The art pottery movement in America began in the 1870s, coinciding roughly with the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement, which gained momentum in the 1880s. Ceramics manufacturers designated certain of their pieces as "art" pottery to differentiate those vases and bowls from their more utilitarian ware. Early art-pottery pieces were usually hand-decorated, signed by the designer, and produced in limited numbers. Thus, the word "art" was descriptive in a literal sense, but it was also used for marketing purposes, to elevate at least a percentage of the output of a ceramics manufacturer above its more common pieces of clay.
Many companies known for their art pottery, including Rookwood, Roseville, Frankoma, and Weller, were founded in the American Midwest in the 1880s and 1890s. Drawing on local deposits of clay and minerals, most of these companies started by making simple, decorative or utilitarian pieces such as flowerpots and other garden ware.
What ultimately set these companies apart were their ornamental designs. Rookwood and other Midwestern companies took inspiration from Asian designs and Art Nouveau styles, creating pieces that were both functional and beautiful. They worked in a variety of popular forms, from vases to bowls to wall sconces and decorative tiles.
Some art pottery makers like Rookwood eventually grew into large operations, producing pieces in quantity and marketing them nationally via department stores and catalogs. But many smaller studios thrived in the heyday of hand thrown and decorated art pottery.
Other noteworthy makers of American art pottery include Arequipa Pottery, Batchelder, Bauer, Catalina Clay Products, Grueby Faience, Fulper Pottery Company, Vivika and Otto Heino, Hull, Chelsea Keramic, Lonhuda, Malibu Potteries, McCoy, Newcomb College, George Ohr, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, the Saturday Evening Girls, Artus Van Briggle, Charles Volkmar, and Beatrice Wood.