Colorware History & Design

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Catalina Island Pottery

Catalina Island Pottery

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Catalina Island Pottery

Santa Catalina Island lies 22 miles off the coast of California and is part of the Channel Islands. In the late 1800s, General Phineas Banning and his sons realized the potential tourist value of Catalina and developed it as a resort destination. In 1915, a fire at the Hotel Metropole in the main center of Avalon spread quickly, destroying half of the town’s buildings and homes. Due to debt incurred as a result of the fire and decreased tourism, the Banning brothers sold the island property in shares.

The industrialist William Wrigley, Jr. (of chewing gum fame) purchased a controlling interest in the island in 1919. Wrigley made significant investments in developing the island. Notably the Catalina Casino, constructed in 1929, as well as ferry boats to bring tourists back and forth from southern California destinations.

Concurrent with the redevelopment of the island, a broader cultural and design revolution was going on: A resurgent interest in Spanish Revival-style took place, a romantic view of the Spanish and Mexican presence in the California of the 1500-1700s. The Spanish Revival Movement is believed to have originated with the Panama-California International Exposition held in San Diego in 1915. The pavilion buildings were designed in Spanish-style, featuring beautiful colored, Moorish-influenced tile work. The exposition was succeeded by a building boom of Spanish-style homes in southern California.

Catalina Island Pottery

The history of tile and pottery manufacturing on the island begins with the discovery of clay and mineral oxides necessary for pottery production while drilling for fresh water wells. The island imported machinery to their Pebble Beach location and used clay from multiple island sources to create early brick and tile products. The original tile factory on Pebbly Beach of Catalina Island, California began as a small shop producing commercial tile and pipe products, but like many other California potteries, found a niche producing dinner-, garden- and artware products in the early 1930s. In 1930, the Catalina Clay Products Company started off as a spinoff to the tile factory (1928-32), operating from 1930-36. The earliest pottery pieces were produced in 1927 as novelty items, tiles, plaques and bookends featuring Catalina wildlife and Mexican themes. By 1928, some of the items were sold on the California mainland. 1928 also marked the first year that tiles were glazed. The Catalina plant supervisor, DM Renton, recruited ceramists from Pacific Pottery in 1928 and the blended glazes seen on Pacific pieces during that period appears on Catalina pottery vases, oil jars and other decorative ware.

Catalina Island Pottery

As is common with most pottery companies during the period, a number of skilled artisans and craftsmen were employed, often hopping from one company to another. All the companies benefited from the sharing of information and innovation, but very little information about who worked where when has been documented.

As 1929 rolled in, the crunch of the Depression hit the area. The Catalina tileworks scaled back to a skeleton crew. One of the former Pacific ceramicists, Harold Johnson, left Catalina for Bauer and the launch of their new ringware dinnerware line (leading to all kinds of interesting speculation on the connection between Catalina, Pacific and Bauer, and the attribution of who came up with the whole colorware dinnerware idea in the first place).

Catalina pottery is famous for its redware clay base. While redware was good enough for larger garden and commercial items, white clay was a better fit for dinnerware production (glazes adhered to the surface more easily). As Catalina moved away from tile and gardenware and towards dinnerware, they imported clay from (among others) the Pacific Clay Company’s clay mines in Lincoln, California.

The glazes used during the period have lovely exotic names evoking the island’s natural beauty: Catalina Blue, Descanso Green, Toyon Red, Mandarin or Manchu Yellow, Turquoise Blue and Ivory are most commonly found. Harder to find colors include Monterey Brown and Seafoam. Occasionally, collectors will come across Teal, Obsidian Black, and cobalt.

During the 1929-36 period in which Catalina produced tableware, they strove to be known as a “quality pottery” – a line used by many California potteries when faced with intense competition from the Ohio Valley potteries – by only selling in higher-end department stores across the United States. Several lines were offered, ranging in styles from art deco to arts and crafts to Moorish. In 1936, some of the chief architects behind the success of the pottery retired, notably DM Renton, and without a driving force behind the organization the Wrigley company looked for a buyer, finding one in Gladding-McBean (GMcB). GMcB took possession of Catalina’s assets (trademarks and molds) on March 31, 1937 and continued to produce a variety of products using the Catalina brand under their Rancho, Avalon and Aurora Artware lines until 1942. Collectors should note that pottery produced under GMcB is marked as “Catalina Pottery,” and original pieces are marked “Catalina Island Pottery.”

Catalina enthusiasts: Make sure you check out Dan and Jane Austin’s amazing Catalina site! And don’t forget to visit the QwkDog Design Shop for vintage pottery prints.

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