaze, also known as a zinc glaze, replaced salt, and the benefits were immediate. First, Bristol glaze resulted in a uniform, bone-white surface, giving Red Wing food-storage products such as syrup pitchers a cleaner, more sanitary appearance. Second, and just as importantly, Bristol gave Red Wing’s designers a neutral background for decoration, from the "red wing" that would become the company’s logo to custom designs for advertisers.
Stoneware remained a mainstay for Red Wing through the first part of the 20th century, but the product line faded after World War II. In 1914, it introduced a Brushed Ware line of stoneware urns, vases, and jardinières (planters), whose incised surfaces would be painted and then brushed away, leaving the color in the crevices of the piece. The following year, Red Wing received a patent for its method of attaching wire handles to the tops of its largest and heaviest jars. The patent date of December 21, 1915 would be stamped on pieces with wire handles until Red Wing discontinued the production of stoneware in 1947.
In the intervening years, Red Wing introduced numerous lines of art pottery, which is a favorite of collectors today. Red Wing designed some 2,000 styles of art pottery between 1929 and 1967. The first of these used imported clay (the local sources had been largely depleted) and featured classical Egyptian and Greek vase forms.
One of Red Wing’s most famous relationships was with George Rumrill, a wholesaler whose RumRill-branded line of Red Wing art pottery ranged from aqua vases to cream candleholders...
Square and rounded vases, as well as candleholders and figurines, continued throughout the 1940s, while in the 1950s and 1960s, Red Wing produced pieces with designs that suggested influences as varied as Art Deco and Mid-century Modern—Floraline, Stereoline, Textura, and the famous Prismatique are just a few of the lines from this period. Most rare, though, are the ashtrays produced in 1965 to mark the appearance of the Minnesota Twins in the World Series (they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers).
A third, parallel production line was Red Wing dinnerware, which was introduced in 1935 and produced until Red Wing closed its doors in 1967. The Gypsy Trail line from that introductory year featured four patterns, Plain, Reed, Chevron, and Fondoso, all of which are difficult to find today. The company launched a floral Provincial line in 1941 (its four patterns were Ardennes, Brittany, Normandy, and Orleans), and the wide-ranging Concord line appeared in 1947 (there were 17 patterns in that collection, including the rare Nassau, with its green, brown, and yellow leaves and flowers, and the unapologetically pretty Blossom Time).
The Smart Set pattern of 1955 was part of the Casual line—the pattern’s black-and-gold graphics are classically 1950s. Less aesthetically adventurous, but more sought after by collectors today, is the Flight pattern in the Cylinder line from 1962. Those pieces feature birds in flight, making them popular with collectors of duck-hunting imagery as well as with fans of Red Wing.