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Catalina Island Pottery

Author: Maureen Timm

     In 1958, musical artists known as The Four Preps, wrote the song "Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin for me," which became one of the top hits of the fifties. Today, Santa Catalina welcomes visitors with a picturesque coastline, ample anchorages, clear water, and fresh air. The world famous Catalina Casino, completed in 1929, houses Avalonís movie theater, the worldís largest circular ballroom (famous for its Big Band dances) a museum and an art gallery.

     George Shatto purchased Catalina in 1887. He was first to cater to the tourist trade by renting tent spaces to vacationers on the flats above Avalon Bay. This trend toward development and tourism continued with the 1892 purchase of the financially troubled island by the Banning brothers, who founded the Santa Catalina Island Company shortly thereafter.

     The island experienced financial difficulties until 1919 when it was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr., chewing-gum magnate. Wrigley and his heirs brought many changes to the island.

     From Soapstone to Pottery - Native Americans, called the Gabrielino, arrived on the Island about 500 BC and the most important advance in their culture was the art of soapstone carving. This material was widely used in making figurines and ollas (OY-yahs)--natural crackpots of sorts. The ollas were used in cooking because their high talc content made them relatively immune to heat fracture, a common problem with other types of stone bowls.

     Tile and Pottery - In 1927 extensive clay and mineral deposits were found on the island and a tile plant was established at Pebbly Beach, near the City of Avalon. William Wrigley, Jr., and his close business associate, David Renton wanted to provide employment for Catalina residents and needed building materials for the development of Avalon as a tourist resort. At its peak the operation included a furniture workshop and ornamental iron foundry that employed several hundred residents.

     In the beginning the principal product of the Catalina plant was tile and by 1929 a line of ornamental pottery was being manufactured in vivid colored glazes to help meet the demands of civic improvement. Harold Johnson, who joined the business in 1928, after a long association with another company, contributed pottery designs and glazes.

    Wrigleyís most ambitious undertaking in Avalon was the huge multi-level Catalina Casino, which kept the factory operating at full capacity during its first three years. More than I 00,000 pieces of roofing tile were used to complete the casino. Inside walls utilized hollow tile, while floors and promenade were paved with handmade octagonal patio tile interspersed with colorful glazed inserts. When completed, in 1929, the Catalina Casino received the Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

     After completion of the casino project, Catalina Clay Products began manufacturing a complete line of vases, flower bowls, candle holders, lamps and other decorative accessories for the home which were made available in island gift shops.

     The clay used in production was a brown-burning type trucked from a dry lake bed located a short distance from the plant. Pulverized rock (felsite) recovered from the Pebbly Beach rock quarry was also used. The companyís press kit included the following description of one of the Catalina glazes:

     ìThe yellow found in Catalina Pottery is one that has for centuries been the royal color of the reigning house of China, and therefore known as Mandarin or Manchu yellow. The exact hue has never before been duplicated outside the great wall of China, though chemists the world over have striven to achieve this one shade of yellow that can be best described as ìyellow-yellow or the true gold of a California sun.î

     Other standard glazes were Catalina blue, Descanso green, Toyon red, Turquoise, Pearly white, Seafoam and Monterey brown. Later colors included beige, coral island, powder blue, and colonial yellow (all satin-matte finish).

     The Catalina pottery included twelve kilns of various size and type and produced between 10,000 and 15,000 pieces per week.

     Spanish style wrought-iron frames and stands were crafted by the islandís foundry. Attractive tables were fitted with scenic tile panels designed by Catalina artists. Motifs for these and a series of decorative wall plates depicted undersea gardens, exotic birds of the Avalon Bird Park, flying fish and Spanish galleons. Numerous hand-painted scenes were also rendered over-glaze on plates of various sizes.

     Tableware was introduced about 1930. Three basic dinnerware designs were offered along with many interchangeable serving pieces, In 1936 another complete service, with a raised rope border was added in all satin-finish pastel colors.

     Some of the pottery was hand thrown; some was made in molds. Most pieces are marked Catalina Island or Catalina with a printed incised stamp or handwritten with a pointed tool. Cast items were sometimes marked in the mold, a few have an ink stamp, and a paper label was also used.

     The color of the clay can help to identify approximately when a piece was made: 1927 to 1932, brown to red (Island) clay (very popular with collectors, tends to increase values); 1931 to 1932, an experimental period with various colors; 1932 to 1937, mainly white clay, though tan to brown clays were also used occasionally.

     The island still has many pieces that can be seen in public places, retail stores and on display at the local museum. Catalina Island and Brayton Laguna Pottery were the first American companies to produce bright, solid colored dinnerware. Pottery companies like Homer Laughlin and Bauer made this style of dinnerware very popular, but it all started with Catalina Island and Brayton Laguna. Catalina Island dinnerware is very rustic and gives a glimpse of early California life among nature and the sea. Plain place setting pieces are accented by serving pieces in the shape of gourds, shells, leaves and other natural designs.

- Catalina Island, coffeepot, Deco style, rare may sell for $325.
- Catalina Island salt cellar may sell for $50.
- Rope edge cup & saucer books for $45.
- Carafe, red, early red clay sells for $195.
- Catalina Island Pottery Tiles used on tops of wrought iron tables.

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