Colorware History & Design

The Maximalist

California Pottery Colorware

California Pottery Colorware Banner

Through the 1920s, European porcelain and china dominated tables in the United States. But the years following World War I brought a trend in more casual dining. Fewer people, if any, had servants required for formal dinner services, and prohibition brought an end to some of the fancier (and liquor-rich) French food popular in the late teens. Increased commercial food manufacturing reduced the amount of time women spent cooking in the kitchen. Life in general was becoming more casual and automated. The automobile, cinema and radio were bringing disparate groups of people closer across the nation.

California Pottery

Most of the major Southern California potteries were busy producing commercial and residential tile, earthworks and sanitary ware to support the building boom of the 1920s. With the collapse of the California real estate market in the late 1920s, the potteries turned to dinner and gardenware to supplement their revenues. Of the original “big five” Southern California potteries – Gladding-McBean (Franciscan), Metlox, Vernon Kilns, Pacific Pottery, and JA Bauer and Sons, and the mid-coast Garden City Pottery of San Jose – only Vernon Kilns had experience manufacturing dinnerware (under an earlier incarnation of the company known as Poxon China).

The popular West coast design of styles of day (Mission, Spanish Colonial Revival, California Bungalow, Art Deco and Asian-influenced themes) carried over into their houseware designs. In another uniquely Californian twist, brightly colored glazes were introduced to enhance the simple geometric and decorative patterns. Bright colors and glazes were being used in art deco pottery design in Europe during the same period, but primarily as a decorative element. While East coast manufacturers such as Fulper/Stangl pioneered some solid-color dinnerware patterns in the late 1920s, California potteries are attributed with making the glazes commercially viable. Ceramic engineers discovered an optimal clay body that could easily bond with the solid-color glazes in a way that made them as vitreous (stain resistant glass-like ceramic finish) and craze-resistant as traditional china.

While many California potteries began producing early colorware in the late 1920s, JA Bauer is attributed with the first large-scale commercial production of their colored plainware lines in 1927. By 1930 Brayton-Laguna and Catalina Island Pottery were in production, and by 1932-35 Pacific Pottery, Metlox, Gladding-McBean, and Vernon Kilns all offered popular colorware lines. Ohio Valley potteries quickly followed, with Homer Laughlin’s wildly popular Fiesta line going into full production by 1936. Laughlin’s vast production and distribution capabilities brought colorware to every corner of the United States. While several of the California potteries had national distribution at higher-end department stores, Homer Laughlin dominated more “economically friendly” chains, like Woolworth’s.

You might find advertisements for California pottery colorware in national magazines, like House Beautiful, American Home and Good Housekeeping, but most of the local advertising was limited to the west coast. (For example, a national search of local newspapers during the 1930s only turns up advertising for Pacific Pottery as far east as Kansas, with the majority of advertising in California, Oregon and Washington.) The modern day collector won’t find much California pottery colorware today outside of the west coast.

Glazes

Once the bisque firing and decorating is complete, the pottery is ready for the next glazing process. The color you end up with is a product of three primary factors: the glaze composition (colorants and materials); the kiln temperature – colorants can be volatile or produce different colors at different temperatures; and the kiln’s atmosphere during firing and cooling (i.e. the amount of oxygen, known as oxidation or reduction, in the kiln during the firing process).

Many of the bold, beautiful colors we love in our 1930s dinnerware were created using highly toxic materials. Cadmium, selenium, uranium and lead (used to make glazes smooth and shiny) were all common components in glazes. In the late 19th century, ceramicists and glassmakers began using uranium oxide as a coloring agent. Depending on the composition of the glaze and firing conditions, uranium could produce a wide range of colors, including ivory, red-orange, green, brown and black.

Radioactive Red

Radioactive Red Glazes

“Radioactive Red” Glazes from the 1930s: (L-R: Vernon Kilns Early California, Haldeman Caliente, Vernon Kilns Early California, Metlox 200 Series, Stangl 2000 Americana, and Red Wing Gypsy Trail)

Brilliant orange-red appeared in pottery and dinnerware in the early 1930s as ceramic engineers experimented with new glaze techniques. Catalina Pottery’s Toyon Red (named after a red berry that grows on the island) shows up by the late 1920s. By the early 1930s, Bauer and Pacific Pottery are using it in dinnerware items, with the other California and east coast potteries following closely behind.

Producing the glaze was more expensive for manufacturers due to higher material and production costs. The color required a greater level of control during the firing process and achieving the red-orange color often took additional coats of glaze. Red-glazed items commanded a price premium over other colors. Price lists from the period show red items priced 10-15% higher.

In 1943, the US government suspended commercial use of uranium oxide for use in the war effort for bomb production. The government allowed manufacturers to use it again in 1959, but by that time, the only pottery primarily producing solid color dinnerware was Homer Laughlin. Don’t worry, radioactive red dinnerware won’t harm you.

Lead

Potters commonly used lead as a bonding or pigmentation agent. With use, the lead can leach out of the glaze into foods (especially those with a high acidic content) and then be ingested. Lead glazes were pretty common in the United States up through the 1970s. Imported wares (from China and Mexico in particular) often still contain lead. That said, there’s no reason to not use your vintage colorware if it’s in good condition. Avoid pieces with cracks or ones that are heavily marked from use.

The 1930s Color Palette

Colorware Panel - Brights

Colorware Panel – Brights

The 1930s was characterized by two distinct color themes in dinnerware. The first wave dominated from around 1930 to 1938 and is characterized by bright and bold colors. Each manufacturer selected a palette of colors for their dinnerware lines, and where possible, colors that could distinguish themselves from their competitors. However, almost all of the colors fall into the list shown to the left.

Interestingly, some colors are more common than others in different dinnerware lines. For example, red and yellow are the most commonly found colors of Pacific’s Hostess Ware and Bauer’s ringware lines. Burgundy was a Bauer specialty (although it is a harder to find color) and the rose pink uniquely belonged to Metlox. Of all the manufacturers, Gladding-McBean (GMcB) – with their Franciscan lines – was the most innovative – they were the first to produce an actual high gloss red glaze, and included colors such as “eggplant,” “golden glow” and “redwood” in their El Patio lineup.

White and black were most often special order colors and not commonly available in retail outlets. Some potteries specifically produced their lines in white only during the June wedding season. White is available in Pacific Pottery Hostess Ware and Vernon Kilns Early California (very rare) and Ultra California (uncommon). Black is available in Pacific Pottery Hostess Ware (extremely rare) and Bauer (available, but commands a price premium over other colors).

But no design style lasts forever. Changing consumer tastes in the late 1930s lead to a softening of the dinnerware color palette. Additionally, the government began to appropriate the heavy metals used to make colorware glazes vibrant, leaving ceramic engineers scrambling to find new glaze combinations that would still be effective and appealing to consumers. While many potteries continued to offer their “brights,” pastel colors became all the rage. In fact, many bright dinnerware lines were just reglazed in pastels and given a new name. Popular pastel California dinnerware lines (1938-42) include:

Colorware Panel - Pastels

Colorware Panel – Pastels

Metlox Yorkshire, 200 Series; Vernon Kilns Modern California, Ultra California; Bauer La Linda; Pacific Pottery Arcadia; GMcB Franciscan Coronado

The trend was not specific to California potteries. Other manufacturers including Homer Laughlin (Serenade, Nautilus) and Taylor, Smith & Taylor (Lu-Ray) among others followed the pastel bandwagon. However, with most manufacturing companies — potteries included — switching over to war production around 1942, almost all the pastel lines are discontinued.

The War Years

As the United States goes to war, potteries turned over the majority of their production to the war effort. Potteries produced any number of goods to support the US – from dinnerware for Navy, sanitary ware, pipe and tile, ceramic insulators, etc. In fact, all manufacturing companies had to produce goods for the war effort in some way – if not, they were not allowed to make capital improvements in their infrastructure, leaving them unable to invest in new equipment. Pacific Clay Products used the opportunity to get back into much more profitable industrial production for the government, and completely shut down their pottery operations in 1942. Manpower at the plants was also in short supply, with their skilled employees sent off to war.

The dinnerware industry undergoes an interesting shift during this period. GMcB’s Franciscan division introduces a new hand-painted pattern called “Desert Rose,” and for a period throughout most of the 1940s, hand-painted dinnerware lines are popular with consumers. The design shift represents a desire on consumers’ part to return to a simpler, more homespun state of mind in response to the war.

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