From its origin in 1880 through its golden years in the first half of the 20th century, Rookwood Pottery enjoyed international fame and recognition. Unfortunately, the onset of the great depression reached far and wide, and declining revenue and debt began to take its toll. With the passing of John D. Wareham in 1954, I believe Rookwood lost its artistic soul, and it never recovered for these reasons: · Times had changed. The market for fine decorated ware after WWII declined dramatically. · Inexpensive mass-produced decorator ceramics became popular, spurred by the postwar housing boom. · Dwindling sales led to a series of changes in ownership that lacked the creative vision of its founder, Maria Longworth (Nichols) Storer and her successors. · Finally, relocation of the operation from Cincinnati, OH, to Starkville, MS, in 1960 by the Herschede family sealed its fate. By removing Rookwood from a culturally sophisticated metropolitan setting to a barren rural environment, the new owners were unable to resuscitate the failing enterprise.
As Will Rogers once remarked: “You can’t heat an oven with snowballs.” In the case of Rookwood Pottery, you needed the fire of creative artists and decorators whose practiced medium was painting and pottery decoration. The Cincinnati Art Academy had been such a rich resource in the past. It was vases, such as the “Black Iris” by Carl Schmitt, that made Rookwood famous.
I joined Rookwood in 1959 in a career switch from college Art instructor to designer right after Rookwood was purchased by the Herschede Hall Clock Company. My first role at Rookwood in Cincinnati was to master the tooling craft. My teacher was an extraordinary master potter and tool-maker, Earl Menzel, whose career spanned 63 years with Rookwood. My mastering Earl’s craft was essential in my employer’s mind because Earl was well over retirement age and would not be able to make the move to Mississippi.
After the relocation to Starkville, I managed the production of the current line of ceramic products and designed about 75 new shapes for the Rookwood line as well as for the parent company’s Herschede Hall Clock line, incorporating ceramic elements into the clock designs. The company’s marketing efforts fell flat despite its connections and compatible distribution channels through high-end jewelry and department stores.
By the time Rookwood suspended production, my wife and I had established The Gift Gallery, an art gallery where I taught classes in painting, ceramics and sculpture, exhibited regional artists’ work and retailed art supplies, custom frames, books and select gift lines. In addition, I taught art classes for Mississippi StateUniversity in Starkville. This led to a full-time position as Associate Professor of Art at Mississippi State College (now University) for Women in Columbus, MS.
The Starkville operation closed its doors in 1967. The tooling, molds and distinctive trademark were purchased by the Townley family, avid collectors of fine art pottery. The original Rookwood Pottery on Mt. Adams now houses a restaurant, and the kilns —in which the exquisite ceramics were fired—serve as booths for diners. *I am virtually the last signature artist associated with the Rookwood era prior to 1967.
Footnote: The remnants of Rookwood so lovingly preserved by the Townleys were purchased by a group of investors in 2004 and an attempt is being made to resuscitate the old trademark and classic tile work that made the company famous. The jury is still out on whether or not the revival succeeds.