When American Encaustic Tiling Co. closed in 1939, Zanesville, Ohio was dealt a major blow. But the September 1937 announcement that the Schweiker brothers would open a new "Shawnee" pottery in the old AETCO plant helped restore the town at the center of America's pottery industry.
A.E. Hull Jr. of the Hull Pottery family was hired as president, and an AETCO man kept as plant head. AETCO's advanced tunnel kilns made Shawnee fiercely price competitive, and design specifications were quickly provided by Kresge, Woolworth's and other dime stores.
Shawnee promised a complete line of ceramics, from figurines and flower pots to kitchen ware and wall pockets. Their early production was cold painted over the glaze, which wore off quickly. Lines were marked on the bottom only with a style number and USA (the Shawnee stamp is somewhat distinctive from other potters' in that the A is skewed somewhat to the right).
Sears' commission of the Valencia dinnerware line to Shawnee in 1938 made the firm a fast success. Vivid blue, yellow, green, tangerine, and burgundy settings with a strong art deco swirl pattern compared reasonably well to the more costly Fiesta or Franciscan. Most of these pieces are also unmarked, but a few have a Valencia stamp.
With former designers from Weller, Roseville, and Frankoma on the staff, Shawnee soon was a force in the industry, winning the RumRill contract from Red Wing in 1938. The designers kept working during wartime, when 90% of the plant was given over to Army production. The Army's introduction of the Formrite process of clay mixing proved to be a huge advantage at war's end.
With foreign potteries in ruins, Shawnee soared in the late 1940s, creating many of today's most collectable pieces. Dutch boys and girls, cottages, happy couples and rickshaw drivers held spices, cookies, milk and plants. Floral painted and embossed teapots also sold well.
Underglaze hand painting improved appearance and quality, and dozens of styles of animal cookie jars and shakers like Winnie and Smiley Pig, Charlie Chicken, Puss-n-Boots, and Muggsy the Mutt went to live in American homes. Overruns (and some seconds) were sold to mom-and-pop kilns, which added transfer decals and gold trim, then refired the sturdy ware at a low temperature. The result is a plethora of different designs to collect, even if you collect just one character.
Shawnee's greatest decade ended abruptly in 1954, when the resurgence of foreign competition took its tool. John Bonistall took over as president; despite no prior pottery experience, he and his new leaders radically restyled Shawnee's lines into a modern '50s line of planters, vases and tableware. The Shawnee name began to be impressed on the bottom of most pieces, a practice which had started hit or miss a few years earlier.
Bonistall initiated a spray-painting effect which kept the firm competitive, resulting in the speckled pink, blue and grey line called Touche that became the most popular in the firm's history. Fernware, Cameo, and other stylish lines pushed Shawnee into better stores, away from offshore imitators.
Shawnee's upscale Kenwood line was also developed. Its famous Sundial and Lobster handled serving ware, streamlined pitchers and lazy susans are now included on the list of trend setting modern '50s designs by collectors.
The husk patterned designs of Corn Ware were the only hold-over lines from the '40s era. Fist made in green and white, then yellow (King Corn), Bonistall revived the popular pre-packaged dinnerware sets and accessory pieces in a lighter yellow and darker green (Queen Corn). Corn Ware was so popular that Terrace Ceramics restyled it and kept marketing it after Shawnee fell to cheap imports in 1961.
Fortunately for collectors, there's lots of Shawnee at all price levels to collect. Complete dinnerware sets of Corn or Valencia can be assembled, or a handpainted floral teapot or Sunflower pitcher added to a service. Figural planters and slim deco vases from their heyday can be readily had in the $20 range. Advanced collectors seek certain scarce cookie jars (bank-in-head, special decals or specific trims), which can run into the hundreds of dollars.
There's a piece of Shawnee to suit many different
collectors! -Stephanie Conant
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