Miami University Art Museum is home to a diverse collection of objects from Cincinnati's own Rookwood Pottery. The Rookwood Pottery was started in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols.
Nichols' interest in pottery began at a time when the popularity of ceramic decoration by amateurs was spreading rapidly. While seeking a place to work independently in 1879, Nichols visited the Hamilton Road Pottery, owned by Frederick Dallas. She began renting a small studio from Dallas, where she produced a large quantity of decorated vases inspired by Japanese ceramic decoration, a style she particularly admired.
Nichols continued working out of Dallas' studio until April, 1880, when her father offered her an old schoolhouse he had purchased as a space to start her own pottery. She named the pottery Rookwood after her childhood home in Walnut Hills.
The Rookwood Pottery's first kiln firing took place on Thanksgiving day in 1880, and produced one of the most iconic Rookwood shapes, the Aladdin Vase. This would become Rookwood Shape No. 1.
Items created in the pottery were being offered for sale by March 1881. In 1882, Rookwood began consistently marking their pieces with ROOKWOOD in block letters, along with the date. This would remain the standard mark until 1886.
The death of Nichols' father in 1883 threatened the closure of the young pottery, but it survived thanks to the careful management of William Watts Taylor, a close friend of Nichols. Taylor systematically examined the studio practices, record-keeping, and location of the pottery.
Taylor's primary worry with Rookwood's location was its close proximity to the Ohio River. This worry was confirmed in 1884, when Cincinnati experienced the worst flood in its history. The basement and yard of Rookwood was completely flooded, and production did not resume for some time. Again, the pottery survived and exceeded expectations.
The next blow came with the death of Nichols' husband in 1885. After his passing, Nichols began spending less time at the pottery. She married again in 1886, and changed her name to Maria Longworth Storer.
Meanwhile, Taylor continued striving to keep Rookwood in the public eye. Under his guidance, eighty new shape numbers were added to the catalog. Sales and special orders grew considerably.
1886 also saw a change in the way Rookwood marked its pieces. Rather than the typical ROOKWOOD block letters, pieces were marked with a backwards R-P. For each year after 1888 until 1900, one flame was added to the mark. After 1900, all Rookwood pieces (except anniversary pieces) were marked with the R-P mark with 14 flames and Roman Numerals denoting the year. For example, the adjacent image would indicate the piece was produced in 1901.
One of Rookwood's greatest successes came in 1889, when the pottery won the Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. At this point, Storer (formerly Nichols) completely withdrew from the pottery, "turning over her interest" to manager Taylor. Mrs. Maria Longworth Nichols Storer died on April 30, 1932.
The Rookwood Pottery Company was officially formed in 1890, being divided into 600 shares, worth a total of $60,000. A piece of property on Mt. Adams was identified and purchased from the Mt. Adams and Eden Park Inclined Railway Company and construction of a new pottery began in 1891.
Rookwood continued to gain publicity by entering pieces into expositions such as the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 and 1900. Much of Rookwood's success at these events was due to Taylor's urging the artists and decorators to experiment to work out technical issues and discover new glazes. "Iris," "Sea Green" and "Aerial Blue" were all developed in 1894.
Additionally, Taylor encouraged the development of Rookwood's Architectural Department. By 1912, the department constituted approximately a third of Rookwood's total sales, but was still operating on a loss.
On November 12, 1913, William Watts Taylor passed away unexpectedly, leaving the pottery to a group of twelve trustees to oversee its welfare. Joseph Henry Gest, assistant director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, succeeded Taylor as president of Rookwood.
As with most other companies in the late 20s and early 30s, Rookwood's sales declined drastically. Most decorators were laid off and forced to seek temporary employment elsewhere. Salaries for those who stayed on with Rookwood were drastically cut.
In 1934, Gest stepped down from his role as president and was replaced by John D. Wareham. However, Rookwood's success continued to decline until it was finally forced to declare bankruptcy in 1941.
Rookwood Pottery was purchased by a group of Cincinnati businessmen, the Schott group, and plans were made to restore it to full production. This goal was inhibited by wartime shortages, and the pottery changed hands again in 1942, when the Schott group gifted it to The Institutum Divi Thomae. All commercial operations were transferred to Sperti, Inc.
Rookwood Pottery did not return to full production until 2006, when local investors revived it in Cincinnati. Today, the pottery is located in Over-the-Rhine, and continues to produce the familiar art pottery and architectural designs from its extensive history.
A special thanks to our donors:
- Orpha Webster
- Derwin Edwards
- Betty S. Ott
- Mary Louise Greene
- Ralph and Helen Donley
- Iris M. Lindemuth
- The Agnes McKie Estate
- Kathleen G. Unger, in memory of her mother
- Ann Greene Key
- Dixie and Luke Utter
Without you, this collection wouldn't be possible.
Initial exhibit created by Jillian Cofskey, Collection Intern Summer 2019