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Significant Wisconsin Pottery Companies

  This is a brief history of some of the major potteries in Wisconsin.  In the near future, clicking on the map will take you to that town's pottery history, with pictures & more detailed history.  Stay Tuned! 

Frackelton Pottery, 1881-1904  
Pauline Pottery, 1883-1894  
Norse Pottery, 1903-1913  
American Art Clay Works, 1892-1903  
•Edgerton Pottery, 1894-1901  
Pittsville Pottery, 1931-1943  
Ceramic Arts Studio of Madison, 1940-1956  
Century House, 1940s & 1950s  
 

 Bibliography 
 

SUSAN FRACKELTON 

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.
 
Frackelton stopped potting and relocated to Chicago around 1904, where she died in 1932. The bulk of the collection in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin was donated by Frackelton’s daughter. The Wisconsin Pottery Association was happy to display it to the public for the first time at the September 6, 1998 show.  To view this collection, follow this link.

PAULINE POTTERY

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.

AMERICAN ART CLAY WORKS

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

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 1913.
 
Norse Pottery is highly distinctive. Much of the ware was modeled after ancient Scandinavian artifacts. At the turn of the century, many important archeological finds were made of Viking Age artifacts in Norway and Bronze Age artifacts in Denmark that clearly influenced ware produced both in Danish potteries and at the Norse Pottery. The Norse Pottery, however, did not so much reproduce Scandinavian antiques as much as reinterpret them, often combining them with oriental and western motifs.
 
The ware itself was finished to resemble weathered bronze, and green and gold highlights were added to the matt black pottery to suggest corrosion. Like Pauline Pottery, Norse is highly sought and realitively scarce.
 
About 75 pieces of Norse Pottery will be featured in the exhibit, almost certainly the largest public display of this unique pottery since the plant’s closing in 1913.

THE PITTSVILLE POTTERY

The Pittsville Pottery was started by a Catholic priest named John Willitizer. Seeking industry for his local parish in Pittsville,
Willitizer, a German immigrant, sent local clay samples to Meissen, Germany for analysis of its suitablisty as a manufacturing clay body. A Dr. Julius Bidtel wrote back saying it could be used for pottery. In 1931 the Wisconsin Ceramic Company was incorporated with the priest as president and with capital of $75,000. A plant with kiln was built.
 
The Depression, however, was not the ideal time to start a new business, and the firm failed in 1932. Willitizer paid $27,000 out of his own pocket to disgrunted stockholders, then started the businesss up again by himself with limited success. The new venture failed in 1936. In 1939 Father Willitizer gave James Wilkins and his son William a half interest in the pottery, which then operated until about 1943.
 
The ware produced at Pittsville bears great similarity to that produced by the Muncie Pottery of Muncie, Indiana in the 1920s and 1930s. A son of the Muncie founder is said to have gone to Pittsville with molds and glaze recipes. Although the ware was not widely distributed, and certainly not long in production, local collectors estimate that as many as 50 different shapes may have been produced.

THE CERAMIC ARTS STUDIO

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.
 
The company was originally formed in 1940 by Lawrence Rabbitt, a University of Wisconsin student who had received a WPA grant to research  Wisconsin clay.  Rabbitt produced hand-thrown pottery that he sold locally in Madison.  In January, 1941, Rabbitt went into partnership with another UW student, Reuben Sand. Sand undertook marketing and distribution of the firm’s products, produced primarily by Rabbitt. In 1942 Rabbit left the firm and Betty Harrington began modeling the figurines for which the firm is primarily known today.  CAS figurines that originally sold for two or three dollars in the 1950s can now command hundreds of dollars in the collectibles market.
 
CAS products are noted not only for their original stylings, but for their consistently high quality of workmanship and decoration.  Produced in a single-firing, quality control was strict. At its most successful, CAS sold 250,000 figurines annually. Japanese imports in the 1950s eventually undercut the CAS market and led to the company’s demise.

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.

BETTY HARRINGTON

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

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.

Bibliography
Duke, Harvey. Pottery & Porcelain, 8th Edition. New York: House of Collectibles, 1995.

Evans, Paul. Art Pottery of the United States, N.Y.: Feingold and Lewis, 1987.

Holthaus, Timothy. “The Ceramic Arts Studio of Madison Revisited,” The Antique Trader, Vol. 40, No. 23, pp. 74?75.

Huxford, Sharon & Bob. Schroeders Antiques Price Guide, 14th Ed. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1996.

Kovel, Ralph and Terry. Kovel’s American Art Pottery, N.Y.: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993

Laumbach, Sabra Olson and DeJong, Judith Olson. Harrington Figurines, Revised Edition. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publ. Co., 1994.

Lindner, Rose. “Rabbit Recollects: The Ceramic Arts Studio of Madison,” The Journal of the American Art Pottery Association, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 9-13.

Maloney, David J., Jr. Maloney's Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory, 3rd Edition. Dubuque, IA: Antique Trader Books, 1995.

Nelson, Marion John. Art Pottery of the Midwest, University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minn., 1988

Petzold, James and Holthaus, Timothy. CAS Collectors Inventory Record and Price Guide. Madison, WI: CAS Collectors Association, 1995.

Petzold, James and Holthaus, Timothy, eds. CAS Collectors Newsletter, Madison, WI: CAS Collectors Association, Vol. I, Nos. 1?6; Vol. II, Nos. 1-6.

Schneider, Michael. Ceramic Arts Studio, Identification & Price Guide, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Co., 1994.