Every once in a while I randomly come across something that fascinates me. The latest rabbit hole I went down was Newcomb Pottery, which is a true gem of American art history. It represents not only the skill and creativity of its makers but also speaks to the values and social movements of its time.
There’s actually an interesting parallel that can be drawn to today’s age: With the advent of AI, society is changing at an ever-increasing pace, leading the world to become more virtual and artificial.
In the late 19th century, it was the force of industrialization that brought change, and the Arts and Crafts movement was a counterpoint, emphasizing the importance of craftsmanship and the use of natural materials.
It wouldn’t be surprising if in the age of AI, where data centers can spin up prose and images at enormous volume, we’ll see a countermovement to a more analogue and embodied life too.
We can learn from the example of Newcomb Pottery and create a future where AI is used to augment human creativity and productivity, rather than replace it. We can create a future where AI is used to make our lives easier and more fulfilling, while still preserving the things that make us human, and exploring what creativity means to us.
But first of all…
What is Newcomb Pottery?
It was a decorative and functional ceramics program. With its intricate glaze work and unique designs, the pottery pieces showcase the influence of nature and the local environment. With its distinctive shapes and designs, it reflects the artistic vision and creativity of each potter. The pieces often feature natural motifs like flowers, leaves, and landscapes, which add a touch of beauty and elegance.
One of the striking aspects of Newcomb Pottery is the use of glazes that create rich and vibrant colors, bringing the pottery to life. Combining functionality with decorative elements, it embodies the essence of craftsmanship. Each piece tells a story, reflecting the legacy and heritage of this magnificent art form.
Founded in 1895 at Newcomb College in New Orleans, Newcomb Pottery has a rich history and an intriguing origin story.
In 1886 the Ellsworth Brothers and William Woodward opened the New Orleans Art Pottery Company, which later turned into an educational program that also was meant to generate income for the school. Mary Given Sheerer taught the classes.
Led by Joseph Meyer, with Sadie Irvine as the first potter, the pottery program quickly gained recognition and popularity. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement in the United States, Newcomb Pottery stood out for its unique style and craftsmanship.
What makes it even more remarkable is that the pottery pieces were made by women students at Newcomb College, breaking traditional gender roles. This collaboration resulted in stunning decorative pottery that showcased the students’ talent and creativity.
Newcomb Pottery holds a significant place in the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. People passionately sought after their pottery pieces for their artistic value.
The pottery program at Newcomb College provided women with a platform for expressing themselves artistically and achieving economic independence. This dedication to preserving and celebrating the region’s cultural heritage shines through in every piece of Newcomb Pottery.
Even today, the unique designs and craftsmanship are greatly admired and cherished—it is more than just decorative pottery; it symbolizes the spirit of creativity, empowerment, and timeless artistry.
Impact of Environment on Shape and Design
The shapes and designs of Newcomb Pottery were deeply influenced by the natural environment of Louisiana. The pottery pieces beautifully incorporated elements such as local flora, fauna, and landscapes, as well as celebrating local festivals and events, capturing the essence of the Louisiana landscape and its rich cultural heritage.
What made Newcomb Pottery truly unique was the use of local materials and resources, adding a distinct character to each piece. As time went on, the shapes and designs of the pottery evolved, reflecting the changing artistic trends of the era.
Evolution in Styles Over the Years
Throughout its history, Newcomb Pottery experienced an evolution in styles that reflected changing artistic tastes and influences. Initially, the pottery pieces featured intricate and detailed designs inspired by nature. The artisans meticulously incorporated elements of flora, fauna, and landscapes into their creations.
As time went on, the designs became more simplified and abstract, embracing a modern aesthetic. Along with the evolving designs, the glaze colors used in Newcomb Pottery also transformed, creating vibrant and captivating hues, more fit for the taste of that time. This evolution in styles showcased the pottery’s ability to adapt and resonate with the ever-changing artistic landscape.
Newcomb Pottery was brought to life by a group of talented artists, including Sadie Irvine, Joseph Meyer, and Kenneth Smith. The establishment of the pottery program at Newcomb College owed much to the contributions of Sadie Irvine, a key figure in its development. Joseph Meyer‘s extensive knowledge of glaze chemistry brought forth unique colors and effects. The introduction of novel techniques and designs, many of which inspired by Japanese art, was the hallmark of Kenneth Smith‘s tenure. In 1910 Paul Cox was hired as the glaze chemist, and he is credited with the soft waxy matte glaze Newcomb used until 1940.
Henrietta Bailey, Harriet Coulter Joor, and Marie de Hoa LeBlanc were other talented potters whose artistic styles enriched the legacy of Newcomb Pottery. Their combined efforts were instrumental in shaping the enduring beauty and significance of this decorative craft.
Here are names of artists with their pottery marks (where available):
Arbo, Aurelia Coralie (1931-1940)
Arena, Lucia Ceclia (1921-1928)
Avery, Mrs. (1895-1897)
Baccich, Eunice (1921-1928)
Bailey, Henrietta Davidson (1901-1938)
Baker, Mary Francis (1900-1906)
Bartlett, Gladys (1907-1919)
Beauregard, Alice Toutant (1908-1917)
Belden, C. F. (1885-1891)
Benson, Marie Levering (1904-1915)
Blethen, Grace (1900-1909)
Blocker, Frances Ware (1896-1902)
Bres, Selina Elizabeth Gregory (1886-1909)
Bultmann, Ruth Ernestine (1917-1933)
Burgess, Emma Ruth (1900-1907)
Butler, Mary Williams (1898-1934)
Chalaron, Corinne Marie (1920-1926)
Cocke, Frances Howe (1891-1907)
Colemann, Browning (1901-1903)
Cramer, Ruth Forbes (1921-1924)
Crumb, Ethel Canney (1913-1917)
Davis, Elizabeth (1924-1926)
Delavigne, Marie Odell (1892-1925)
Craftsmen played a crucial role in the production of Newcomb Pottery, contributing their expertise and skills to various stages of the pottery-making process. From shaping and glazing to firing, their collaboration with potters ensured the quality and craftsmanship of each piece.
The result was the creation of unique and beautiful pottery that showcased the importance of teamwork and collaboration in the pottery program.
These craftsmen, along with the potters, were the driving force behind the artistry and success of Newcomb Pottery. Their dedication and skill brought the decorative pottery to life, making it a timeless symbol of creativity and craftsmanship.
The Distinctive Marks
The Newcomb Pottery collection is characterized by its distinctive marks, which add value and authenticity to each piece. These marks typically include the Newcomb College stamp, the potter’s initials, and the date of creation, showcasing the individuality of the artist.
Collectors and enthusiasts often seek out specific marks when identifying and evaluating Newcomb Pottery, recognizing them as a testament to the skill and artistry of the potters. Each piece bears the mark of the potter, making it truly unique.
In 1901 the Newcomb College Potttery program began a new registration code scheme for tracking production and sales. Unfortunately, none of the original documents related to those codes have been discovered. Regardless, by matching sales data with other records researchers were able to reconstruct the meaning of those codes.
Beginning in 1901, a sequence beginning with letters and numbers began. The first was A-1, then A-2, then A-3, until A-99. The letter then incremented to B, and the numbers began again with 1. So the next pottery was marked B-1, B-2, B-3, until B-99. Then they began again with C-1.
By 1903 they had exhausted all of the letters and reached Z-99. In order to continue tracking their work, they doubled each letter. So directly after Z-99 came AA-1, and then AA-2, AA-3, and so on. After AA-99 they continued with BB-1.
The short-sightedness of this system became apparent in just 1 year. In 1904 they reached ZZ-99 and the system again was full and required adjustment. It was then that the final system was put into place. They started again with AB-1, AB-2, AB-3, and so on, incrementing to AC, AD, AE, etc when required. After AZ-99, they simply incremented the first letter to BA-1, BA-2, etc.
It is important to note that in the final numbering system sequence there are no double letters used, such as GG or XX, because those had already been used 1903 and 1904.
The reference chart indicates the range of prefix letters used in each particular year. Also, the indicated number of pieces likely produced in that year is listed beside them.
The End of Newcomb Pottery and the Birth of Newcomb Guild
With the closure of Newcomb Pottery in 1940, an era came to an end for Newcomb College pottery. However, the legacy of this renowned institution did not fade away. Former students banded together to form the Newcomb Guild, a dedicated organization focused on preserving the traditions and ideals of the arts and crafts movement.
The guild itself expanded its artistic endeavors beyond pottery, embracing various art forms including ceramics. This transition allowed for continued creative expression.
The guild aimed to promote the values of craftsmanship and creativity that Newcomb Pottery had championed for years.
With a renewed sense of purpose, the guild ventured into new artistic territories, bringing together artists from different disciplines. The journey from pottery to the guild opened up new opportunities for growth and exploration.
What Makes Newcomb Pottery Collectible Today?
Newcomb College pottery is highly sought after in the collector’s market due to its unique glazes, designs, and connection to the arts and crafts movement. Its rarity, limited production, and each piece’s story of artistic excellence contribute to its collectibility.
While Newcomb Pottery may no longer be in production, the legacy lives on. Collecting and celebrating it allows us to connect with the past, appreciate the beauty of handmade art, preserve a piece of history for future generations to enjoy—and maybe serve as an example of how we can preserve the human creative impulse in the age of AI.