Museum Moment: The Weller Pottery

Dec 16, 2010

By Susan Wasser

In the closing years of the 19th century, golf’s popularity in the United States surged. At the outset of the 1890s, there were fewer than 20 places where golf was played, but by 1900 there were more than 1,000 golf courses nationwide. But it was not simply the proliferation of golf courses that testified to the increased popularity of the game; it was also the fact that golf-themed objects were on the rise in American homes. Golf books and periodicals, golf toys and games, even golf-themed silverware, glassware and dinnerware were created for consumers who were obsessed with the game.

The USGA Museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of art pottery decorated with golf motifs and manufactured in the early years of the 20th century by Minton, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Spode, Lenox, Rookwood and Weller to appeal to these new enthusiasts. Many of these pieces are highly sought by collectors who prize their exquisite compositions, beautifully skilled decorative imagery and unique shapes and sizes. The museum recently acquired a piece of rare Weller Pottery signed by the artist, Edna Wilbur.

The Samuel A. Weller Pottery Company began production in Fultonham, Ohio, out of a one-room log cabin in 1872. The business began modestly, with Weller first producing purely utilitarian objects out of the rich clay deposits in the area. Weller then decided to create pottery that would be affordable and appealing to the middle class. Many later pieces were created to be sold in stores and were considered the perfect gift to honor a significant occasion.

In order to accommodate the increased demand, Weller moved to a molded process, and at the height of production, the surface of the pottery was often not finished to sufficiently remove the mold lines. Over the next 70 years, the company moved to Zanesville, Ohio (1888), and became one of the most prolific manufacturers of mass-produced pottery during the first part of the 20th century.

Weller Pottery employed many renowned designers and decorators such as Rudolph Lorber, Charles Babcock Upjohn, Frederick Rhead, Karl Kappes and the French artist, Jacques Sicard, who brought to Weller Pottery their expertise and artistic vision. Upjohn is credited with creating the Dickens Ware line in 1900, based on the illustrations from the novel, The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Samuel Weller chose to focus on this Dickens novel as the main character had the same name as him.

There were actually three Dickens Ware lines produced. The first was an underglazed painted line decorated with floral designs or stylized portraits. The second line was called Dickens Ware II, and was initially based on Charles Dickens’ images, but later evolved to include additional subjects and literary themes when Kappes joined Weller in 1904. It was during this time that golf-related images began to appear. The pottery housed in the USGA Museum collection is decorated with idyllic scenes of men and women in Victorian clothing playing golf on the plush green countryside.

The decorative process of Dickens Ware II is similar to the first line, as it is an underglazed painted line, but an additional technique was added to enhance the image. The technique is called sgraffito, an Italian word that means scratched. The outside lines were incised with a metal tool, a thin wire loop the size of a darning needle, leaving a relief effect on the finished product. Additionally, the pictorial images were sometimes drawn on paper, dripped in water to stick to the clay and used as a guide to outline. The muted background colors were sprayed on before the paper was removed.

It was at this point, after the removal of the paper guide, that the artist applied the necessary colors to the image on the unfired clay piece. The final step in the process was the adhering of the overall glaze. Dickens Ware II was predominantly matte in finish and lightly applied. The process to create this line was time-consuming, as the artist needed to pay close attention during the decorative process to avoid errors.

By 1905 the third variation of the Dickens Ware line had evolved. The decoration is in low-relief glaze with little or no sgraffito. This decorative process differed from the first line, as it used high-gloss glazes that were applied by a thick colored slip (a mixture of clay and glaze) by the artist using a brush or tube.

Samuel Weller not only relied on the designers to adeptly decorate the items manufactured by the company; he also hired hundreds of local artists to hand-paint the various lines he produced. These artists ranged from skilled to unskilled and many of them were women. Most artists concentrated on decorating a specific line, though a few were involved in painting multiple categories. Initially, the artists signed their pieces, but as production increased the practice was not continuous.

The Museum’s newest addition is a vase approximately 9 inches tall with a narrow neck and a bulbous base. It depicts a male golfer in mid-swing. The background glaze is a matte finish in muted tones of green and yellow with a slight hint of the red clay exposed. The sgraffito work is clean, the brushwork on the trees on the sides and back is stylized, and the colored glazes on the figure and scenery are precisely applied. On the base of the piece is the half-circle Weller Dickens Ware seal and the initials E.W. for Edna Wilbur, the artist. Though primarily associated with the Dickens Ware II line, she is one of the artists who cross-decorated, and her signature markings have been seen on multiple lines. She was best known for her carefully illustrated golf-related figures, but was also lauded for her highly detailed floral work in the Louwelsa line and the first Dickens Ware line.

Although the Samuel A. Weller Pottery Company existed for more than 70 years, the sudden death of Weller in 1925 combined with the Great Depression, World War II and the influx of cheap foreign imports spelled the demise of one of America’s great pottery companies. Yet his pioneering vision, the unique and innovative decorative techniques his decorators and artists employed, and the stylized golf scenes they produced have helped make the Weller Dickens Ware II line highly collectible. The USGA Museum is proud to collect, preserve and protect these pieces as they represent an important part of the legacy of American art pottery.

Susan Wasser is the coordinator of special projects for the USGA Museum. Contact her at swasser@usga.org.

The pottery housed in the USGA Museum collection is decorated with idyllic scenes of men and women in Victorian clothing playing golf on the plush green countryside. (USGA Museum)