Significant Wisconsin Pottery Companies
Susan Frackelton of Milwaukee was a leader in the art of china painting, a popular hobby for women during the late 19th century. Frackelton authored a widely-read book on the subject, and she developed a portable gas-fired kiln that allowed decorators to work at home. She also won national and international awards for the special mineral paints she developed. During the 1880s, the Milwaukee-based Frackelton China Decorating Works produced up to 2,000 pieces of professionally painted china each week.
Susan Frackelton was awarded a gold medal at the 1893
Columbian Exposition for her unique salt-glazed art pottery. Salt-glazed
stoneware, as manufactured by such companies as Charles Hermann
of Milwaukee or the Red Wing, Minnesota potteries, was widely used for
utilitarian purposes at the time. Frackelton was the first to use this
technique for art pottery in the United States. She created her art pottery
to demonstrate the quality of Wisconsin clay, rather than as a commerical
venture. For this reason, relatively few pieces of Frackelton Pottery were
produced, and it is extremely rare today. Nevertheless, Frackelton’s work
was widely-known and highly admired by her contemporaries. For example,
a Frackelton vase was purchased by the Pennsylvania Museum in 1893 for
the (then) enormous sum of $500.
Pauline Jacobus was also an accomplished china painter who taught the subject in her Chicago home. After developing an interest in art pottery, she went to Cincinnati in 1881 where she studied at the Rookwood School for Pottery Decoration. She founded the Pauline Pottery in 1883. It was the first art pottery company in Chicago.
Jacobus moved production to Edgerton, Wisconsin in 1888 where a high-quality white clay was available. At the height of production, the company employed about 40 people, and its art pottery lines were sold in Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Tiffany’s in New York. In addition to its art pottery production, the company had a contract with the Bell Telephone Company to produce porous ceramic cups for electric batteries. When dry cell batteries eliminated the need for this product, the Pauline Pottery was forced into bankruptcy in 1894. Pauline Jacobus continued to make art pottery until her retirement in 1911, first with Pauline Pottery’s successor firm Edgerton Pottery from 1894 until 1902, and later at her home as an independent studio potter.
The Pauline Pottery was produced in a wide range of shapes and forms including covered jars, teapots, cups, lamps, ewers and vases. Floral and geometric designs predominate. Early pieces may be marked Pauline Pottery in block letters, while later pieces often bear a mark resembling a crown. However, there is little uniformity in Pauline markings, and unmarked pieces are not uncommon. Pauline Pottery is difficult to find today and avidly sought by collectors.
The American Art Clay Works made wall plaques, busts and statuettes that were either left bisque or finished with a bronze-like patina. The firm was begun in 1892 by the Norse Pottery founders, Thorwald P. A. Samson and Louis Ipson.
In 1895 the firm was purchased by Edgerton lawyer Louis
H. Towne who renamed it the Edgerton Art Clay Works. Samson and Ipson remained
with the firm until they returned to Denmark, Ipson in 1896 and Samson
in 1899. Art Pottery production ceased in 1899. Samson returned to Edgerton
in 1902 and the firm resumed production. Ipson returned the following year,
after a new kiln was built in June. By September, the pair was operating
the company as the Norse Pottery.
The Norse Pottery was started in 1903 in Edgerton, Wisconsin
by Thorwald P. A. Samson and Louis Ipson, two Danish immigrants who had
been employees at the Pauline Pottery. The Norse Pottery was purchased
by A. W. Wheelock in 1904, and was moved to Rockford, Illinois along with
the two founders, who continued to design its ware. Production ceased in
The Pittsville Pottery was started by a Catholic priest
named John Willitizer. Seeking industry for his local parish in Pittsville,
The Ceramic Arts Studio of Madison (CAS) produced decorative
figurines, wall plaques, salt and pepper sets, and head vases from 1942
until its closing in 1956. Its ware was distributed nationally to
stores such as Marshall Fields and Gumps.
In 1998 a Wisconsin State Historical marker was erected at the site of the old studio on Blount street in Madison. The text of the sign reads:
At this site, 8-12 North Blount Street, the Ceramic Arts Studio of Madison operated from 1940 until its closing in 1956. Founded by Lawrence Rabbitt and Reuben Sand, the company was one of the largest manufacturers of figurines in the world, distributing up to 500,000 pieces annually to better gift and department stores. The vases, figurines, and salt and pepper sets—designed chiefly by Betty Harrington—were known nationally for their great originality and consistently high standards of manufacture.
In 1942, Betty Harrington visited the Ceramic Arts Studio and asked the owners to fire a figurine she had sculpted from clay found in her backyard. Recognizing her artistic talent, co-owner Reuben Sand refused a fee, but instead asked Harrington to model more figures. It was the beginning of Harrington’s career as a potter—in the next 14 years she designed more than 800 figurines for the company.
Today Harrington’s designs are recognized for their originality and skillful modeling. In addition to nursery rhyme and storybook characters such as Peter Pan and Little Bo Peep, Harrington designed other themed series, including animals, religious, as well as ethnic figures in native costume. Among Harrington’s most celebrated designs are the “theater pieces”—so-called for the familiar Comedy and Tragedy figures of the series. The line was inspired by the modern dance movement of the 1940s, as exemplified by Martha Graham.
A lifelong Wisconsin resident, Harrington designed and produced pottery--albeit on a limited basis--until her death in 1998. She designed and produced commemorative figurines available to attendees of the first Ceramic Arts Studio Collectors Association Convention in 1997.
Harrington figurines can command high prices: a salt and pepper set Harrington designed for the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shaker Collectors Club was auctioned for $5,000 at their 1992 Convention.
Century House was the name of a Madison, Wisconsin tavern building, originally erected in 1836. In October of 1948, Priscilla Jane Scalbom purchased the building for $6,000. A Madison high school art teacher who had been educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Scalbom began a pottery production and retail operation which she called Century House, after the building. In 1949, Scalbom married Max Howell, another potter, who had learned the craft in California.
The company produced pottery from 1948 until 1963. After attending a trade show in Denmark, the couple began to feature Scandinavian giftware. This proved a successful venture; pottery production was discontinued in 1963 and Scandinavian furniture was added to the mix. The Century House is still a prominent Madison retail store featuring Scandinavian furniture.
Production at Century House consisted of lamps, bowls, plates, large punch bowls, juvenile ware, pixie figurines, tea sets, and coffee mugs. Decorative motifs range from rosemaling to realistically-depicted sprays of pine cones to abstract midcentury designs. The firm was well-known in Madison for special-order gift plates and chargers that were commissioned to celebrate weddings, birthdays, and other events. “Family tree” plates were also made. The special-order plates were the bread and butter of the business, according to the Howell’s son Kirby, the company’s present owner. A number of these plates—as well as examples of most of the typical Century House ware—are included in the exhibition.
The Howells did most of the pottery manufacture themselves with never more than two additional people on staff at any one time to help with pottery decoration. Among the decorators who worked at Century House was Zona Liberace, a long-time employee who had previously been the head of the decoration department at the Ceramic Arts Studio. (Zona was the stepmother of the Liberace.) Aaron Bohrod, now an internationally known artist, also did decoration for the company, notably several lamp bases.
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