Century House Pottery
Welcome. My name is Roseann Lindner and I'm going to speak to you today about a company that has been in operation in Madison, Wisconsin from October 1948 to today - The Century House. Before I begin my presentation, let me tell you a little about myself In 1989, I started collecting pottery made at the Ceramic Arts Studio. Most of you are familiar with Ceramic Arts Studio figurines that were made in Madison, Wisconsin from 1940-1956. Through my research of the Ceramic Arts Studio, I have met and interviewed many former employees.
While doing research on the Ceramic Arts Studio, I stumbled across pottery that was signed "Century House, Madison, Wisconsin'. Additionally, these pieces were often marked with a date, typically in the 1950's. So, I was intrigued to discover another local pottery company, and I wanted to find out more information.
In addition to being a pottery collector, I am also a Charter Member and Past President of our group the Wisconsin Pottery Association. As you may recall in 1997, the Wisconsin Pottery Association exhibited the work of major Wisconsin Art Potteries. Our affiliate, the Wisconsin State Historical Society contributed rare examples of Susan Frackelton and Pauline Pottery among others. Also featured on exhibit for the first time ever - were examples of pottery made at the Century House. Several local collectors as well as Kirby Howell, from the Century House, kindly loaned us wonderful examples for our display.
In my presentation today, I am going to tell you what I know about the Century House, its beginning, the pottery production, Artists who worked there, and what the Century House is like today.
The Century House is located at 3029 University Avenue and has been in operation from 1948 until today where it continues to be a family run operation. Today, Century House is run by Kirby Howell, son of Max Howell and his wife, Priscilla Jane Scalbom Howell, who were the sole owners and operators of Century House.
The Century House was established in 1948 by Priscilla Jane Scalbom. Prior to opening the Century House, Priscilla graduated from the Chicago Institute of Art in the 1930's where she specialized in pottery. Later, Priscilla was an Art teacher at East High School in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1948 Priscilla founded the Century House and began pottery production. When Priscilla bought the property, it was a Tavern named "Century House". Originally, the building was an old stone house that was built in 1836.
Shortly after Priscilla opened the Century House, Max Howell, a craftsman who studied moldmaking in Laguna, Beach, California, went to visit the Century House. The old family, story is "Max went to check out the competition's fixtures and decided to marry her". Max and Priscilla were married in 1949.
At this time, Priscilla did all of the design and artwork, and Max hand-made all the molds. The first items produced were plates, cups and bowls. All of the pottery was custom made to order. Plates and ashtrays were the "bread and butter" of the business at that time. A tremendous amount of plates and ashtrays were sold at the Century House. Custom-made plates were made for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, family trees, souvenir plates, and other special occasions. The plates sold for $7.50 each.
In the 1950's the custom-made ashtrays were extremely popular gift items. Ashtrays were made in many different designs, shapes and sizes. In addition to plates and ashtrays, ceramic lamps also sold well in the 1950s. The Century House did not make any of the ceramic lamp bases, instead, these bases were purchased from the Marshall Studios in Indiana. However, the lamps were completely,-assembled at the Century House. Max, who was also a word-worker, hand-turned all of the wooden bases for the lamps that were sold.
The Century House also produced a large number of coffee mugs, tea sets, children's tumblers and divided dishes, etc. Interestingly enough, the Century House never produced figurines. However, they did make a few for fun like the pixie here.
All of the pottery produced at the Century House has an incised hand-written mark "Century House". In addition, most pieces are also artist-signed and dated with the earliest pieces dating to 1948.
The clay used at the Century House was purchased and was a commercial mix. They used commercial glazes, as well, but Max also mixed his own glazes. The pottery was decorated with colored liquid clay slip that was hand-brushed directly on the greenware. The pottery was fired once. This one-firing process is unusual, and I have only discovered one other pottery company that used this system - the Ceramic Arts Studio in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the other pottery companies at that time fired their clay to bisque, then decorated the pottery, and then fired the pottery for a second time.
Max had two kilns, and they fired pottery almost every day. The kilns had a double-throw switch so he could load and unload the kiln at the same time.
All pottery was sold locally "out the door". The Century House never used catalogs or salesmen to sell their products, and they did not sell their products commercially - Nor did they have a lot of "tourist" trade either. Each piece was custom made to order.
Priscilla was well-known for her designwork and she specialized in birds, rosemaling, and clowns. The staff at the Century House was always small. Additional staff was hired in the 1950s after Max and Priscilla started their family. In their busiest years, the decorating staff consisted of three people at a given time.
Some of the known decorators at the Century House were Carolyn Steva and Lynn Watrous (daughter of James Watrous, Art Professor University of Wisconsin).
Another decorator, well known to this group, also worked for the Century House. Her name was Zona Liberace. As most of you know, Zona Liberace was the Head Decorator for the Ceramic Arts Studio. The metal accessories that were produced at the Ceramic Arts Studio were all designed by Zona. In addition to her work at the Studio, Zona was an artist who worked in multi-media. After the Ceramic Arts Studio closed in 1956. Zona began work at the Century House.
Zona decorated and designed quite a bit of pottery for the Century House. One of Zona's specialties was rosemaling. Rosemaling can be found on plates, mugs, creamer & sugar bowls, S&P shakers, etc. Zona became good friends with the Howells,, and she even helped baby-sit their children.. Zona left the Century House and moved to San Francisco California in 1965.
Many artists used to gather at the Century House. Priscilla Howell was very social, and she liked to have fun. She had quite a few artist friends including Lee Weiss, Boyce Totz, and her very good friend Aaron Bohrod. Public Art Shows were frequently held in the backyard of the Century House.
Aaron Bohrod and Priscilla were good friends. Bohrod was the University of Wisconsin in Madison's artist in residence, beginning in 1948. He was born in Chicago, but in the mid 1920s traveled to New York to study at the Art Students League. When Bohrod came to the University in 1948, he had gained a national reputation as a painter of Midwestern urban life and as an artist - correspondent in the Second World War. During the next 30 years, he turned to still-life for his subjects. He was artist-in-residence in Madison until his retirement in 1973.
Aaron Bohrod was a frequent visitor to the Century House. While there, he decorated some of the pottery for fun. He also decorated a few lamps - with his specialty being fish and abstract designs. Bohrod never worked for Century House, and his items were not sold. Kirby Howell and his father Max said that it is very unusual to find Century House pottery signed by Aaron Bohrod - however, I recently, rounds one in for my presentation!! (Note: Bohrod also designed wallpaper for Priscilla that is still hanging in the original stone house - the pattern fish!)
Pottery production ended in 1963. The pottery just wasn't lucrative anymore and was too much work. In the late 1950s Max and Priscilla went to the Chicago Gift show and met a Danish Man who ran a store in Racine, Wisconsin called "The Loom". He introduced them to the import gift business.
Max and Priscilla began importing gifts, and they believed in buying only unique and unusual gift items. They stayed away from mainstream, popular items. They traveled frequently to Africa, Europe, and the Southwest and always bought direct.
They started importing Scandinavian furniture in the mid 1960s. Originally, the furniture did not sell well. In the 1970s, the Howells purchased the building across the street to showcase the furniture, then furniture sales began to take off.
Priscilla retired in the mid 1960s and Max continued to run the Century House until the early 1980s. He sold imported giftware and some furniture, but again it was mostly the giftware that was popular. The Century House had made a name for themselves for having beautiful, unusual, giftware and today are still well-known for this.
After Max retired in the 1980s, his son, Kirby, took over the family business. Today, the "bread and butter' of the business is the Scandinavian furniture and accessories which are primarily imported from Denmark. The second biggest sellers are sweaters and candies.
Today, the Century House prides itself on its unique displays. The Century House is now a "destination" for tourists and the old stone house has become a Madison Landmark. Kirby prides himself in trying to get unusual and fine gift items for the shop. Currently, they attend only the large gift shows in New York, San Francisco, and Denmark where they publicize the Century House's unique displays and wonderful gift items.
Priscilla Jane Scalbom Howell passed away in 1994. Max Howell is currently residing in Madison with his wife, the former Carolyn Crabb. (Note: Carolyn Crabb ran a well-known gift shop in Madison in the 1950s called Tellus Mater).