Abingdon Pottery: ‘40s Style Rooted in Depression Era Necessity

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Colored plumbing fixtures and self-ventilating toilets were hallmarks of innovation in the plumbing fixture industry during the boom times of the 1920’s. The acknowledged leader was rural; Illinois based Abingdon Sanitary Manufacturing Company.

Abingdon’s gift for design and quality made it the company of choice for the production of all plumbing fixtures for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. However, in that same year, the company verged on bankruptcy. Demand for water closets and wash basins had evaporated with a world economic depression. The company had closed one plant with the remaining one operating at a fraction of its potential capacity.

The idea that the production of art pottery could fill excess capacity was the brainchild of Raymond E. Bidwell, who became company president in 1933. In 1934, the company hired a talented ceramic engineer, Leslie Moody, a promising designer, Eric Herslet, and a gifted sculptor, Frances Moody.

While Abingdon hired talent, it did not hire recognized artists. Former Abingdon President John M. Lewis said that the company assumed that “a fine china product of distinctive design and limited production” was all that was needed to impress buyers.

In fact, buyers were impressed. During the seventeen years of production, 1934- 1950, six million pieces of art pottery were produced. Production demand ceased only when post war demand for plumbing fixtures displaced artware production.

Although Abingdon pottery was originally sold in gift shops; it was an ideal decorating compliment to the 1940’s home. Glazes in pinks, greens, blues and grays fit nicely with the period’s Homer Laughlin china and Honduran Mahogany furniture.

Abingdon pottery is readily recognized by its robust mold designs. Although vase shapes tend to be classical, motifs are most often distinctively art deco. There is little evidence that the company “borrowed’ design. Many of the sculptured pieces were designed by Mrs. Frances Moody at her kitchen table.

Authentic Abingdon Pottery is evidenced by the high quality of the clay; heavy, dense, white, vitreous china- finished with great attention to quality and detail. Its is the clay that distinguished Abingdon from Japanese copies produced around 1950s and the later use of Abingdon molds by Haeger.

Usually Abingdon Pottery is marked on the bottom with an ink stamp ABINGDON USA and an incised mold number. Some surviving pieces have the original foil sticker. Bottom edges were usually ground.

Industrial strength clay quality makes Abingdon pottery resistant to hairline cracks and chips. However some of the 190 glazes are subject to crazing.

Most valued Abingdon pieces include cookie jars, sculptured ware, figural bookends, and pieces with multicolor finishes. Like most areas of collecting rarity carries high value. Simple, single color vases can be found in the thirty to forty dollar range. A rare set of sculptured bookends recently sold for $485.00. The 1997 Abingdon Pottery Artware by Joe Paradis is the authoritative reference used by collectors. -John Regan

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