Some Red Wing Pottery collectors focus only on the early stoneware, others are into the company’s artware. Larry Roschen is a dinnerware guy. In this interview, Roschen explains why Red Wing transitioned from stoneware to dinnerware, and one-upped Fiesta in the process, launching the first line of bright, solid-colored dinner sets. He also discusses other important aspects of Red Wing dinnerware collecting, from hand-painted patterns such as Bob White and Round Up to the rare “lunch-hour” pieces. As a member of the Red Wing Collectors Society, Roschen fields questions about the vintage dinnerware on the Ask the Experts page of redwingcollectors.org.
When the Red Wing Stoneware Company was founded in 1877 in Red Wing, Minnesota, the company only made stoneware like crocks and jugs. By 1936, though, stoneware was declining in popularity—refrigeration and other new technologies offered better ways to preserve food than putting it in brine and storing it in a crock all winter.
Red Wing’s management figured the company had better make something else if it was going to stay in business, so it began producing art pottery and dinnerware. In 1936, the company changed its name to Red Wing Potteries, which it used until it closed in ’67.
A gentleman named George RumRill, who was a designer but not a potter, is credited with introducing new dinnerware and art pottery designs and glazes to Red Wing in the ’30s. He designed much of the company’s art pottery of the time, and came up with several useful glazes. I’d call them flowing glazes because the different colors flow into each other. In his art pottery, for example, he often used Scarlet & Bay, a combination of orange and brown, and he also had a two-toned green, which had a light green base color and a dark green flowing over that.
One of the earliest Red Wing dinnerware brochures was printed in two versions; one with the RumRill Pottery Company logo and another with Red Wing Potteries. RumRill marketed the dinnerware in the East and the South—he was based out of Arkansas—while Red Wing marketed in the Midwest and West. That arrangement lasted until 1938. Although Red Wing learned a lot from RumRill about glazes and design, eventually they couldn’t agree on terms, and RumRill went his own way. The final agreement allowed Red Wing to keep any RumRill pieces it still had on hand, which is why today you’ll find RumRill pieces with Red Wing glazes on them.
Red Wing’s first dinnerware line was called Gypsy Trail. Many people think it was a copy of Fiesta, but Gypsy Trail, with its white, dark blue, orange, turquoise, and yellow glazes, was introduced in June 1935, a full year before Fiesta was introduced. So, from a Red Wing collector’s point of view, Fiesta copied Gypsy Trail, not the other way around, although I have no doubt that both Homer Laughlin, who made Fiesta, and Red Wing were coming up with similar ideas at the same time.
Collectors Weekly: Is Gypsy Trail hard to find?
Roschen: No, Red Wing produced a lot of it over about 10 years, and it evolved rapidly. Gypsy Trail encompasses four distinct patterns, as well as a huge set of accessory pieces that don’t necessarily have to go with any particular pattern. Because they were glazed in the same color schemes, the accessories could be used with any of the patterns.
Red Wing was terrible at making covers. People say that if the cover doesn’t fit, it’s Red Wing.
Reed and Plain were the two original patterns. The company didn’t use those two names at first; Red Wing just called everything Gypsy Trail. Some of it had a reed ribbed-type effect on the sides, and some didn’t. By the time the next brochure was published in 1937, the company employed the terms “Plain” and “Reed.” Red Wing also added the Chevron pattern to the Gypsy Trail line, which had a ring of Vs around the rim of the pieces.
Fondoso was the fourth pattern in the Gypsy Trail line and it was introduced on January 1, 1939. It was the first dinnerware produced by Belle Kogan, a designer from New York who was one of the first female industrial designers. Her pattern used the same five bright colors from the original Gypsy Trail, but also added pastel green, pastel yellow, and pastel pink, pastel blue and powder blue.
By 1940, Red Wing was making Gypsy Trail Hostess Ware, which were accessories that, again, could be used with any of its dinnerware patterns. They made around 300 different Gypsy Trail shapes and items throughout World War II. The line included cookie jars, casseroles, and serving bowls in fruit shapes, from apples to pineapples. The Gypsy Trail line also had Art Deco-looking pitchers, teapots, and casseroles. We don’t know exactly when Gypsy Trail ended. We’ve got a 1944 Gypsy Trail brochure—the last one that we know of—but pieces introduced in 1944 were made for a fairly brief period.
In 1941 Red Wing introduced its first hand-painted dinnerware patterns. After years of only solid-colored stuff—most dinnerware patterns don’t last more than four or five years—people took to this white dinnerware with floral designs.
Collectors Weekly: Did Red Wing offer other lines while they were making Gypsy Trail?
Roschen: They introduced Gypsy Trail in ’35, and expanding that line was their sole concern for the next five years. In 1941, they brought on a new designer named Charles Murphy, who created their first line of hand-painted dinnerware. Murphy is considered the most important figure in Red Wing dinnerware. He designed most of the Red Wing patterns between ’41 and ’67.
In 1941, Murphy helped Red Wing release a line called Provincial with four new hand-painted patterns named after the four provinces of France—Orleans, Brittany, Ardennes, and Normandy. These dinnerware patterns were Red Wing’s mainstay for most of the 1940s and through the early ’50s. The company introduced several other patterns during the ’40s, but not all were successful. The first two patterns in the Concord line, with its distinctive square plates with rounded edges, were also introduced in 1941.
The Harvest pattern was only made for a couple of years, while Lexington, one of the more popular patterns, was made until 1956. Over the years the Concord line grew to 20 patterns and had both hits and misses. One Concord pattern, Lotus, survived through ’57.
In the mid- to late 1950s, Red Wing had a lot of competition from Asia, primarily Japan. Asian labor was cheaper, and it undercut Red Wing’s prices. Now, it’s fashionable to promote “Made in America,” but Red Wing was trying to do that in the ’50s. By the end, in the 1960s, the company was supposedly the last American pottery company still making hand-painted dinnerware.
Collectors Weekly: Who did the actual painting?
Roschen: Primarily young women. Belle Kogan contributed a few patterns in the 1950s, but Murphy designed most of the artwork. The company would make a rubber stamp from the original artwork and stamp the outline on the piece. The outline burned away when the piece was fired in the kiln. Each painter was responsible for one color. You might be the light-green girl or the dark-blue girl. There might be five or 10 different women working on the artwork of each piece. The dinnerware was hand-painted, but it was production-line painting, not the work of a single artist.
In the old stoneware days, a potter could make a little something for himself on his lunch hour and fire it.
Red Wing made thousands upon thousands of pieces, but we really don’t have the production numbers, as those documents were thrown away when the company closed. A local historical society had some information from the early ’50s—the sales at the time were in the hundreds of thousands of items. Odds are that was the peak of production. Japanese competition wasn’t strong until the late ’50s, as they were still recovering from the war.
Some patterns sold very well; others didn’t, which makes them hard to find. Nassau, for example, was one of the Concord patterns. The artwork was in shades of green, yellow, and brown and looked like a profusion of ferns. It wasn’t very appealing, in my opinion. Serious collectors can go for a year without seeing a piece of Nassau, since most of it is in collections. For that reason, those pieces tend to be quite valuable, if you find them. On the other hand, there are also some ugly patterns that they made a lot of. Those are just ugly and not particularly valuable.
Collectors Weekly: What are some other rare patterns?
Roschen: Probably the most rare of them all is a pattern called Buds, made about the same time as Nassau. We have an internal company document that talks about Buds and three other patterns that were going to be released 1952. The other patterns sold well enough, but Buds never actually went into production. The design had a branch with little buds on it against a white background.
Red Wing produced some Buds dinnerware to display to potential buyers at a trade show—the pattern got terrible reviews. The salespeople from the pottery show called the company and told them to drop it. We believe the only Buds ever produced were made for this trade show, and the pieces are next to impossible to find. The only piece I’ve managed to acquire is a single Buds pepper shaker, and I’ve been looking for 30 years. I know of a relish dish in the pattern that sold for $1,500.
Usually, though, the rare patterns aren’t necessarily the most collectible ones. Some hard-to-find patterns from the ’60s aren’t worth much because few collectors are interested in them.
The best-selling pattern Red Wing ever made was Bob White, featuring a mother bobwhite quail with her chicks. While it’s very popular with collectors, there’s a lot of it out there. If you’ve got the money, you can build an entire set of Bob White in no time.
The most popular pattern with Red Wing collectors is probably the cowboy-campfire themed Round Up, featuring a chuck wagon and a cowboy, iron skillet in hand, yelling, “Come and get it!” Other Round Up pattern pieces show a cowboy roping a cow, having dinner, sitting on a fence, and watching another cowboy wrestle a steer.
That pattern is expensive because it’s very popular with collectors. It’s available, but not nearly as common as Bob White. You have to work to build a full set of Round Up, which is part of the fun. You need both money and luck.
The very ’50s looking White & Turquoise is another rare pattern. It has a dark-green sister pattern called Spruce, which is also hard to find. Kermis, another pattern from the same time, featured a clown in various poses and was intended more as a party set, with coffee cups and saucers, appetizer bowls, and plates. It didn’t sell very well.
Collectors Weekly: How many pieces are in a complete set of dinnerware?
Roschen: It depends on the pattern. To some people, a complete set means eight dinner plates, eight small plates, and eight cups and saucers. To me, a complete set means you have every piece in the pattern, including teapots, pitchers, salt-and-pepper shakers, casseroles, marmites, and every other individual item in that pattern.
The most popular pattern is probably Round Up, featuring a chuck wagon and cowboy, iron skillet in hand, yelling, “Come and get it!”
Some patterns have only a limited number of pieces because the company didn’t make many accessory items. Fewer items were made for patterns that weren’t so successful. For example Ebb Tide, a pattern introduced in 1965, had only 16 different pieces. No Ebb Tide salt-and-pepper shakers, teapots, or pitchers were made. Those three pieces are my primary collecting interest, so I have very little Ebb Tide in my collection.
On the other extreme, Bob White was so popular and successful that new pieces were continually added. The company added water coolers, which most of the patterns didn’t have, and two different kinds of water-cooler stands. A peppermill was briefly made for Bob White, too. Some patterns had ashtrays to go with the dinnerware, but most didn’t. A complete set of Bob White would have more than 50 different pieces.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get into collecting Red Wing?
Roschen: My parents grew up in towns just a little ways down the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota. When they married in the early ’50s, they received a set of Red Wing Iris pattern dinnerware as a wedding present. It served as my family’s good china—for graduations, baptisms, and events like that.
Eventually, a few pieces got chipped or broken. In the late ’70s, my parents wrote to the “Mr. Fixit” advice column in a local Twin Cities newspaper to ask about replacing pieces, and the columnist put them in touch with the founder of the Red Wing Collectors Society, who offered them advice. After that, we started going to flea markets to look for replacement pieces for their dinnerware set, and it just took off from there. We joined the Red Wing Collectors Society in 1980 and have been members ever since.
As our interest in Red Wing grew, my wife, Kathy, and I started going to auctions, flea markets, antiques shops, and shows looking for Red Wing pottery. If we found a piece we liked and the price was right, we’d buy it. It might be a crock or a jug, dinnerware, or art pottery. We bought what we liked.
Over the years, we gravitated toward dinnerware because it was interesting and affordable. The three main items we’ve collected within each dinnerware pattern are teapots, pitchers, and salt-and-pepper shakers. We have just about one of each in all the various patterns. Like most collectors, we began to specialize.
For probably 25 years, we used a set of Charstone Bleu as our everyday dishes. Once in a while, we’ll use a Red Wing egg tray or large salad bowl. My wife uses a Red Wing teapot (an extra) to brew her tea. But for the most part, our collection is on the shelves. We used to live in a big, three-story house in Minneapolis proper: We had Red Wing in the basement, Red Wing on the two living floors, and Red Wing in the walk-up attic.
We have less storage space in our current home in suburban Coon Rapids. When we moved here, one of the first things we did was build a 16-by-20-foot storage building for our Red Wing. That’s where I keep most of it, but we are running out of room. We have close to 3,000 pieces of dinnerware, and that doesn’t include the art pottery, pots, jugs, plus probably 500 other various pieces.
A complete set of Bob White would have more than 50 different pieces.
I don’t find myself buying as much of it as I used to, partly because we’ve got darn near everything. By the late ’80s, we’d achieved our first goal of getting one of every standard production dinner plate they’d made. We then continued collecting pitchers, teapots, and salt-and-pepper shakers, trying to get one of everything. There are only a few of those we don’t have.
My favorites are the hard-to-find pieces and the ones we discovered unexpectedly. For example, I’ve got a water pitcher and salt-and-pepper shakers in White & Turquoise, which is almost impossible to find because very little of it was made. I really like the #258 teapot from the Gypsy Trail era. It doesn’t have a formal name, but many collectors call it “Saturn” because it’s round with a ring around the outside. I also have a teapot in Delta Blue, which is another hard-to-find, but very pretty pattern—it has dark-blue figures on a light-blue background.
Collectors Weekly: Do the catalogs show how many pieces came in a set?
Roschen: When Bob White was introduced in 1954, a brochure was published that showed the available pieces at that time, but Red Wing continued producing the pattern until it closed in 1967. In the years between, the company kept adding more pieces or dropping ones that didn’t sell well. The Bob White peppermill, for instance, was only made for a couple of years in the 1950s. In my opinion, if you want a complete set, you have to have one of every piece made throughout the course of time.
While there are several Red Wing reference books, I don’t think any of them are complete. The dinnerware reference books are a snapshot in time. They might use one brochure from the pattern and conclude that’s what was available, but you can’t do that. You have to use brochures from the whole range of the production history to know what was really made. While the pattern may have been made for 15 years, a particular piece may have been produced for only a couple of years. A lot of collectors don’t understand that.
I rarely use the Red Wing reference books. A collector friend and I have obtained originals and copies of the Red Wing catalogs, brochures, and price lists, so we’ve been able to put together a clearer picture of when things were made. Our pet project for the last five years has been to develop a timeline of when various Red Wing pieces started and stopped production. When I get asked questions on the Red Wing Collectors Society website, I use the original company documents as my sources, not the reference books.
I’ve got two four-inch binders stuffed full of copies and original documents, plus another binder full of price lists. Even with all these documents there are still gaps in our knowledge. For example, we don’t yet have a clear picture of what went on in the mid to late 1940s.
Collectors Weekly: Have you found anything surprising while doing your research?
Roschen: Heavens, yes. For instance, the existing Red Wing reference books say the Concord line started in 1947 with Lexington and Harvest. Well, one of my first document purchases included a price list from 1946, and it shows that Harvest was already discontinued by then. So it certainly couldn’t have been introduced in 1947 like the books say.
My research buddy found documents that show these patterns were actually introduced in 1941, not 1947. Harvest may have been discontinued in 1942 or ’43—we don’t have the documents on that—but I know it was not available by ’46.
Using the original documents, we’ve been able to fill in the gaps left by the books. We discovered why a few Red Wing Town & Country dinnerware pieces were made in unusual Concord colors: mulberry, chartreuse, Copper Glow, and Ming green. Eva Zeisel designed Town & Country in the late ’40s; it was one of Red Wing’s better patterns.
Every so often a collector would come across one of these odd-colored pieces and couldn’t explain it. We found a document that identified these pieces as Informal Supper Service, which Red Wing produced as an offshoot of Town & Country, which was new information for Zeisel and Town & Country collectors. They just thought these were odd pieces somebody made for some unknown reason.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any good resource books out there?
Roschen: My unvarnished answer is ‘no’. The Red Wing books are helpful, but as I explained, they only take a picture of a pattern at a certain point in time, and they don’t include the evolution of the pattern. A gentleman named Ray Reiss produced two very nice art pottery books in the 1990s that include some dinnerware information and photos. Ray is an excellent photographer, and he has some beautiful photos of Gypsy Trail era stuff. It’s mostly art pottery, but he does include a chapter on dinnerware.
Many people think Gypsy Trail was a copy of Fiesta but it was introduced a full year earlier.
He also produced a book called “Guide to Red Wing Dinnerware,” which is basically just a price list of pieces for each pattern, but it’s not complete. It’s a good reference for beginners, but not for an advanced collector.
“Red Wing Dinnerware” by Stan Bougie and Dave Newkirk was the earliest book. It was published in 1979. That was the Red Wing dinnerware collector’s bible for many years. It was the only book we had, but it wasn’t complete either. A complete Red Wing dinnerware reference is desperately needed.
For people who are new to Red Wing dinnerware collecting, my research friend and I put on a beginners dinnerware seminar at virtually every Red Wing convention. The Red Wing Club Collectors Society has two annual events—midwinter in February and the convention in July. You can learn things from us. The Ray Reiss books and the Bougie-Newkirk book are also good sources for a new collector.
Collectors Weekly: What are lunch-hour items?
Roschen: Well, most dinnerware consists of basic everyday items that don’t have any special markings on them. But you’ll also find pieces that were obviously experimental or test pieces. Some are marked with the word “sample” on the back, or the piece might be a recognizable pattern in a weird color because they were trying different colors or glazes. Often the back will have a swatch of color on it or some code numbers. Test and sample pieces are a second category of dinnerware.
The third category, lunch-hour pieces, includes items made by a potter or an artist as gifts for family or friends. They’re called lunch-hour pieces because in the old stoneware days, a potter could make a little something for himself on his lunch hour and fire it. The term can be applied to anything that a potter or a pottery worker would make for his own use. Most of the Red Wing lunch-hour pieces were made in the late ’40s or early ’50s. I’ve been told that if you wanted one of your pieces fired, you had to make a deal with one of the kiln workers.
The artists would draw whatever they wanted on a teapot, plate, or whatever, and then they’d usually sign the back or the bottom and date them. They might have also inscribed something as elaborate as, “To Mother, Happy Mother’s Day.” Sometimes they’d make a piece as a farewell gift to somebody leaving the company. You might find a dinner plate signed by everybody who worked there.
There’s also a fourth category of dinnerware. When Red Wing closed in ’67, the company was looking to sell its assets to pay off its bills. Among the assets were the molds used to make dinnerware, art pottery, and other things. The molds were sold to the public. Some may have been used for commercial purposes. Many of them ended up in the hands of art schools and hobby shops.
So you’ll find Red Wing shapes in non-Red Wing colors. They’re usually initialed on the bottom and dated—kind of like a lunch-hour piece, only the date is after 1967. It was standard practice in art schools for students to date and initial a pottery piece on the bottom. Novice collectors, and sometimes even experienced collectors, can be fooled by one of these post-production pieces made from a Red Wing mold. Some are so well done that they look like an authentic Red Wing item.
In fact, there are still Red Wing molds in circulation today. That’s something a collector has to look out for. There’s nothing wrong or illegal about it. It’s just a non-Red Wing piece formed by an old Red Wing mold.
I don’t collect those, but some people do. They tend to be inexpensive because they’re recognized as hobby-shop pieces. Some of them can be very beautiful. I’ve got a couple of examples that are better than the originals.
Collectors Weekly: What makes Red Wing unique?
Roschen: Charles Murphy’s designs really set Red Wing apart. His line called Anniversary, which came in six patterns and was introduced in 1953 to honor the 75th anniversary of the company’s founding, had very different covers. The handle was like the swirled top of an ice cream cone. It came up, curled around, and then reconnected with the cover. That’s what they used on the covers of teapots, casseroles, pitchers, and sugar bowls.
One negative thing is that Red Wing was terrible at making covers. People say that if the cover doesn’t fit, it’s Red Wing. They just sit crooked, with little gaps in there. That isn’t something that made them successful, certainly, but Red Wing collectors don’t seem to mind.
In the ’50s, Red Wing introduced Murphy’s Futura line, which also had unique handles with a little flip. And then came Ceramastone, which was produced in six different patterns. That was the last line the company produced. It came out in mid-’66 and got great reviews from the pottery trade. Although it was made for less than a year, it sold well, but a labor dispute put an end to that, and the company. Still, despite its short life, it’s not too hard to find.
Today, the demand for Red Wing dinnerware is holding its own. The vintage stoneware, crocks, jugs, and things like that are beyond the financial reach of most novice collectors, but you can still buy a top-notch, hard-to-find piece of dinnerware for around $500. Round Up is very hot today, but 10 years from now, who knows? Cowboys might be passé.
Collectors Weekly: Thank you, Larry, for speaking with us today about Red Wing dinnerware.
(All images courtesy of Larry Roschen at The Red Wing Collectors Society)