“Who’s Florence?” Sis would inquire, as if Grandma should have personally known the lady.
Grandma didn’t know; but in the California of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the question wasn’t as far-fetched as it seemed. Lots of aspiring Southern California potters like Florence Ward of Pasadena were making ceramic novelties in their homes. But unlike so many hobbyists, Mrs. Ward developed a flair for modeling and painting figurines with such fine detail that they were soon compared with even Royal Doulton’s premium wares.
Isolated by the death of a son, and her other son and husband’s absence during WWII, Mrs. Ward was so inspired by a 1942 ceramics class (her only formal training) that she set up her own company. By the time the men returned from war, her line of figurines, vases, and table ware justified moving from the family garage to a small Pasadena plant.
“The Florence Collection” was now available throughout the Western Hemisphere, and a huge following awaited each semi-annual issue of another historical couple in authentic period dress. A hundred employees hand-detailed Rhett and Scarlett, LousXVI and Queen Antoinette, Priscilla and John Alden, and a complete line of men and Women in Godey’s French Victorian dress (look for incised character names on these pieces). Real lace was dipped in ceramic slip and applied, and then burned away to leave a delicate fringe. Handpainting was glazed in two separate firings, three for 22K gold trimmed pieces. The line was so avidly collected that the surge of Japanese imports that ruined so many US potters was scarcely noticed.
Florence also made a number of less costly (and less detailed) figural vases, busts, plaques, picture frames and even lamps. Some were decorated with fragile, applied flowers.
Birds were another popular line; and a series of bisque animals by sculptor Betty Davenport Ford enjoyed a 2 year run in the mid-50s. Merrymaids (a mermaid line) shared the painstaking handpainting of the finest figures.
While modern collectors often amass any and all Florence items, the most popular are still the premium figurines marked with one of the firm’s two circular marks. Florence bird collections are a nice find; and the Ford pieces are scarce due to their short run. Less known are the mugs, ashtrays and related advertising premiums made with the Florence name after Scripto bought the firm in 1964. Virtually all Florence is marked, adding to its collector appeal.
Prices on Florence figurines have begun to reflect the superior quality of the ware; scarcities like the Dear Ruth TV lamp and complex designs like Grandmother and I (seated at a table having tea) can run several hundred dollars. Yet nicely handpainted figural vases can still be found under $50.00, and non-figural pieces are often overlooked (and undervalued).
Beautiful handwork separated Florence from it’s competition in its heyday- and with few companies able to afford hand-decorate today, now is a good time to start collecting these delicate wares. -George Higby
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