|By Larry LeMasters
Newcomb College Pottery has long been considered one of the most influential and socially significant American art potteries of the first half of the 20th century. Newcomb’s pottery program, established in 1895 at the women’s division of Tulane University in New Orleans, taught craft skills to women in need of a career.
In October 1886, Josephine Louise Newcomb wrote to the administrators of the Tulane University Educational Fund, expressing her desire to establish a college in her daughter’s name. In part, Newcomb wrote, “In pursuance of a long cherished design to establish an appropriate lasting memorial of my beloved daughter, H. Sophie Newcomb, deceased, I hereby donate to your Board the sum of $100,000 (later increased to $3 million) to be used in establishing the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College as part of Tulane University, for the higher education of young women. I further request that the education given look to the practical side of life as well as to literary excellence.” Newcomb’s desire for a “practical side of life” curriculum led directly to Newcomb College Pottery being established.
Newcomb College Pottery was considered an experiment, or model industry, in that it provided employment for women at a time when few opportunities were available to them.
Newcomb College hired Mary Given Sheerer, who was associated with the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, to begin Newcomb Pottery. She immediately began teaching pottery and ceramic decorating classes.
Newcomb Pottery actually employed relatively few women; however, it did open the possibility of economic independence to some of the female students, and the pottery greatly helped establish Newcomb College’s international art reputation.
In all, more than 70,000 pieces of pottery were produced before the pottery closed in 1939. All of these pieces were crafted and sold by Newcomb students and alumnae.
Influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, Newcomb pottery was exhibited around the world, sold in shops on both coasts, and written about in art journals throughout the United States and Europe. Newcomb potters (always men) and designers (always women and girls) were awarded eight medals at international exhibitions before 1916. The women were encouraged to be creative and produce distinctive work in their designs and painting.
Newcomb Pottery is distinctive for its muted blues and greens and designs taken from the southern natural landscape. One of the most famous designs of the pottery were the oak tree and the moon, both attributed to Miss Sadie Irvine, and the beautiful moss-draped oak trees of New Orleans were popular motifs. Although the same general motif was often repeated, each vase used a fresh design, so no Newcomb Pottery piece was ever duplicated unless a buyer asked for more of one design.
With Sheerer’s vision, the distinct wares of Newcomb Pottery became well known in the art world of the day. The students and graduates worked with designs representative of the American South, inspired by Louisiana flora, and crafted from local and regional clays. As the 20th century began, some Newcomb students moved toward developing more modern designs, yet still maintained the philosophy that no two pieces of pottery should be alike.
Although Newcomb Pottery is best known for its blue and green hues, several other colors can be found as well. The early works reflect an interest in earth tones such as olive greens, tans, and yellows, though in general, the period 1895-1900 was marked by experimentation with a variety of clay bodies, glazes, and colors. During 1910-1918, a transparent matte glaze over blue and green underglazes was frequently used. In the period, 1918-1928, pink was sometimes added to these blue and green tints. In 1928-1934, a strong cobalt blue with green was added; and in 1935-1939, blues, soft pinks, and greens of different shades appeared.
Records indicate that Selina Bres sold the first piece of Newcomb College Pottery in 1896 for $4 to a Mrs. Bickham in Boston. Newspaper records in 1901 indicate “a lamp was.... sent to Berlin, and ...to Connecticut.” It is apparent that Newcomb Pottery was sold all over the United States and some of it went overseas, so collectors can hunt for pieces of Newcomb pottery nearly everywhere.
In 1993, Newcomb College Alumni Association produced and sold reproduction pieces of Newcomb pottery. It is difficult to tell these reproduction pieces from the original ones, so let the buyer beware.