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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Decorative Pottery Of Cincinnati

Reprinted from the May, 1881, issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Printed here through the courtesy of Arthur T. Ward, New York collector.



In regard to the "Indianaite," he says: "I saw no porcelain clays at the Centennial from other portions of the world which were equal to it in color or purity. This fact must speak for the future success of porcelain manufacture in the West... European potters were much astonished at the excellence of American wares. Only a few pieces of porcelain were exhibited by our potters, but this was enough to show our ability to produce fine grades of ware. The body and glaze of our iron-stone and granite ware was in every way equal, if not superior, to that made in England and France."

Professor Cox also says, February, 1878: "I have just received a sample of pure white silica, in powder, from Perry County, Missouri. It is found there in extensive beds, and may be had at much less cost than the white quartz of the New England States, which is found in lumps, and has to be burned and crushed. The Missouri silica will save all of this labor, and is naturally prepared for use. It is obvious from these statements that Ohio is favorably situated for the manufacture of fine porcelain, and the economic value of her common clays is a compensation for the absence of a porcelain clay within her borders.

So great an advance has been made in the use of underglaze color within a few years in Europe, and especially in England, that soft pottery for certain decorative and domestic uses has become popular, and the distance between it and its more pretentious sister, porcelain, has been lessened. Its perfection of glaze, and the consequent pleasure of handling, and the richness, depth, and blended quality of its coloring, appeal so pleasantly to the senses as to give it a certain superiority above overglaze work, especially where it is to be handled. The Ohio clays are all that could be desired for this wide and interesting field of work, and their uses are being shown by the potteries of Cincinnati. Experiments with the clays long used, and with those less known, from various parts of the State, with the introduction of new colored glazes which are especially needed for delicate incised and ~relief work, the making of new and improved shapes for table-ware and decorative pieces, show an impulse at the same time interesting and encouraging. Doubtless pure porcelain will be made in Ohio; but she can well afford, if she chooses, to rest her chances of reputation as a centre for the production of pottery upon her own varied and beautiful clays.

The pleasing tints of buff and cream pastes, with the soft, charming blue slip made by Frederick Dallas, seem as great an improvement among us over the glaring ironstone, as was the invention, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, by Josiah Wedgwood, of his cream-color (C.C.) body. May we not draw a parallel between our own country at this time and the condition of England, in respect of her pottery, when Wedgwood lifted the industry from the low state in which he found it? It is true that the English had begun to make porcelain at that time, but ordinary table=ware was so rude and imperfect that the C.C. body of Wedgwood was considered an important advance.

The interest in this part of the country is not confined to Cincinnati, but to some extent pervades the towns and cities of Ohio generally. Ladies from Dayton, Hillsborough, and more distant points come here for lessons, send to the potteries for clay and "biscuit" ware, and return their decorated work for firing and glazing. Decorated work is sent here to be fired from New York, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Indiana. The number of amateurs in the city alone whose work is fired at the pottery of F. Dallas is more than two hundred, and of this large number all but two are women.

It is curious to see the wide range of age and conditions of life embraced in the ranks of the decorators of pottery: young girls twelve to fifteen years of age find a few hours a week from their school engagements to devote to over or under glaze work, or to modelling of clay; and from this up, through all the less certain ages, till the grandmother stands confessed in cap and spectacles, no time of life is exempt from the fascinating contagion. Women who need to add to their income, and the representatives of the largest fortunes, are among the most industrious workers; and it is pleasant to know that numbers of these selftaught women receive a handsome sum annually from orders for work, from sales, and from lessons to pupils.

As a purely social and domestic entertainment, much is to be said in its favor as an educating and refining influence. Taking the broader view, we are led to the conclusion, from the signs everywhere pervading the country, that the times are ripe for the introduction of a new industry in the United States, in which the feeble instrumentality of women's hands is quietly doing the initial work.

Any appreciative or correct estimate of the work done by the women of Cincinnati must be based on the fact that, like amateurs elsewhere in this country, they have had no instruction in the art of decorating pottery, for the reason that there was no practical teaching to be had. With the single exception of Mr. Lycett, who taught a few months here, we have had no help from any practically and artistically educated decorator. The realm of underglaze painting was an unknown land, the use of color on the "biscuit" an experiment, and success only to be achieved after repeated failures.

An effort was made in the fall of 1878 to secure the instruction of John Bennett, of New York, for a class in Cincinnati in underglaze painting; but Mr. Bennett replied that he had been at considerable expense to bring his family from Lambeth and to establish himself in New York, and that for the present the secrets of his processes must be confined to his own studio. He was willing to instruct in his fine, broad, free-hand style, averglaze, but not in underglaze work.

Looking back through six or seven years to the beginning, as it may be called, of the movement in chinapainting, or the decoration of pottery, in the United States, we can not fail to be struck with its signifisance, taken in connection with the steady growth in the pottery trade, and the improvement in American wares.

The little exhibit in 1875 was a suggestion of suitable work for women, and also of a future of commercial importance for Cincinnati as a centre of activity in pottery-work. Certainly the results have far evceeded the most rose-colored expectations of those days, in the growth of the interest, and in the cuantit,y and quality of the work done. As might be expected, in the amount of work done by so many untrained hands, much of it is crude and inartistic; but a collection such as may at any time be brought together of the decorated work of Cincinnati, in the various specialties which have been enumerated, would excite attention and in terest, in proportion to the intelligence of those who saw it, wherever it might be shown. It is not too much to say that in the history of the potter's art in Europe, so far as we have accounts of it, there has at no time been a beginning more full of promise than that which this sketch has attempted to describe.

The impossibility of procuring skilled teachers has developed the best efforts of the amateur decorators, and may in the end prove a fortunate circumstance; it certainly will, should it result in the development of a distinLtive type, which may in time become a national style. It is too early to predict what the American style will be, but it is encouraging that the tendency is to broad and pronounced effects rather than to pettiness of detail.

The aim of this sketch has been to present a historical outline of the beginning and progress of the decorative pottery work of Cincinnati from 1874 down to the time of this writing, mentioning some of the different varieties which have succeeded each other in the short space of a few years. The attempt to convey a distinct impression by verbal description must be to a great extent unsatisfactory, since so much of the advance has been made in the successful use of color, and so much of the effect is dependent on it.

To name personally the numbers of women who have done good and promising work is beyond the possibilities of such an article, and the mention of names is limited to those whose work has rather led the way in distinctive directions.

Begun by a few thoughtful Women of taste and social influence, who foresaw possible results of importance to their city, as well as pleasant occupation to women of leisure, and a solution, to some extent, of the problem of self-support and independence for women, the work has gone on, one succesful experiment after another masking its advance.

If, in the earlier part of the movement, clays from distant parts of the State were wanted, a woman sent for them; if kilns for firing decorated wares were needed, the money was provided by women. A young woman, after patient experimenting, and the bestowal of time and money, discovered the process of making Lim,oges faience; an amateur, selftrained, she has published a little volume of instructions to amateurs on overglaze painting, now in its ninth edition; and a similar handbook from the same pen, "Pottery Decoration Under the Glaze, by Miss M. Louise McLaughlin," has recently been issued from the press of Robert Clarke and Co.

A woman's taste and interest were influential in the manufacture of the Capo-di-Monti porcelain of Naples, and for the faience of Orion the world is indebted to a 'woman, these two specialties combining more of originality and beauty than anything Europe has produced in porcelain and faience.

In Cincinnati, the crowning result of the six years' work by women, and the earnest of the future, is also inspired and executed by a woman. During last autumn a new pottery for decorative work went into operation in the suburbs of the city. In addition to toilet sets, pitchers, etc., to which attention will be given, it is the intention to manufacture gray stone-ware, which is not now made in Cincinnati, and to put upon the market a class of articles for which there is a practical and constant demand, of shapes so good that the simplest article of household use shall combine the elements of beauty.

These are pleasant times and places, when women give their leisure and means to the founding of an artistic industry. Mrs. Maria Longworth Nichols, by this use of time and money, practically opens a path in which unlimited work for 'women may eventually be found.

This sketch of women's work would be incomplete without mention of the hearty help of the potters of the city, who have aided and fostered the interest by all the means at their command, and without whose practical sympathy and co-operation no such advance could have been made.

At the close of this sketch, it is interesting to turn for a moment to the advantages which the coming Art Museum (made possible by the generous gift of Mr. Charles W. West and the liberality of many citizens) holds in store for these women who have already accomplished so much. They have long nourished hopes of help from its educational treasures and its training schools, and have gone on courageously, supported by their own constancy and faith, until public opinion sees in the not distant future am artistic industry added to the attractions and prosperity of the ,city, and resnectfully gives the credit where it is due.