A 135-Year-Old Startup



Photography by Wes Battoclette

 

​Rookwood Pottery has been a part of Cincinnati’s rich history since it was founded on Nov. 27, 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, granddaughter of well-known businessman Nicholas Longworth. The unique pottery and tiles can be found on display in some of the nation’s finest public buildings such as Grand Central Station Terminal in New York City and also locally at Union Terminal in Cincinnati. Over the years the company has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, changing hands countless times. Today the company is making strides to return to its prestigious glory years.

Longworth began her artistic endeavors painting porcelain china, which was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the first World’s Fair in the United States. During the event, she was introduced and captivated by the Japanese ceramics on display. The artistic style of the Japanese would prove to be a great influence for Longworth.

Upon returning to Cincinnati, she decided to pursue her hobby and rented a studio from Fredrick Dallas’ Hamilton Road Pottery in 1879. When this proved to be less than favorable, Longworth opened her own pottery studio. Her father, Joseph Longworth, gave her an old school house property located on 207 Eastern Avenue. She soon hired a team of well-known artists, art students, and glaze technicians. Rookwood Pottery, named after the Longworth’s Cincinnati family estate, was the first female-owned manufacturing company in the United States.

During its early years, Rookwood Pottery was known for their distinctive decorating technique called underglaze slip decoration. This technique consisted of slip mixed with oxides that would create a distinctive color. The mixture was then used to paint decorations under the glaze. The technique was significant at the time as only a handful of potteries in the world were using the technique that was discovered by M. Louise McLaughlin, a Cincinnatian and friend of Longworth.

In 1883, William Watts Taylor was hired to manage and direct the company. Under his leadership, it became known throughout the world. In 1889, the company shocked the art community when it was awarded the First Prize Gold Medal at the Paris L’Exposition Universelle. At the time American art was considered unrefined and inferior, especially in ceramics; the thought of an American company winning such a prestigious award was unthinkable to critics. The award changed the way the international art community looked at American art.

The Rookwood moved to Mount Adams in 1892, where the company remained until 1959. The company solidified its international reputation in 1901 by winning the Grand Prix for ceramics at the Exposition Internationale de Ceramiques et Verrerie in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rookwood Pottery continued being recognized for their world-class ceramics throughout the 1900s.

Pieces created by Rookwood Pottery were in high demand among museum curators and private collectors alike. In 1902, the company added the architectural faience department, which quickly gained national attention among architects and interior designers. To keep up with demand, the department expanded to include fireplaces, mantels, plaques, statues, fountains, and garden pottery.

The roaring ’20s were a time of great success for the company as the sales of decorative and commercial wares boomed. However the stock market crash of 1929 caused the company to slowly go under. Sales dropped significantly in 1930. Eventually, in 1932, the company was closed indefinitely and decorators were laid off with the exception of the occasional special order. During this time the production of decorated wares ceased.

The company’s financial standing continued to worsen, resulting in the filing for bankruptcy on April 16, 1941. On Sept. 20, 1941, the company was purchased by a group of investors including Walter E. Schott, Margaret Schott, Harold Schott, Lawrence H. Kyte, and Charles M. Williams. The company reopened and a new decorating department began. The reopening was short-lived as the United States entered World War II, which resulted in limited production.

As the war came to an end, Rookwood’s sales continued to decline. The Schott group sold the company in 1942 and from there on the company was bought and sold numerous times. In 1959, Herschede Hall Clock Company purchased the company and a year later moved it to Starkville, Mississippi. Despite the new ownership and location, the company wasn’t profitable and closed in 1967.

In 1982, Dr. Arthur Townley, an avid Rookwood collector, heard that the once prestigious American company was going to be sold to overseas manufacturers. He couldn’t bear the thought and used his life savings to purchase the remaining Rookwood assets, which included more than 3,000 molds, glaze formulas, notes, and the Rookwood trademarks. He carefully stored the priceless items in the basement of his home, refusing numerous offers to sell the company.

It was Dr. Townley’s desire to see the company return to Cincinnati. In 2004, a group of investors who shared his passion and desire to make the company great again convinced him to sell and move the company back to its hometown. A team of artisans soon began working on new product lines at the company’s new location on Glendora Avenue. The location proved to be too small for the growing company. In 2008, the company moved to its current location on Race Street – minutes away from the original schoolhouse.

In 2011, Martin and Marilyn Wade purchased and assumed control of Rookwood Pottery. Some might say the couple’s role in the company was fate.

“A fun story I like to tell is this: In 2000 we were out on the West Coast in San Diego at a place called the Lodge Torrey Pines,” Martin says. “My wife’s father was ill so we went out there to visit and we go into this restaurant, we didn’t know it at the time but it is named after a famous Rookwood artist named Albert Robert Valentine. They have this beautiful Rookwood display and story.

“So we start reading this story and we get about a third of the way through and Marilyn says, ‘That finally explains it.’ And I look at her, ‘Honey, explains what?’ So she tells me this story and now I envision her as this little girl running around on a great big ranch out there – it is all one story except for this one two-story building. The kids would ask, ‘Why do we have a two-story building?’ And the response was that is where the artists work. Her great grandfather spent a lot of time in Cincinnati and knew a lot about Rookwood. He invited Valentine out to the ranch – he never left. He spent 15 or so years on the ranch. So Marilyn said to me, ‘My great grandfather knew all about Rookwood, I got reconnected because of my dad – it was meant to be.’”

Today, Martin and Marilyn are working with a team of renowned artists to create quality handcrafted artisan products. From the initial sketch to the finished product, a team of artists, chemists, and craftsmen believe in creating beautiful pieces of art. 

The results are breathtaking, colorful and diverse. And they all came from a new idea to revive an old and cherished product — a Cincinnati startup 135 years in the making. 

The Rookwood Pottery Company Architectural Tile and Art Pottery Factory and Showroom is located at 1920 Race Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.381.2510 or visit their website at www.rookwood.com.

The Rookwood Pottery Company Art Pottery Store is located at 1209 Jackson Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.579.1209 or by email at sales@rookwood.com.