Potlatch: Collecting Northwest Memorabilia

Native Northwesterners can't fully appreciate the word "potlatch". It's one of those words they've heard, grown up with, and probably never thought about. Potlatch is a forest products company in Oregon, a town in Western Washington. There are several "potlatch" lodges and restaurants. And local Native American tribes are known for having their potlatch festivals.

Potlatch is a Native American word for a celebration in which tribes exchanged gifts. Great status is derived for those giving the most. The celebration was picked up by white settlers sometime around the turn of the century. In the form of a week long summer festival, potlatches were held annually in Seattle until WWI.

For collectors, potlatch is a varied and interesting field. Let's say it's for those of us who like to collect a little bit of everything. Potlatch souvenirs include sterling spoons, pennants, trays, pitchers, matchboxes, and post cards. There are advertising items such as the Olympia beer change tray pictured. And the production of potlatch pottery during the 1930s added another dimension to potlatch collecting.

Potlatch items are usually identified by a brightly colored red and white Native American mask. Potlatch pottery is identified by the word "potlatch" stamped or incised on the bottom. The stamped identification often includes the impression of an evergreen tree.

Potlatch pottery began production on Seattle's Dexter Avenue in 1934. Set up by three graduates of the University of Washington, production continued until WWII. Some items produced included luncheon sets, creamers and sugars, ash trays cactus pots and vases.

Most potlatch pottery was made from original designs and molds. At a distance some potlatch pottery may easily be taken for matte glaze Rookwood pieces produced in the same period. Other brightly colored high glaze pieces more closely resemble McCoy pottery.

Beyond variety, potlatch collectables offer some historical insights into the development of the Seattle area. They reflect the importance of Native American culture in the area's early development. Being a newcomer to the Northwest, this makes potlatch an ideal starting point to begin discovering the past of this great area. - John Regan

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