Weller and Company
Samuel A. Weller was born in 1851, the seventh child of an Ohio farming family. He started a one-man pottery in a log cabin in Fultenham, Ohio in 1872, initially handling all aspects of production from digging and mixing the clay, throwing the pots, firing them, and transporting them to nearby Zanesville where he sold them. (See All About Weller, A History and Collector's Guide to Weller Pottery, by Ann Gilbert McDonald, 1989.)
Weller's early utilitarian ware included flower pots, crocks, cookware, and cuspidors. In 1888 he moved production from Fultenham to Zanesville, building his first factory there two years later. Weller began to make art pottery in 1895. By 1905, his plant employed over 500 people and shipped an astonishing three railroad cars of pottery per day! In 10 years, Weller had become the largest maker of art pottery in the world.
Weller's initial success was due to his partnership with William Long, who had formed the Lonhuda Pottery with investors W.H.Hunter and Alfred Day in 1890. ("Lonhuda" combines the first letters of the partners' last names.)
In 1892, Laura A. Fry, an important and innovative American potter who had pioneered the use of the atomizer at Rookwood, joined Lonhuda where she and Long developed Lonhuda Ware, a line featuring hand-decorated florals and portraits against a shaded brownish or greenish backgound. The ware was the first successful imitation of Rookwood's pioneering Standard Ware.
Sam Weller noticed Lonhuda Ware at the 1893 Chicago Exposition, and acquired an interest in Long's company. Long relocated to Weller's plant, and began to produce Lonhuda Faience there in 1895. A year later, having learned the Lonhuda process, Weller reduced Long's role, possibly forcing him out of the company. Weller renamed the ware Louwelsa after his new-born daughter Louise and himself. Louwelsa was Weller's first art pottery line, and the foundation of his pottery empire. The mass production of Louwelsa in Zanesville established art pottery as an important commercial venture in the United States. (See Art Pottery of the Midwest, by Marion John Nelson, 1988.)
Weller introduced the Eocean line in 1898. It differed from Louwelsa by using shades of gray or cream as background for the decoration. Weller later simplified these two lines with his Floretta (1904) and Etna (1906) lines. Both of these used embossed florals in the mold, which removed the artistry from the decorator's hand, and allowed less skilled decorators to produce many more pieces a day.
Charles B. Upjohn became Weller's head designer in 1895. His greatest accomplishment at Weller was the magnificent Dickensware II line (1900), which used a technique called sgraffito (Italian for scratched). Upjohn drew paper templates based on illustrations from the novels of Charles Dickens. These were used to outline and color the scene on the unfired ware. The lines were then incised with a metal tool, leaving a relief effect on the finished piece.
After Upjohn's departure in 1904, Karl Kappes added to the non-Dickens designs for Dickensware II including neo-classical dancers, Native Americans, golfers, monks, and others. The sgraffito technique was also used on simpler, yet elegant lines such as Etched Matt and Hunter (both ca. 1904-1905). However, even these simplified lines were expensive to produce, and Weller turned to a embossed lines such as Burntwood (1908) and Roma (1912) that replicated the sgraffito-look at a lower cost. (See Art Pottery of the Midwest, by Marion John Nelson, 1988.) Developed by Rudolph Lorber, Burntwood, Claywood, Roma, and other variations must have been produced in huge quantities as evidenced by their ready availability, and the substantial mold wear of many examples. These lines were probably among the first mass produced American art pottery products imitated by the Japanese for export to the USA. Click here to see examples from the show.
Clement Massier, a French maker of majolica ware, had developed Reflets Metalliques, an iridescent, metallic glaze by 1889. Vases were decorated with Art Nouveau motifs in iridescent shades of purple, silver, and green. Jacques Sicard, one of Massier's decorators, was hired by Weller early in 1902 to reproduce the Reflets Metalliques process. It evidently was difficult for Sicard to recreate Massier's work because the Zanesville version, which Weller called Sicardo or Sicard, did not appear until the fall of 1903.
Weller had two of his artists, Frank Ferrell and Levi Burgess, volunteer to "assist" Sicard with his work, but after hearing about Long's experience, Sicard declined and insisted on working in a sealed room with only his French assistant Henri Gellie present. Ferrell and Burgess reportedly failed in a subsequent attempt to drill a hole in Sicard's wall in order to spy on him.
Sicardo evidently remained difficult to make. Only about 30% of the fired pieces were marketable, and extensive hand work was required to finish them. Weller had to charge a premium price, and the ware sold slowly. Sicard returned to France in 1907, but unsold backlog Sicardo continued to appear for sale until 1917 at a discounted price.
Frederick Hurton Rhead was born in Great Britain, the son of a potting family. He came to America around 1902, where he worked with countryman Willian P. Jervis at the Avon Faience Company at Tiltonville, Ohio. There both men used the slip trail technique to create scenic vases, an advance from the stylized geometric decoration found on Weller Turada, an earlier slip trail line.
Rhead worked for Weller for only a short period (1903-1904) before becoming the art director at the Roseville Pottery in 1904, when he created the Della Robbia line. At Weller, he used tube lining to develop the Jap Birdimal and Weller Rhead Faience lines. Both lines reflected his work in England and with Jervis at Avon. Dickensware III, a Weller line that used embossing to simplify the decorator's task and allow mass production has also been attributed to Rhead.
Rhead, who died in 1942 at age 61, was one of America's most important art potters. He established or was employed by several potteries after leaving Weller. Although he is best known for his development of Fiesta dinnerware at Homer Laughlin, his real impact was through his creation of Della Robbia, Roseville's greatest art pottery line, and his many articles and designs.
Rudolph Lorber, an Austrian native, joined Weller in 1905 after working as a modeler at the Vance Faience Company in Tiltonville, Ohio. He created many of Weller's embossed lines until he retired in 1940. His importance to Weller cannot be overstated; his embossed lines and modeled figurines were usually beautifully executed, and great sellers.
Around 1915, Lorber began to create a series of embossed naturalistic lines which included Brighton, Muskota, Woodcraft, Forest, Baldin, Flemish, Glendale and others, ending with Coppertone in 1929. Lorber also developed Ivory (1910), Zona (1911), and the 1927 Art Deco lines Hobart and Lavonia. Lorber's assistant and pupil, Zanesville native Dorothy England Laughead developed the Silvertone and Chase lines in the late 1920s, and she and Lorber both worked on the Garden Animals, large figurals for outdoor use.
Most Zanesville firms discontinued their expensive hand-painted lines around WWI, but Weller modernized his ware and created Weller Hudson (1917), one of the firm's greatest lines, and certainly one that is prized by today's collectors. Hudson featured hand-painted florals on a shaded, matt background of blue and cream. Scenic and portrait vases were also occasionally done, and other background colors used on related lines such as Hudson Perfecto and Rochelle. Most Hudson vases are artist signed, unlike the related but simpler Blue and Decorated and White and Decorated lines.
The Weller Pottery is noteworthy for continuing its production of hand-painted ware well beyond other Zanesville firms, but the Depression hurt the sale of art pottery in the USA, and Weller turned its talented decorators to simpler, more standardized designs to increase production. Bonito (1932) used many forms, but its hand-painted decoration tends to be similar from pot to pot. The 1934 hand-painted Art Deco lines Geode, Stellar, Cretone and Raceme used simple but striking decorations, and are very popular today. These lines were the Weller Pottery's last free-hand decorated ware.
Sam Weller died in 1925, but his company, buoyed by Hudson, the embossed ware, the figurals of Rudolph Lorber and Dorothy England Laughead, and by talented Zanesville artists including Mae and Sarah Timberlake, Hester Pillsbury, Claude Lefler, Sarah McLaughlin, Ruth Axline and others, flourished through the 1920s and 1930s. But the company could not adapt to changing times, and Sam Weller's Pottery closed in 1948, some 75 years after his log cabin start at Fultenham.
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