Rookwood Pottery History
Maria Longworth Nichols Storer established Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1880. Storer began Rookwood Pottery, named after her family’s country estate, in a renovated schoolhouse. Storer was an accomplished artist and wanted her pottery to be both beautiful and useful, so she experimented with many glazes and production techniques. Due to her success, in 1882, Rookwood Pottery was relocated to a larger building, which eventually became listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. A year later, William Watts Taylor became the manager of the pottery company. With his management, pottery was closely identified and inventoried, decorators were retained according to the number of their pieces that were sold, and the Rookwood Pottery gained its distinct company image.
By the turn of the century, Rookwood Pottery became one of America’s most successful pottery companies. The pottery had won the Gold Medal at the 1889 Universal Exposition at Paris before earning the Grand Prix in Ceramics in Paris a year later in 1890, firmly establishing its international fame. Rookwood’s ever-building popularity continued with its experimentation with matte glaze lines, and the company again astounded the ceramic world with its novel Vellum glaze at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Many lines and glazes soon followed - even after the sudden change of management when Taylor died in 1913 - and the 1920s was considered the last great era of Rookwood Pottery before history took its toll.
In the Great Depression, Rookwood Pottery was forced to close for a year (October 1930 to October 1931), and, by the end of 1932, all decorators were laid off from the company. The kiln was then run by only three men - ceramic engineer Harold Bopp, kiln master John Reichardt, and master potter Earl Menzel - who focused on shape, glaze, and the new dip/drip line of art ware. Finances worsened until 1941 when the company filed for bankruptcy and then was bought out that same year. Under new ownership, some former decorators like E.T. Hurley, Elizabeth Barrett, Jens Jensen, and Kataro Shirayamadani rejoined the corporation and created vases in limited quantities, especially during the Second World War. Ownership transferred again, and soon, during the war, certain glazes like the Tiger Eye in Marine color were discounted as they needed the uranium for the war.
Rookwood Pottery lingered through the 1950s with production lines like the Cirrus, which needed no special artisans’ touch. All of the decorators at Rookwood had left permanently in 1953. Rookwood again changed hands several times, and in 1960, the company was moved to Starkville, Mississippi, as taxes and labor were cheaper there. Eleven glaze lines were produced in the last few years, with some more original and unique than ever before, until the original Rookwood Pottery Company closed for good in mid-1967.
Rookwood Pottery Marks
Rookwood Pottery is one of the most documented and thoroughly marked pottery companies in the United States. Rookwood marks can be divided into several categories; decorators’ marks, factory marks, clay and shape marks, and unusual process marks. Each decorator applied their initials - or their cipher - to their created vase and, at times, they cycled between variations on their mark. With over a hundred artists reported at Rookwood Pottery and several noted unciphered decorator guests, collectors and authors have taken great pains to catalog the ciphers of 136 official artists.
The essential factory marks went through an evolution before becoming the typical, fourteen flamed “RP” mark that is most commonly seen today. Prior to 1882, artists experimented with different versions and impressions of “Rookwood Pottery,” coupled with the year produced. In 1886, Alfred Brennan’s “RP” monogram became the standard factory mark and a flame was added around the “RP” every year until 1900 when the flames came full circle to be fourteen in number as seen today. In the twentieth century, the Roman numeral was then added below to indicate the exact year of manufacture. Rookwood Pottery is also found with factory anniversary marks, such as for the fiftieth, sixtieth, seventieth, and seven-fifth year commemorations.
Rookwood Pottery also contains a variety of clay and shape marks for accurate identification and classification purposes. Clay marks are rather straightforward and were mostly used in the early years of production. For Rookwood, they range in clay of “G” for ginger, “O” for olive, “P” for soft porcelain, “R” for red, “S” for sage green, “W” for white to the “Y” for yellow bodied clay.
After 1900, almost all pottery was either formed from white clay or soft porcelain, eliminating the need for the various other signifiers. Shape numbers are also assigned to each Rookwood piece. While they were initially assigned in a random order after 1884, shape numbers are sequential in the order created and introduced to the public. Some shape numbers may also be accompanied by the size letter ranging from “A” (the largest) to “F” (the smallest) size.
Process, or trial, marks can also be seen to catalog Rookwood pieces and explain where they need to go. The most common of these miscellaneous marks are the “X” impressions on either side of the Rookwood shape numbers, denoting that the vase was a trial or experimental piece. An “X” ground into the glaze, on the other hand, places the pottery as a “second” grade and not for retail sale. Rookwood vases marked with an “X” with a line through were seconds that were given away to employees. Besides this multi-use “X,” collectors have also seen process marks of “S” before the shape number used when pieces were made directly from a sketch, or the “Y” mark after a shape number for Rookwood’s architectural department, established in 1902. Finally, pottery of vellum finish may be marked with a “V” while the matt glaze finish is signified with a “Z.”
Rookwood Pottery Glaze Lines
Glazes grew with the company, which started with the difficult dipped Limoge, Ivory and Cameo glaze, and then the famous, yellow-tinted Standard Glaze. The Iris and Sea Green glazes were released in 1894 and were two prominent variations of the Standard Glaze, praised as being both cool in tone yet colorless. Matte glazes also appeared at the end of the twentieth century with the highlighted Vellum (1904) and the grey and brown-toned Ombroso (1910).
In the height of Rookwood Pottery, there were more than 500 glazes ready to use at any given time. As the company progressed more into the twentieth century, glazes started to return from matte finishes to the bright glazes, beginning with the Soft Porcelain finish released in 1915. Glaze lines blossomed in the 1920s, ranging from colorful Ivory lines, the Later Tiger Eye, and the Decorated Mat/Double Vellum glaze. Asian influences were evident in this period as well, with glazes focused on traditional Chinese porcelain with names such as the Sung Plum, Chinese Turquoise, and Ming Yellow glaze. Rookwood was divided by the highly decorated lines and the commercial or production (even dining ware) lines released through the 1900s. While some glaze lines lend their work to artisans, such as the scenic vellum, other glazes like the Dip/Drip line and the 1940s Vista Blue and Bengal Brown were explicitly created due to the lack of decorators.
It is of note that it was the glazes, not the decorators, that continued despite the multiple changes of hands and files of bankruptcy at Rookwood Pottery. Even into the 1940s and 50s Rookwood continued to introduce glazes such as Rambo, Violet Gray, Cirrus, and Bengal Brown. Old favorites such as the Cerulean Blue, Commercial Ware Vellum, and Tiger Eye Green were produced even in the last years at Starkville, Mississippi. And new glaze lines, colorful finishes called the Cocoa Brown, Moonglow, Mustard Seed, Orange and Rust were created in the new location of Starkville. Rookwood Pottery continued to evolve from its beginning in 1880 until the final closing of 1967, and it had the glaze lines to prove it.
Rookwood Pottery Artists
In the beginning years of Rookwood, vases were mainly decorated by founder Maria Longworth Nichols Storer and other female artists. Storer and the other artists initially used ‘smear glaze’ on the pottery’s incised designs before concentrating on fellow artist Laura Fry’s novel method of colored ‘slip-decorated’ ware. Chemists Karl Langenbeck and Stanley G. Burt soon joined the artists to create this art ware, which soon, in 1889, won the Gold Medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris, France.
From the 1890s to 1915, most of Rookwood’s designs were produced by individual artists. Prominent decorators include the American Albert Robert Valentien, who was the forerunner for Rookwood’s most recognized line - the Scenic Vellum - by first painting a landscape underneath the glaze. Another American, Matthew Andrew Daly, perfected the landscape and portrait vases, and the French-born Henry Francois Farny contributed stunning Native Americans portraits on Rookwood’s Standard Glaze. Perhaps the most recognized Rookwood artist was Kataro Shirayamandani, who immigrated from Japan and used the entire vase surface as a canvas in a style that combined his Eastern training with Western influences.
In Rookwood’s later years, pottery was more production than artist decorated. In October of 1930, when the company had to halt business for a year in the country’s growing Great Depression, many long-term decorators retired from the company. These artists included the ladies Sara Sax (35 years), Lenore Asbury (37 years), Elizabeth Lincoln (39 years), and Sallie Toohey (44 years). Other decorators such as Ed Diers and Fred Rothenbusch (both 35 years) retired in the Great Depression, ending the season of significant artistic accomplishments. And while several other artists did return, Rookwood Pottery never regained its full capacity.