Fun facts about McCoy pottery
Nov 4, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Lately I’ve been reminiscing about my favorite thrift store moments. As I shared in our feature “Vintage Scrapbook,” a framed black and white photograph was my first thrifting treasure. That was a special day and it formed so much of who I am as a collector today. But there is another extraordinary day that springs to mind. I can see it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I was living in the Midwest at the time and had wandered into a consignment shop. The front rooms were stocked full of late 90s odds and ends. I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding anything mid-century.
But then I caught a glimpse of a tattered sign that held one of my most cherished phrases: “clearance room.” Like a moth to the flame, I ambled toward the portal. There in the back, tucked away, I spied something rarely seen in the wild. A beautiful 1950s Lane end table with tile inlay. With a price tag of $20 I nearly screamed with glee. But atop this beautiful table was a simple, white planter. From its shape and style I guessed mid-century. I picked it up and held my breath. As I carefully turned it over, I was rewarded with one of my favorite markings: McCoy USA. This spectacular find has since become the cornerstone of a growing pottery collection. Let’s take some time to learn more about this beloved American brand and tell me about your favorite thrifting memories in the comments…
Location, location, location
In 1910 the Nelson McCoy Sanitary and Stoneware Company was founded in Roseville, Ohio. As we’ve mentioned in previous features, Roseville was the heart of the American pottery industry. With the Industrial Revolution underway, investors were looking for ways to modernize industries while taking advantage of geographic assets. Roseville, with its rich clay deposits, became the obvious headquarters for this burgeoning industry. In fact, thanks to those glacial lakes from the last ice age, Ohio still ranks in the top five for clay deposits all these generations later.
For the father-son duo of J.W. and Nelson McCoy, locating in Ohio was the first step in a diversified business plan. Along with a few other stakeholders, they set about manufacturing utilitarian products (not the artistic collectibles we know and love today) and also set up a division to mine and sell clay. This move allowed them to successfully control their supply chain and have some additional revenue. This business acumen served them well for nearly a decade.
Time to pivot
By 1918 McCoy, along with several other manufacturers, joined forces to create American Clay Products Company (a sort of cooperative business model). The pieces they marketed and sold purposefully reflected no trademark because any one of the participating members could be the craftspeople behind-the-scenes. It may sound modern and efficient, but I imagine it was also a pre-emptive maneuver. The competition in Ohio was fierce by the early 1900s and by uniting early these individual firms hoped to prevent a hostile takeover later.
The collective was wildly successful for six years and then it suddenly disbanded. Soon compatriots were in competition again and, at the same time, the market itself was trending away from utilitarian pottery. McCoy re-established itself as the Nelson McCoy Sanitary Stoneware Co and tried to find its footing. For seven long years the company bucked popular fashion, but in 1933 everything changed. Responding to customer demand the company began to produce more decorative pieces. To reflect this fresh start, the name was changed to Nelson McCoy Pottery Co. But a new name wasn’t the only change, many scholars believe this is also the first time McCoy began marking its pieces.
Whenever I paint, I always struggle to put my name on the front of the canvas. It’s such a bold move to stand by your creation. In some ways it can feel vulnerable. As I learn more about the history of McCoy, I find this 1930s strategic and philosophical shift beautiful in and of itself. The artist in me can appreciate the magnitude of the moment. Here’s a company that was started with such a “profit and return” focus, that hid its name for the sake of staying afloat, and in a brilliant flash finally embraced clay’s unique and artistic possibilities. Just goes to show you there’s a lot of history packed into each planter!
Going with the flow
Some manufacturers have a very distinctive look, but McCoy pottery is always a clear reflection of the time in which it was created. (One of the things I love about this pottery!) Each collection is like a time capsule, making it hard to pin down a McCoy by first glance alone. Here is a wonderful, visual encyclopedia of McCoy collections. When you look at McCoy’s complete body of work what sticks out to me is the celebration of texture and strong color choices. In some cases (like my Swirl planter), the texture itself – the pattern – becomes the star. I think two of their earlier lines, Basketweave and Hobnail, demonstrate this beautifully. In other instances the use of distinctive color palettes draws attention to the sculpture of the piece. Items in the Brocade and Capri line showcase this approach.
Bottom line: when you collect McCoy you are going to be spoiled for choice. There are so many different collecting specialties you can choose: color, era, function, even animal! The other good news is collecting McCoy doesn’t require a robust bank account. As my story attests to, there are beautiful McCoy pieces just waiting to be discovered in thrift shops and antique stores across the country (not to mention the online possibilities). Because the McCoy history has many chapters, I recommend reading up on its trademarks here. Knowing how to match trademark style with collection name will be a handy cross-reference when you are authenticating pieces you’ve discovered.
Dear reader, I hope this stroll through the fun facts about McCoy pottery has inspired you to remember there’s so much more behind the trademark. When you turn over that lamp or look under that table and see the marking of the company who made the item you’re admiring, keep in mind that there’s a rich history waiting to be discovered. What will you discover today?