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Muncie Pottery Local men wrote the book on Muncie Pottery
By NANCY MILLARD For The Star Press
When you see a copy of The Collector's Encyclopedia of Muncie Pottery: Identification and Values, you might dig into your cupboard and pull out the old vase your grandmother bought years ago. The recently published book by Muncie men Jon Rans and Mark Eckelman is an historic delight about early Muncie as well as a definitive manual for the curious and collectors of pottery made by Gill Clay Products Co., which was on Lincoln Street at White River. During the 1920s and '30s, thousands of "affordable" vases and candlesticks, lamps, garden pots and countless other forms produced by Muncie Pottery (the art wares division of Gill) were sold throughout the country. L.S. Ayres, Marshall Field's and Charles Mayer advertised many of the items. The pots reflected the American Arts and Crafts movement, as well as Art Deco. Some were hand-thrown, others slipmolded. They are distinguished by richly colored glazes that overlapped as they flowed down the sides. Glossy and matte glazes ranged from earth tones to luscious turquoise, blues and greens, rose and lilac to cream and black. Peachskin glaze might have been developed at the pottery. The book's color illustrations clearly depict hundreds of items and identify glazes, styles, marks and several designers, along with recent prices. Collectors are attracted to the pottery for its honest style, harmonious colors and glazes and its rarity, the authors point out. Others just like the the usable, attractive pots. The history of Gill Clay Products is tied to the gas boom and the area's early glass plants. The family of James S. Gill, originally a potmaker from Bristol, England, was attracted to Muncie from Ohio in the 1890s to make refractory clay products for the glass industries. Their first plant was next to the Ball Brothers canning jar factory. After the gas ran out, the company was reorganized and expanded by Gill sons Charles and Harry, grandson John and son-in-law Charles Grafton. In 1918, to make up for the decreased demand for refractory clays, they set up Muncie Clay Products to use higher grade clays for commercial pottery and utilitarian art pottery A.E. Trifonoff, a Russian designer and master moldmaker who had studied ceramics in Paris, worked for the company for about year in 1922. He did carved animals and carved relief plaques and probably developed the rainbow glazes. James Wilkins, an instructor at Illinois Institute of Technology, was brought in as head ceramicist in 1924. He developed new unusual matte glazes, including the peachskin glaze. The Depression hit the company hard during the 1930s. Small pots were made to sell for only a few dollars. Many good glazes came out of this period, the authors pointed out. Production ceased in 1939. In 1942, when Muncie Potteries Inc. liquidated its remaining inventory, pots sold for as little as $1 a bushel. Now special pieces might sell for as much as $1,000. Author Jon Rans started picking up Muncie Pottery in the 1980s, when he'd find inexpensive pieces at flea markets. "I liked it. I figured that either it's a rarity or not enough people outside Muncie know about it," he said. "At the library I found some information, and I started talking to people about it." He did research at Ball State's Bracken Library and studied the Swift collection of early Muncie photographs. Rans, who does professional pottery restoration, also collects old photographs. He has written for Antique Week. As he became knowledgeable about Muncie Pottery, friends suggested he write a book. He contacted publishers and Collector Books was interested. Co-author Eckelman, an industrial arts teacher in Anderson, has some Muncie Pottery and a keen interest in it. "He and I complemented each other in our knowledge," Rans said. "Mark, who teaches photography, did a lot of the photographs; I took some." The book is available for $24.95 at the Broadway Antiques Mall, where Mark has the Red Goose Antiques space. Or you can contact him at P.O. Box 155, Yorktown, Ind. 47396-0155.POTTERY PAST: Mark Eckelman (left) and Jon Rans of Muncie co-authored "The Collector's Encyclopedia of Muncie Pottery." They are shown here with their book and a selection of pottery covered in the publication.