Historical Highlight: Roseville Pottery

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

I hope you’ll stop in the Museum this summer to see Lush and Lavish: Blooms in Art; it’s a fun look at floral-themed art in a mash-up exhibition of a few dozen pieces of our vintage Roseville pottery with a few dozen prints, paintings, and works on paper all featuring flowers, gardens, and florals. We might have fallen in love with the idea of pairing our two-dimensional flowers with a bouquet of iconic Roseville flora and so, for your pleasure, we’ve gathered bunches of sunflowers, irises, mums, apple blossoms, poppies, and more. 

A selection of Roseville pottery, now on view in Lush and Lavish. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

We’ve brought out only about 10% of our Roseville collection, but it’s a neat mix of the myriad lines the Roseville company produced in a wide array of forms; from a little conch shell-shaped vase to a stout lidded cookie jar, slightly worn and proudly sporting a couple of small chips (evidence of its history of storing yummy treats), we’ve also brought out elegant jardinieres, a hanging basket, and a variety of vases.

Roseville Pottery Company, American, 1892-1954. Foxglove Conch, stoneware, 1942. Gift of James and Janet Altman, R153. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

When you come in to wander this artistic garden path of earthly delights, unencumbered by poison ivy, biting bugs, and heat wave swelter, you’ll learn a thing or two about the history of ceramics production in our neighbor state, Ohio. It’s quite fascinating!  Roseville pottery dates from around 1890, but ceramic production itself dates to a much earlier era in that region. The Muskingum Valley of east-central Ohio is rich in features that made the making of earthenware possible. Indigenous peoples were making pots, vessels, and ornaments from the rich clay deposits of this region long before settlers arrived. The massive clay seams resulted from the powerful forces of glaciers over thousands of years that left soil, stone, and clay in their paths from the north, grinding with great force and pressure as these massive ice engines migrated south. Later, natural gas, plentiful in the valley, made the ceramics industry boom; the rivers and burgeoning railways made it possible to ship these wares everywhere. 

A selection of Roseville pottery, now on view in Lush and Lavish. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

So, jump from the Pleistocene era to the early 1800s. Settlers seeking land in the west were populating Ohio, eking out a living as farmers, tradesfolk, and all the supporting enterprises developing communities require. One thing folks needed was a plethora of vessels for the running of home and farm. As the early Adena and Hopewell peoples, and the later Delaware and Shawnee did, the early settlers realized that the clay below their feet was a wonderful gift. So, after the sawmill, distillery, and post office were opened, so was the first pottery in Roseville, Ohio. Launched by William Lenhart in 1838, he was only one of dozens of potters in the wider area. 

And here’s a splendid bit of folklore peculiar to the “Clay Corridor” of Ohio – the bluebird potter. Thanks to the widespread access of good clay in farm fields and backyards, potting was a common household practice in this part of the Buckeye State. Legend has it that farm folks, who after securing their harvests in the fall, crafted stoneware vessels of all sorts during the cold Ohio winters; but, when the bluebirds returned, it was time to get back to farming. Some of these home potters, in addition to making the crocks, canisters, pans, and jugs for their own use, made extras to sell. For others, pottery production supplanted farming, and they hung shingles out to grow their trade to neighbors and visitors. Around 1850, there were about 40 of these “bluebird kilns” operating in and around Roseville, some chose to specialize in utilitarian wares like flowerpots, ink stands, fire bricks, and fruit jars while others branched off into housewares and novelty items. The Ohio “Pottery Belt” eventually included hundreds of potteries, large and small, that varied in their specialties. Among the potteries that grew into huge operations were Weller, Rookwood, Hull, McCoy, and Homer Laughlin. Some, like Roseville, grew and thrived by acquiring or merging with others. 

In the late nineteenth century, American Art Pottery makers across the country surged on the wave of pottery collecting that was inspired by the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Exhibitors presented the best in art pottery from around the world to thousands of Americans who were then caught up in “the china mania”.  Also at this time a great interest in nature, horticulture, and gardening had blossomed, which not only increased the demand for flowerpots but also supported the interest in floral décor. The great success of Roseville, Rookwood, and other potteries that excelled at the embellishment of their wares with flowers owes it to this turn of events; in fact, some of the very prosperous firms even grew the flowers from which their designers worked! 

A selection of Roseville pottery, now on view in Lush and Lavish. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Roseville is just one chapter in the American Art Pottery story, and we’re delighted to tell it through the wonderful collection of Roseville pottery given to us by avid collectors James and Janet Altman in 2012.  We hope to see you soon in our Lush and Lavish: Blooms in Art garden! 

A selection of Roseville pottery, now on view in Lush and Lavish. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

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