Collecting California Pottery
Mar 16, 2016 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Every collector has their favorite thing – the item that will make them stop in their tracks and mentally calculate what the status of their checking account is. On. The. Spot. For me, I have a trio of favorites: chairs, vintage board games (the more obscure the title – the better), and pottery. Now the first one I can usually talk myself out of thanks to sheer logistics and dwelling size. That being said, if I ever move into a castle someday all bets are off! Vintage board games can be tricky too because I’m particular. All the pieces need to be there and everything needs to be intact. But pottery – oh heavens – beautiful, brightly colored, elegant pottery.
When I scan around my front room – pottery is everywhere. What holds my pens and business cards on the desk? Yep. A delicate little dish just for my extra house and car keys? Why! Of course. Another to contain those little random office essentials – scotch tape never had such nice digs to call home. You sense the theme. Just when I thought I had it all sorted – when there was no other storage need to present itself there it was. My naked end table.
Seated at the side of my love seat that is usually only occupied by my pups. It stood there alone. Looking a little barren. That’s okay though, right? Dogs have no need for any fancy amenities. But what if someone were to sit there with a cool, refreshing beverage? I need a statement coaster! (This is the vintage addict in me talking because I have a stunning set of twelve – count ’em twelve – starburst pattern plastic coasters on another side table.) But nope – those are for that side table exclusively. Sharing is not an option, especially when I now have an excuse to buy something really neat. I have found permission to feed my love of pottery. And the towns people (and pups) rejoiced! This weekend my epic quest was fulfilled. The top image there is my newest addition – and it’s from the sunny state of California. Join me as we learn a bit more about collecting California pottery…
Collecting California Pottery | The Basics
California became a state in the mid-1800s and ushered in a time of tremendous population growth. People heeded the call to go out West and make their fortunes. While it sounds humble, tile played an important role in the development of these dreams. More people meant more buildings and infrastructure – which meant materials. Tile cornered the market on this front. It was used for a range of purposes – some functional (roofs, floors, sewer pipes) and other not so much (decorative facades and accents). As the industry grew to keep up, the Arts and Crafts movement hit its stride.
Collecting Tip: Learn more about caring and cleaning your pottery treasures here.
The combination of a design philosophy centered on detail and craftsmanship, coupled with a material made for customization was powerful. Tiles and pottery pieces were suddenly all the rage and Californians responded. You may ask yourself – why California? You’ve heard it before, but it’s true all the same: location, location, location. The non-stop sunshine and resource rich LA basin became the foundation that the entire industry was built on. At the height of production, we’re talking over 800 independent firms churning out figurines, vases, and the like.
You see stunning tile work adorning the most prominent and lavish buildings in the early 1920s and then by the 30s-40s the American consumer drive hits into high gear and the diversity of offerings expanded. In the years following WWII, with so many other areas struggling to rebuild their industry, American (specifically Californian) pottery firms strengthened their market presence. The mid-century wasn’t just the heyday for chrome and clean lines – pottery from Cali reached its zenith as well. But just as the light burned brightest, it quickly faded. Soon Japanese and other imports sprung back to life, tastes changed and by the 1960s most California firms had shuttered their doors.
While the list of top California pottery firms may deviate here and there, for the most part you can count on this firm to come out on the top of everyone’s list: Bauer. However, don’t be overly concerned with the big names. There’s a whole world out there – remember that figure of 800+. As you start collecting, you will want to bookmark this marks and identifications site. In fact this site is a cornucopia of inspiring information and you’ll want to visit their FAQ page as you’ll see many common questions already expertly answered. Cheers to Linda and Bryan for building such a fabulous resource and sharing it with the world. Let’s spend a little more time with Bauer, the heavy hitter from LA, to find out what made them so special in a time when there were so many others.
Collecting California Pottery | Bauer
This company is a LA transplant, starting out life in the great state of Kentucky. Around the turn of the century John Bauer moved his family out West, business in tow. The company originally made the same things that made them famous in Kentucky, but soon the new surroundings encouraged them to offer pieces that celebrated Californians’ love of things that grow. Flower pots and garden planters flew off the shelves and into the homes of happy customers. Bauer didn’t rely on the function of their pieces – they emphasized the design. (A quality that is consistent with the California pottery movement in general.)
Collecting Tip: Bauer’s marks changed over time. The 20s are categorized by Bauer and Bauer Los Angeles; the 30s were marked as Bauer Made in USA and Bauer USA. Keep in mind only a lucky few got a mark added at the factory: we’re talking a 50/50 chance. So if you aren’t sure, a local vintage or antique shop owner can help you determine the authenticity.
Bauer hired groundbreaking designers like Matt Carlton who had a lot of natural ability to create one-of-a-kind hand thrown vases. Matt’s nephew Fred Johnson would go on to join the firm and bring a fresh perspective, adding a variety of iconic shapes to the collections. Russel Wright even joined in on the fun, creating his own line. Sadly, that wasn’t met with as much consumer enthusiasm, but it highlights the essence of Bauer. Innovation, trial and error – these were their constants. By the early 1960s John’s daughter chose to close the factory rather than resolve a tricky labor dispute. On an exciting front, the Bauer name has enjoyed a modern revival, but there’s something truly special about the mid-century vision.
Bauer’s most famed lines, pieces, and aesthetics from their peak include: the Indian bowl (perfectly capturing easy West Coast livin’), the yelloware line, ringed flower pots, bright and cheerful glazes, and the ruffled collection.
For our readers: What’s your favorite California Pottery find and why?