Treasure Craft-ed in California

Alfred Levin bought a house in the new LA suburbs when he returned home from WWII. In its garage sat his first pottery kiln. This is less remarkable than it seems. Many 1940s LA families started backyard potteries, as the pottery marked boomed with Axis factories in ruins. What is remarkable is that Treasure Craft Pottery survived a half century, long after new German and Japanese factories laid waste to most California ceramicists.

The Southgate Years
Levin's contacts as a jobber led to his 1947 pottery contracts. The firm's lightweight, plasterlike white clay was easily molded, then glazed in solid gloss colors, often with parts slip applied together. Brightly colored fruit wall pockets with deep green leaves bore what was likely their first mark: "Treasure Craft-Made in California" in script.

Southgate production took off early with the "Lucky California Sprites", posed singly or on green shoe planters, tree trunk vases, and trellis wall pockets. More elaborate designs wore chartreuse costumes against dark green backgrounds, and faces were white or pink hued with detailing.

Sold inexpensively, Sprites were liberally sprinkled through the patio planters of my San Diego grandma and her contemporaries. Many thus lost the paper labels originally found beneath, but a study of their pressed inner ears distinguishes them from the elfin figures of Gilner and other firms. Sprites new success led to wider distribution and new lines, including a scarce Santa Claus on a sleigh.

An ink stamp Southgate mark was employed on new molds by 1956, with a line of modernistic ashtrays shaped like fish and other creatures. But these lines would only bear Treasure Craft's bright glazes for a year; the firm had outgrown Southgate.

The Compton Years
Levin gambled- and won. He bought a factory in Compton, defying the pastel '50s with a daring switch to a rubbed bisque finish called "Wood Stain". Now unglazed brown, the 1956 line was marked C 1957-TREASURE CRAFT-COMPTON, the first of many impressed, dated marks on most '50s-'60s pieces.

Levin's modelers created three dimensional forms with contrasting white crackle glaze highlights- gazelle and drama mask TV lamps, toreadors, and horses among others. As recession hit, the expanding variety filled voids left by the decline of Vernon Kilns, Bauer, and other California potters. A connection to Brayton Laguna's similar woodtone glazes is uncertain; what is certain is that Treasure Craft's modern factory fared much better against imports.

In just a few years, tens of thousands of square feet and 500 workers were employed. Treasure Craft table and giftware spread nationwide- even Laura Petrie had a Barrel cookie jar on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Wild bright colored glazes were reintroduced, this time as an interior compliment to the sienna outer edges. Blended into deep Rorschach blots of blue and green, yellow and orange, these glazes were suited to the psychedelic '60s, and fish, fruit and leaf motifs gave way to butterflies and mushrooms.

The Hawaiian Lines
As the firm surged, Levin's attentions fixed on Hawaii. The rest of America shared his fascination, particularly California, the route offered to the newest state.

Kahului, Maui offered tourism, regular air service, and a desire for business. Levin surprised the industry by opening a satellite plant there. Treasure Craft benefited from location, making a number of 50th State items, then expanding into Hang Ten and Pineapple lines, Tiki gods, Menehunes and Hula Trio figurines. Little has been learned of their designers, but the whimsy of the tourists-in-lei shakers and the sensuousness of the hula dancer showed considerable skill. Many wore paper hang-tag with assorted Hawaiian legends and the palm tree Treasure Craft Hawaii logo.

Several pieces were made at both factories, but most Hawaiian designs are impressed with a dated Hawaii mark from the early '60s, sometimes even bearing "C A. Levin". Hawaiian Manufacturer's Association foil labels have been seen on pieces with the "Antique White" finish introduced in the late '70s.

Though Hawaiian production was not huge, the impact on the firm clearly was. Treasure Craft sold souvenirs for decades, with labels such as "Disneyworld" or "Seattle" slapped on any giftware the attraction ordered.

The Pfaltzgraff Years
Like Metlox, Treasure Craft found salvation in cookie jars in the late '70s and '80s. Treasure Craft bought molds after Twin Winton's design influence was noteworthy. Rubbed bisque glazes were joined by gloss ivory and earthtones, and designs ran from capricious cows and animated owls to elaborate vans and schoolhouses. Many bore the firm's name under the lid, though smaller pieces only bore "TC" or "TiC". An oval foil label was placed on neo-Deco and Oriental style 1980s lines, which wore new solid and crackle glazes.

By 1988, Treasure Craft was ready to update designs. Levin's retirement left the firm in the hands of son Bruce, who was approached with a purchase offer by rival Pfaltzgraff; the family agreed to the sale and large design changes came. Trendy Southwest designs, bright painted underglaze cookie jars and vividly colored table accessories dominated production.

After Metlox quit in 1989, Treasure Craft was arguably California's last successful large potter. So it came as a huge shock that the parent firm abruptly shifted all production offshore in the mid-1990s. Profitable to the end, Treasure Craft fell victim to a rival who could only beat them by devouring them. The name is now owned by a Spokane importer of Chinese and Mexican ceramics.

Collecting Treasure Craft
Inexpensive new, Treasure Craft has remained so. Only areas with crossover collector appeal have commanded a premium. Sprites have developed a following of elf collectors, selling from around $15.00 to over $45.00 for one with its original "Lucky Sprite" paperwork. Small Hawaiian items have started to fetch around $10.00 but a set of Tiki god tumblers or a large Hula Trio have set collectors back $100.00. Wall pockets from $20.00-$35.00 and TV lamps in the $50.00 range have been typical. Cookie jars have tended to be less (many around $20.00), but some late Pfaltzgraff varieties like Cactus and Mrs. Potts have sold for much more.

Eschewed by collectors for 25 years, most Treasure Craft Wood Stain items have sold cheaply, many under $10.00 despite some attractive designs and color combinations. Omnipresent in the '70s (my sister got a red-caramel tray as a wedding gift in 1971... as did all of her friends), it's become hard to find in good condition. Wood Stain came off when dish washed or scraped, and the unglazed edges were especially prone to chipping, particularly on canisters.

Levin predicted the switch to earthtones 40 years ago. With their current revival, it's been predicted that Treasure Craft will attract new collector interest. -George Higby

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