A History of the Rookwood Pottery Company

The Rookwood Pottery Company has one of the most documented histories of any American pottery company. Maria Longsworth Nichols officially founded it on November 27, 1880, but its beginnings are so entwined with her own history that the things that influenced her earlier cannot be ignored.

Maria came from a wealthy family, and took particular interest in china painting and decorating. This was a common social pastime of ladies at the time, and many china painting clubs and circles grew in the cultured cities such as Cincinnati. In 1876, one of Maria's contemporaries, Ms. Mary Louise McLaughlin, discovered the technique of underglaze painting used by Haviland in France. She brought this technique to the painting circles, and it was not long before Maria was mastering it as well. The women's pottery was fired at the Dallas Pottery kilns for a while, until the owners began discouraging the practice. So Maria convinced her father to purchase an old schoolhouse and convert it into a pottery with a kiln. This early pottery was christened as Rookwood Pottery.

Initially was created and decorated by Maria and her circle of friends, the pottery was decorated in a primitive 'Japanesque' style, with dragons, spiders, bug-eyed fish, owls, and many others. As the business grew, she hired her first professional decorator in 1881, Albert Robert Valentien. He and John Rettig (who would be hired later) had been teaching classes in underglaze painting, and brought a new refinement of the technique to Rookwood. More delicate designs quickly appeared, with swallows, bamboo, and flowers.

By the year 1883 the business was growing at a pace the necessitated the hiring of a business manager, and Maria hired William Watts Taylor. Under his guidance the small pottery became organized into a real business, and quickly became profitable.

Also in 1883, Laura Fry adapted a common mouth atomizer to create a primitive air-brush, which enabled a smooth and even layer of colored backgrounds, even allowing graduations between colors. This quickly led to the first successful art pottery line of Rookwood pottery, the so-called 'Standard Glaze'. Upon this shaded canvas the ever-expanding list of artists and decorators honed their talents, eventually creating some of the most acclaimed pieces of American art pottery to date. Other glazes followed, such as Tiger Eye in 1884, Sea Green and Iris in 1893, and Arial Blue in 1894.

By the turn of the century, Rookwood had many employees and were selling their art pottery all across the country. The lines were expanded to encompass the arts and crafts movement, and in order to keep up with demand they introduced undecorated 'Production ware'. They experimented with a vast number of glazes, colors, and techniques, culminating in the Vellum Glaze lines with scenic depictions by their finest artists.

The depression struck Rookwood hard as it struck nearly every other pottery company in the nation, including it's main competitor Roseville Pottey. For this reason it is difficult to find Rookwood Pottery from the late 1930's. The number of employees dropped to just a handful, and nearly all of the decorators were let go. What little pottery that was produced by the struggling company was production ware, and left undecorated.

The company did not fare much better in the 1940's, and with a few exceptions such as Jens Jensen, there were no artists on staff. Production was primarily pieces that had been sold for decades, with little real innovation. In 1941, the company was no longer a leader in the pottery market and as financial problems grew they went into receivership. The pottery was sold to a Cincinnati auto dealer in 1941. In 1943 Sperti, Inc. owned the company and production resumed on a small scale. In 1947, the quality of the glaze declined, art pottery was discontinued and the artists were again let go. In 1959, the pottery changed hands again, was sold, and moved to Starksville, MS where it closed in 1967. In 1971, all of the assets were sold to Briarwood lamps. In 1982, all of the assets were sold to Dr. Towley. In 2004, he along with investors reopened Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Today they provide artisan quality products - art tile, art pottery, corporate gifts and special commissions - for designers, architects, homeowners and businesses, and they have again hired artists to produce high quality art pottery. Below is a list of some of the most famous and talented Rookwood artists.

  • Matthew Daly (1883-1903)
  • Elizabeth Nourse (1880-1887)
  • Sara Sax (1896-1931)
  • Carl Schmidt (1896-1927)
  • Kitaro Shirayamandani (1888-1911, 1921-1948)
  • Albert Valentien (1881-1905)
  • Artus Van Briggle (1888-1901)
  • Grace Young (1886-1903)
  • Jens Jensen (1928-1948)
  • Lorinda Epply (1904-1948)