Red Wing Pottery Profile

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A Brief History of Red Wing Pottery

Dinnerware Mark. © Ella Kate Taylor

There was something in the rich limestone soil deposits found in Minnesota’s Goodhue County that was more than just a medium for local farmers to make utilitarian pottery pieces. What started as a cottage industry in the 1860s grew into one of the leading potting manufacturers in the United States before closing its doors in 1967.

Something for Everyone

Having been in business for a century, Red Wing Pottery produced a prolific and varied catalog of products—literally something for every type of collector of American-made ceramics. The pieces made in the 19th century by and for farmers along with the early pottery manufacturers of Red Wing, Minnesota, included crocks, pickle jars and jugs. Hundreds of dinnerware patterns were made in the mid-20th century, and many have become sought after by collectors, especially pieces by renowned ceramist and industrial designer Eva Zeisel. Artware collectibles include pieces by designer Belle Kogan and Red Wing designer Charles Murphy. Throughout the years, Red Wing also dabbled in ceramic trends, and some devotees know them for things like lamp bases and animal-shaped planters, which they made in the 1960s.

The Intrigue of Red Wing, Minnesota

If you’re ever in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region, it’s worth the hour-or-so drive to the charming town of Red Wing, situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. Besides being an ideal place to shop for antiques or enjoy lunch, its downtown is a jewel of 19th-century Victorian architecture. And its crown jewel is the Italianate St. James Hotel, which opened its doors in 1875. Among the town’s other historically significant buildings: the Lawther octagonal house built in 1857; the Sprague House, with a tower and mansard roofs once described as "a Charles Addams version of what a Victorian mansion should be"; and the E. S. Hoyt house, considered to be one of the finest works of the Prairie School style, designed by Purcell, Feick & Elmslie in 1913.

The city wasn’t just known for its namesake pottery. Red Wing was the largest primary wheat market in the world by 1873. The region seemed to foster an entrepreneurial spirit: in the early 1900s a shoe merchant named Charles Beckman eyed a necessity for work shoes and boots, and, along with 14 investors, opened Red Wing Shoes, which is still a thriving company.

Red Wing Pottery’s Origins

Keeping the city’s history in perspective, Red Wing was a sort of hotbed of industry. When German immigrant farmers began producing pottery for their own use in the 1860s and the first company set up shop, others followed. By 1883, there was Phillco and Williams, The Red Wing Terra Cotta Works, Minnesota Pottery, the Red Wing Stoneware Company, the Red Wing Sewer Pipe Company, J.H. Rich Sewer Pipe Works, the North Star Stoneware Company, Union Stoneware Company, Red Wing Union Stoneware Company and the Minnesota Stoneware Company. Some evolved into others, while a few were direct competitors.

The 19th-century pottery manufacturers produced utilitarian pieces made with a salt glaze, characterized by a grey or tan clay surface that had a pocked textured like an orange and was often decorated with hand-painted, salt-glazed cobalt blue birds or flowers. Stoneware was also produced, including crocks, jugs, pickle jars, butter churns, bowls, water coolers and various items used in the home or on the farm.

With its flourishing economy and proximity near the Mississippi River which enabled it to be shipped easily, Red Wing became the top U.S. pottery manufacturer in the early 1900s. A Bristol glaze process replaced salt glazing, and workers on assembly lines along with machines and molds increased the production of pottery. The familiar stamp with red wings was introduced on the sides and bottoms of its wares.

With industrialization and modern improvements like electricity and refrigeration and production of materials like glass and tin in the early part of the 20th century, Red Wing stoneware gradually became obsolete. There simply was less need for items like 4-gallon crocks for food storage and preserving, along with a general decrease in at-home ethnic food practices, like brining and pickling. The company ceased production of utilitarian stoneware in 1947.

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Artware and More . .

Red Wing's Tampico Platter. © Ella Kate Taylor

Artware

Changing with the times, the company shifted its focus in the early 1900s to creating art pottery. Pieces of artware—like bird baths, umbrella stands and flower pots—were made in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that the company began making table and decorative pieces. Early Red Wing artware includes brush ware, which has a rough texture similar to stoneware and was decorated with leaves, scenery, animals, cherubs or geometric motifs. By the 1920s, Red Wing began experimenting with glazes, including a then-critically unsuccessful line called Nokomis. Only in production for a few years, Nokomis is, not surprisingly, a highly collectible glaze.

Saving the day in 1932—during the Depression—was pottery salesman and glaze designer George Rumrill. From 1932 to 1937, Red Wing exclusively made Rumrill Pottery, reintroducing existing artware shapes, creating new ones, and developing new glazes in beautiful colors, including green, blue, turquoise, lilac, pink and goldenrod.

In the 1930s other artists became affiliated with Red Wing. Well-known New York industrial designer Belle Kogan began creating pieces for Red Wing in 1938, including some ornately decorated relief pieces depicting magnolias, and the geometric Prismatique line, which became the most popular of Kogan’s designs for Red Wing during her decades-long association with the company.

Red Wing hired artist Charles Murphy in 1940. During his prolific career with the company, Murphy designed cookie jars, figurines, vases, planters, clocks and popular hand-painted pieces. It was Murphy who created Red Wing’s all-time best-selling line, the Bob White, which depicted bobwhite quails and was manufactured from 1954 until the plant closed in 1967. The line’s popularity might have enjoyed a boost when it was used as a prop in the February 1956 centerfold of Playboy Magazine, according to Minnesota Historical Society.

 

Eva Zeisel

The most well-known Red Wing associated was with Hungarian-born industrial designer Eva Zeisel, who is considered a leading influence in the house wares and furniture design world of the mid-20th century, along with Charles and Ray Eames and Mary and Russell Wright . Town & Country, Zeisel’s line for Red Wing, was produced for about a decade starting in 1946. It featured biomorphic forms, which she used throughout her career.

“Men have no concept of how to design things for the home,” she once told a writer. “Women should design the things they use.”

 

Dinnerware

During its history, Red Wing created more than 100 dinnerware patterns. Responding to consumers’ needs and desires, lines appealed to various tastes—from historical to traditional to modern and abstract. The company’s first official dinnerware line was introduced in 1935. Made in four patterns in bright colors of orange, yellow turquoise and deep blue, Gypsy Trail was Red Wing’s answer to Fiesta ware and other colorful dinnerware lines created by several of the California pottery manufacturers in the 1930s.

Among its popular or notable dinnerware designs: the aforementioned Bob White, Gypsy Trail and Town & Country lines, along with Provincial, Lexington, Lotus, White & Turquoise, Tampico, Round Up, Chuck Wagon and Village Green.

Sadly, after a difficult strike in 1967, the original Red Wing closed its doors. It had the distinction of being the only commercial pottery manufacturer in the United States that was still painting its ceramic wares by hand.