Newcomb College Pottery History, Artists, Marks, and Dates of Production

Newcomb College Pottery is the product of the Old South’s transition to the twentieth century. Designed at the Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (an adjunct of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana), this American arts and crafts pottery reflects the ideals of hand craftsmanship at the time. 

The pottery was started by brothers Ellsworth and William Woodward, who had previously opened the New Orleans Art Pottery Company in 1886. However, their company soon dissolved, so the Woodward brothers turned to higher education. With the help of the Board of Trustees at the Sophie Newcomb College in October 1895, they created a pottery class and kiln not only to teach ceramics but to earn income for the school. 

Newcomb College Vase

Every year, between ten to fifteen female artists formed and decorated hand made arts and crafts pottery at Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. While the Woodward brothers supervised as art professors, classes were taught by Mary G. Sheerer, who was a graduate of the Cincinnati Art Academy and Art Students League and knew some of the decorators at Rookwood. Sheerer taught handmade decoration and pottery appreciation, while a potter named Joseph Meyer threw the shapes for the class until 1925. 

The 1900s marked several changes for Newcomb College, with the brief work of potters such as Frenchman M. Gabry and the eccentric George Ohr. For some potters like George Wasmith and Robert Miller, it is unknown why they quickly abandoned the company, but George Ohr was actually fired as he was “not fit” to work with the young female artisans. 

A more permanent contributor of Newcomb College Pottery was a technician named Paul E. Cox. From 1910 to 1918, Cox, who was trained in ceramics at Alfred University in New York, worked to improve the school’s pottery. Cox perfected the techniques of the prior “trial and error” methods at Newcomb, as he developed the quality of the clay, created glaze recipes, and updated the firing processes. 

He also assisted in building a better kiln and mechanized production at Newcomb College, which gave the decorators a better living wage. Several other ceramists were involved at Newcomb after 1918; Frederick E. Walrath, Vincent Axford, Harry Rodgers, and Kenneth Smith all helped in pottery production before the 1930s. The change of technicians coincided with the focus of pottery; no longer did Newcomb College strive to make pottery for semi-commercial means and profit, but for art and experimentation as well. 

The last years of Newcomb College Pottery found the decorators and ceramists in the basement of campus’ new Art building. The students experimented more with pottery and by 1930, the original matte finish was gone. The art pottery’s decline began with the Woodward brothers’ retirement in 1931. Joseph Meyer, who threw pottery for Newcomb until his eyesight became too poor in the 1920s, also died that same year. 

Newcomb College did produce some plain ware and various ceramic artware until the 1940s, which were labeled as “The Newcomb Guild.” However, the highlight of Newcomb’s artware was at the turn of the century with the Woodward brothers’ supervision and Mary G. Sheerer’s class instructions. The pottery’s best work was when Joseph Meyer threw all the pottery and Paul E. Cox had just arrived to make improvements to the kilns. Newcomb earned several awards during its earlier years, including medals at Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904), Jamestown (1907) and San Francisco (1915). As an authentic Arts and Crafts kiln, Newcomb College Pottery brought the Old South of New Orleans into the world of ceramics. 

Newcomb Pottery Styles and Glazes

Consistent with the Arts and Crafts movement, all the Newcomb College Pottery was hand thrown and individually decorated. Muted matte colors with Spanish moss, trees, florals and the occasional animals are the typical designs seen on Newcomb vases.  Joseph Meyer and Mary G. Sheerer had a significant role in early Newcomb Pottery style and glaze development. They guided the experimental shapes, glazes, and firing processes.Newcomb College High Glaze Floral Art Pottery Vase

Early Newcomb pottery was typically high-gloss glazes, with handcrafted decorations such as yellow or violet hand-painted flowers. Although natural clay slips and underglaze colors were applied in the very first Newcomb vases, the college kiln quickly favored underglaze painting on a low-fired biscuit. Then incised designs would be added onto the wet clay beforehand. Artists also sponged the vases before the first firing to bring the fine silca to the surface, which created the misty effect typically seen on Newcomb College Pottery.

Newcomb College Pottery is easily identifiable; most can recognize the pottery by its soft but waxy semi-gloss finish, and the pastel decorations hand carved in relief, with medium-blue grounds. Paul E. Cox’s arrival in 1910 brought along the iconic Newcomb blue and grey-green colors in particular.

Cox also brought along new, low molded relief designs that included an underglaze, similar to Rookwood pottery. And after 1910, artists also started to use black underglaze in the incised lines, giving the vases more definite contrast and design. Since each Newcomb College Pottery vase is one of a kind, over time, design subject matter became more diverse.  Vase designs echoed the New Orleans environment; bayou oak trees, daffodils and crocus flowers, and occasional aquatic animals graced the pottery. Over 120 different types of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees have been documented on Newcomb Pottery. The preeminent design, however, was a graceful, pale blue and green tree, dripping in Spanish moss with reflections in the moonlight. Such decorations continued to the later years of Newcomb artware (1930-1945).

Newcomb Pottery Artists

The artists of Newcomb College Pottery were primarily female craftsmen, and by producing art pottery vases, these women were able to develop valuable skills, create an income, and make a name for themselves in the most unprecedented ways. Early pottery from 1888 and 1889 included work from the free Saturday and evening classes, where many married women were noted to attend.

As Newcomb College continued, these Studio Art students were given opportunities to sell their art pottery as long as it passed the jury, and any women could join the school as long as they had artistic talents. Over one hundred artists produced pottery for Newcomb College, with twenty-two women working for at least five years, ten women joined for ten years, and seven participated for twenty years. There were also three artists -- Henrietta Bailey, Sadie Irvine, and Juanita Mauras -- who decorated Newcomb pottery for a full thirty years. Newcomb College Art Pottery Plaque

When asked for the best artists in all of Newcomb, Paul E. Cox quickly cited three: Henrietta Bailey, Sadie Irvine, and Anna Frances Simpson. Henrietta Davidson Bailey joined the pottery early in 1901 as an undergraduate, and by 1905, she was listed as a Pottery Designer. Bailey was active inside and outside of the school, as she taught classes whenever Mary G. Sheerer was absent,  and was able to display many of her vases in the 1915 San Francisco Panana-Pacific International Exposition. Sarah Agnes Estelle Irvine, or Sadie Irvine for short, likewise a foundation to Newcomb College; began her studies in 1902 and advanced to be an Arts Craftsman from 1908 to 1929. Irvine is considered by many to be the best of all Newcomb artists. In the college, she was not only a gifted pottery decorator and instructor, but a master at bookplates, drawing, embroidery, and watercolor as well.

Finally, Anna Frances Simpson was one of the most prolific Newcomb artists, from her start in 1902 to her rank as Art Craftsman until 1929. Simpson’s work was displayed all over the nation and she won medals in California and Texas expositions. Like Irvine, Simpson was an artist of many talents, and her creativity is considered foundational Newcomb College Pottery. 

Newcomb Pottery Marks

Newcomb College Pottery is well-known for its variety of marks, signifying the Newcomb College brand, the year, the clay and glaze, as well as the decorator. The predominant marking of the pottery was “NC” with the letter “N” inside a larger “C,” although this mark was not used until 1897. Early Newcomb Pottery (from 1894 to 1897) was painted or incised with a “NEWCOMB COLLEGE” on the bottom.

A wheel ground “X” on the bottom of a Newcomb vase marked that the piece was not offered for sale, but intended for a specific decorator or collector.  Vases with an “M” added to the bottom indicated that a mold was made from that particular piece. Other Newcomb marks included the “H B,” which stood for hand-built.Newcomb Vase Artist Mark and Signature

There are several other letters used to signify the clay and glaze body include “A,” “D,” “E,” “F,” “G,” “K” and “T” to indicate white clay and gloss glazes. These marks were often used on experimental vases. Buff clay bodies with semi-matte glazes were marked as “Q” from 1895 to 1909, as “B” between 1910 and 1912, and as “C” for those created between 1913 and 1915. Decorators used “U” and “W” for white clay bodies before 1908, while dark red clay bodies made before 1910 could have “F” or “R.” 

There are several common artist and potter marks in Newcomb Pottery. Joseph F. Meyer was the professional thrower of the pieces made at Newcomb for about thirty years (1897-1927), and his mark of a combined “JM” is on more pieces than that of any other person. Paul E. Cox, a potter and innovator at Newcomb from 1910 to 1918, signed his work with the simple “COX.” The artists themselves, over a hundred in number, signed with marks ranging from geometric shapes to their full last name. Henrietta Bailey used the “B” inside of a large “H,” for example, while Juanita Gonzalez used a large “G” that was pieced with two lines. Sadie Irvine’s sought-for mark was either the cursive uppercase “S” or a spelled-out “S.A.E. Irvine” and Anna Frances Simpson’s work can be identified with the “AFS.”  

There were also several numbers used in Newcomb College Pottery marks. Dating of a Newcomb vase may be noted as a simple year (96’) or with the month abbreviation and year (Feb 98’). From 1894 to 1901, registration numbers included a decorator number and the number of the finished piece, ordered like this “22 # 12.”

From 1901 to 1942, Newcomb used a detailed registration number system by pairing the letter of the alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) with the numbers 1 to 100. By 1903, they doubled the letters (AA, BB, CC, etc.) and within a year, they expanded the registration numbers to “AB,” “AC, “AD” and so on, with numbers 1 to 100 following each letter sequence. The registration numbers can be found either stamped, incised, or painted on the bottom of the pottery depending on the period of production. 

The Newcomb artists were prolific; by 1910, they had already reached the “DM” registration, and within ten years, they were documenting pottery as high as “KR.” By 1941, they had reached the last one, the “ZY,” making a total of 71,200 documented pieces per the Newcomb Pottery registration system.

The registration system was fully deciphered by Walter Bob after over 2 years of extensive research.  The Newcomb dating system in its entirely can be seen in Newcomb Pottery & Crafts An Educational Enterprise for Women 1895-1940 by Jessie Poesch with Sally Main.

The following summarizes the registration numbers and year of production for Newcomb pottery from 1901 through 1941.

1901 – A through F  (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter)

1902 -G through W (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter)

1903 – X through Z then AA, BB, etc. to NN (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter and letter combination)

1904 – OO through ZZ then AA, AB, etc. through AE (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1905 – AF through AU (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1906 – AV through AZ then BA through BL (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1907 – BM through CC (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1908 – CD through CT (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1909 – CU through DL (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1910 – DM through ED (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1911- EF through EW (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1912 – EX through FP (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1913 – FQ through GI (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1914 -GJ through HA (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1915 – HB through HT (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1916 – HS through IM (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1917 – IN through JF (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1918 – JG through JX (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1919 – JY through KQ (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1920 – KR through LI (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1921 – LJ through MC (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1922 – MD through MW (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1923 – MX through NQ (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1924 – NR through OJ (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1925 – OK through PD (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1926 – PE through PX (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1927 – PY through QP (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1928 – QR through RI (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1929 – RJ through SA (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1930 – SB through SR (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1931 – ST through TK (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1932 – TL through UC (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1933 – UD through UT (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1934 – UV through VM (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1935 – VN through WE (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1936 – WF through WV (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1937 – WX through XP (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1938 – XQ through YG (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1939 – YH through YX (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1940 – YZ through ZQ (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter combination)

1941 – ZR through ZY (1-100 numbered pieces for each letter)