This article focuses on the history of American porcelain, noting the various materials used and some of the most recognized potteries. It originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Art pottery may be defined as intentionally decorative or ornamental ware but while the term “pottery” is usually limited to clay ware with a non-vitreous opaque body, “art pottery” must include vitreous porcelain or china as well. Also, art pottery as a separate type or classification is of fairly recent origin. In this age of specialization many plants make only this ware, yet in older days many potters from the great masters to the frontier “blue-bird” craftsmen turned out tableware or storage ware for their bread and butter and in addition turned out special ornaments to satisfy their pride in their technical and artistic skill. So it is difficult, especially for the collector, to draw any hard and fast line as to exactly the meaning of the term “art ware.”
Our first whiteware factories followed the example of Sevres, Meissen, Wedgwood and other famous European houses in making vases, figurines and other ornaments as well as tableware. In fact, the earliest known examples of American whiteware, those made by Bonin & Morris of Philadelphia about 1772, include a four-part sweetmeat dish and an openwork basket, both of which are more decorative than useful.
Again, the first known piece of American porcelain is a graceful vase made by Dr. Henry Mead of New York in 1816. However, it seems best to exclude such pieces from the category of art pottery, as well as the many ornaments turned out by generations of redware and stoneware potters in all parts of the country — although some of this ware, especially the sgraffito pieces of Eastern Pennsylvania, is purely decorative in purpose. But, not too logically, “art ware” made by factories whose main products were strictly utilitarian has to be included.
Certainly Parian has to be considered an art ware. Developed in England almost simultaneously by the Minton and Copeland houses, this is a rather soft porcelain, so high in non-plastic ingredients that it cannot be pressed or modeled but must be cast in molds. It has a soft luster which requires no glaze and a cream-white color which, with its fine texture, inspired the name. Also, it was used for statuettes, vases and other ornaments in imitation of marble.
When C. W. Fenton of Bennington, Vermont, established his own pottery in 1847, he brought John Harrison from the Copeland factory to introduce the manufacture of Parian. But the Parian which Fenton made popular in this country is not the English body but is unglazed or biscuit porcelain. Fenton colored this body with all-over fawn or buff or blue grounds, sometimes in “hammered” effect with white relief. He frequently used a light glaze. Ornamental pieces were made — vases, usually with grape relief and occasional dog paper-weights — but pitchers, glazed inside so that they could be used, are more common.
Many American factories copied Bennington’s Parian more or less closely. One was the Southern Porcelain Company at Kaolin, S. C., built by W. H. Farrar, of Bennington.
Another was the American Porcelain Manufacturing Co. at Gloucester, N. J., whose molds later were bought by the Phoenixville pottery, which, about 1879, specialized in “lithopanes” or Parian transparencies. A third was William Bloor who, at East Liverpool, Ohio, about 1860, made unglazed porcelain — though his blue ground was painted on the piece after it was formed, not put in the mold as a blue slip like Bennington’s. Bloor also produced some full-relief busts of American statesmen.
A fourth was Charles Cartlidge and his modeler, Josiah Jones, who produced at Greenpoint (Brooklyn), N. Y., between 1848 and 1856 some of the finest American Parian (fig. 2), including half life-size busts of Washington, Webster and other national heroes and copies of Wedgwood’s famous jasper. Later, after 1875, a fifth factory, Ott & Brewer of Trenton, N. J, engaged Isaac Broome, who modeled a number of busts and figurines in the true Parian body. This ware is not often marked but the United States Pottery of Bennington put their “Ribbon” mark on some of it (fig. 1).
The inclusion of majolica as art pottery is open to question. The great majority of American majolica is tableware, tea sets and plates and most of it is cheaply made — quantity production ware which was given away as premiums. Its soft and porous body made it impractical and only its soft bright colors and original shapes gave it popularity.
Like Parian, majolica was developed in England, a buff-colored body masked by colored glazes. Edwin Bennett, one of the Staffordshire potters who founded the American majolica industry, was making it in Baltimore as early as 1853, his pieces including a bust of Washington and a “fish” pitcher. James Carr, another pioneer, also produced majolica in New York for about two years around 1858. A “cauliflower” teapot of his is recorded. But the best-known American majolica is that made at the Phoenixville Pottery of Griffin, Smith & Hill and their successors between 1879 and 1890 — the “Etruscan majolica” which bears their monogram.
By the end of the 19th century art ware had become so popular that W. P. Jervis’ Encyclopaedia of Ceramics, published in 1902, describes some variant for almost every large manufacturer of ceramic ware. Bennett of Baltimore had his Albion Ware. The New England Pottery, founded in 1854, made white tableware and Pieti art ware between 1880 and 1895. J. B. Owens of Zanesville, Ohio, manufacturer of cuspidors, featured Feroza ware and other hand-decorated decorative pieces, while S. A. Weller, also of Zanesville, made Louwelsa, Turada and Dickens ware, with incised decoration, as well as flower pots.
The Wheeling (MT. Va.) Pottery Company developed Cameo ware with lace effects produced by use of the actual material. But the finest of these specialties was the Lotus ware of Knowles, Taylor & Knowles, East Liverpool, Ohio (fig. 6). The largest whiteware pottery in America, they employed an Englishman who had worked at Belleek, Joshua Poole, to develop a porcelain body and, in 1893, Henry Schmidt, a German who evolved the distinctive filigree decoration of Lotus ware. At its best when uncolored, but occasionally found decorated in the taste of the nineties, this fine ware was an artistic though not a financial success and was made for only a few years. Proud of it, the makers used a special mark, including their name and that of the ware.
At the other extreme, commercially, from these houses are the amateurs who have made pottery mainly for their own amusement. A Thomas Inglis of Manchester, N. H., was making some ornamental ware “not for sale” as early as 1844. Others who worked more for their own amusement than for profit include Charles Volkmar of Corona, N. Y.; T. A. Brouer of East Hampton; Thomas Wheatley of Cincinnati; Van Briggle of Colorado Springs; Ohr of Biloxi, Miss.; the Newcomb Pottery of New Orleans, under the art department of Newcomb College, and numerous others.
The best-known amateur, of course, was Mrs. Bellamy Storer of Cincinnati, the former Maria Longwood, who developed the Rookwood ware which Jervis in 1900 acclaimed as “the glory of American Ceramic Art.” Mrs. Storer began by taking up the lady-like hobby of china-painting but went on to study the manufacture and burning of the ware itself. Her father gave her an old schoolhouse and there, in 1880, her first kiln of ware was drawn. After 1883, W. W. Taylor joined forces with Mrs. Storer, taking over control of the pottery in 1889, and building a new plant on a hill above Cincinnati in 1892.
As her decorating was done by local artists from the Cincinnati Art School, Mrs. Storer preferred to use local clays. The characteristic Rookwood is thus a shaded tan, brown and red — brown body decorated with naturalistic flowers in soft shades. Later, other colors — blues and greens and a beautiful soft matt glaze — were introduced, with incised and relief decoration (fig. 3). A complete collection of the ware would include a full range of ceramic colors, glazes and techniques, identified by the distinctive impressed monogram which appears on all Rookwood made after 1887.
Simultaneously with Rookwood, the Robertsons of Boston were making another name in American ceramic history. A. W. Robertson built a brownware plant in Chelsea in 1868 and was later joined by his father, James, and his brother, Hugh C.
Fancy flowerpots were their first product. Later, as the Ceramic Art Works, they turned to art ware. As too often happened, the firm was not financially successful and was closed in 1888. In 1891, another firm, the Chelsea Pottery, was formed, with Hugh C. Robertson as its head. The plant was moved to Dedham, where it is still in existence. Their specialty was high-fired or hard porcelain, with crackled glazes copying Chinese ware, and red and black terracotta in the Etruscan style. Tiles for fireplaces also were made. Their marks, impressed or printed, vary from the firm name or initials to a conventionalized rabbit.
This hard or true porcelain has been, ever since the days of Böttger of Meissen and the philosopher’s stone, a dream of the whiteware potter. It was the goal of many early American craftsmen but it was not until 1865 that it was first produced in this country. Thomas C. Smith, a New York architect, acquired the Union Porcelain Works in Brooklyn, built by William Bloch in 1854. On a trip to Europe he became interested in the manufacture of porcelain and returned to New York to initiate its production in 1865.
For 45 years or more this factory made fine tableware and Karl Muller, who was its designer for most of that period, modeled a series of vases and statuettes, particularly the large and elaborate “show pieces” — the Century and Cerames vases and the Poets’ Pitcher and Liberty Cup (fig. 7). The firm used no mark until 1876, then, briefly, a conventional Eagle’s head, and finally its name, printed.
Still another type of porcelain, particularly suited to art ware, is Belleek, very thin and light hollowware washed with pearly lusters (fig. 5). Developed by W. H. Goss of Staffordshire, it was popularized after 1863 by the factory at Belleek, Ireland, from which it takes its name. William Bromley, who left Goss to go to Belleek, came to the United States in 1883 and worked for Ott and Brewer of Trenton. This factory, originally makers of White Granite tableware, decided to specialize on art ware and, with Broome as modeler and Bromley as technician, achieved a distinct artistic success between 1875 and 1893 but were unable to survive the financial depression of the latter year. Their various printed marks include their name or the initials O. & B. with a crown or a crescent.
In the same field the Ceramic Art Company of Trenton, N. J., founded by Jonathan Coxon and Walter Scott Lenox in 1889, was more successful (fig. 8): Although Lenox, who became the owner in 1894, was stricken by paralysis and blindness in 1895, he eventually (as the present Lenox, Inc.), became the first successful manufacturer of really fine porcelain in the United States. Their vases and decorative pieces in Belleek and porcelain bodies, decorated with gold and colors, have been a staple product, and their tableware was the first produced in America that was considered fine enough to be used on the President’s table. Their first White House service, made in 1918, has been supplemented in four later administrations. Their early mark is the monogram, C.A.C., printed.
It is impossible even to mention in these few pages all the American potters who have tried with more or less success to make fine and decorative ware. J. S. Taft & Co., of Keene, N. H., established in 1871, made stoneware, later majolica and eventually art ware with a soft green matt glaze, including a copy of the Bennington hound-handled pitcher. The Vance Faience Co. of Tiltonville, Ohio, about 1900 hit upon the same idea, claiming the original Bennington mold. Mrs. Pauline Jacobus of Chicago began making art pottery as a hobby, like Mrs. Storer, in Chicago about 1883, and operated the Pauline Pottery in Edgerton, Wis., from 1888 to 1892, specializing on the underglaze decorated ware which was the favorite of that period.
It is also impossible to develop any technical definition of art pottery and in consequence difficult to limit it to any definite bodies, shapes, glazes or decorations. But as the work of American potters who were trying to produce the finest ware technically and artistically within their abilities it is certainly worth recording and preserving. This brief and cursory outline is no place for superlatives or enthusiasm, yet it may be recorded, as a matter of fact, that at least some of the wares mentioned here are remarkably fine in quality and design.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.