A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Education never ends

A few days ago I received a letter from a young man in Middle school requesting an interview on majolica for a class project. One of the questions he asked me was my opinion on what makes Etruscan Majolica so good. It was one of a dozen questions he asked me during that interview but the one that made me think the longest. Why is Etruscan Majolica so valued today?

The answer I gave him was that the Etruscan Works had a distinctive color palette that distinguished it from other majolica being made at the time. I also said that they used ceramic modelers and glaze formulas from England that resulted in the highest quality product available for the time.

While both of these are correct, I think there's more to it than that. It was a rare combination of glazes, subject range, quality, distribution and name recognition that put the Etruscan name up front. Majolica from other American manufacturers had some of these qualities but not all. It was the unique combination that makes Etruscan more popular than any of their American contemporaries.

One of those things that distinguishes Etruscan wares from others has to do with something we still deal with today: branding. Most Etruscan Majolica is very plainly marked with the Etruscan Works circular Etruscan Majolica impressed mark. This gives Etruscan a pedigree that distinguishes it from the work of many other potteries that also produced good majolica. Eureka pottery is equally as handsome as Etruscan yet it isn't nearly as collectible as Etruscan. Eureka marked very few of its wares and those marked wares command a premium price, but most of it does not. For nearly 100 years no one but the most knowledgeable knew who made it. Eureka also produced a narrow range of patterned pieces, all of them very specific to the Aesthetic style, which fell out of fashion by the turn of the century.

The Carr pottery made a wide range of colorful majolica of a high quality but it is also rarely marked. To this day we aren't certain what range of wares Carr made.

The Arsenal Pottery made majolica that was colorful and broad in range but it too was unmarked. The quality was an issue with Arsenal as well with most of it being variable.

On the other hand, Bennett "majolica" is all strongly marked and carefully glazed, but it lacks something that Etruscan Majolica has an abundance of: color! People who collect majolica buy it for its color. Etruscan Majolica has a gorgeous color palette. Bennett "majolica" is mostly white. The same must be said of Haynes "majolica."( I've placed quotations around the word "majolica" because it's my belief that most of what Bennett and Haynes called majolica was really decorated earthenware.)

Morley majolica is also well marked, and Morley certainly can be colorful, but Morley lacks both range in subject and quality. There's a good amount of Morley available but it is, frankly, mostly unattractive.

New Milford marked their majolica as well but their output was limited and largely restricted to Lettuce Leaf with only a few exceptions like the vase above. The Peekskill Pottery did some nice majolica as well but their output was also very limited.

There was one more component that I haven't mentioned so far that is also responsible for Etruscan Majolica's popularity and that was the range of product distribution. Because of their national deals as premiums, Etruscan Majolica found its way in homes across the United States at a time where this kind of national distribution was limited to only the largest companies. No other majolica manufacturer had a similar deal.

All of these were responsible for why Etruscan Majolica is more popular today than any other manufacturer of majolica during the golden age of American pottery manufacture. What we remember most though, is the beautiful work the company did.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the information. I found your web page as I was looking for answers about my Griffen, Smith & Hill leaf plate (like the photo above-- third one up). But the mark just has the GSH monogram, without the words "etruscan majolica" in the circle. Is this an early piece? A fake? Can you tell me anything about it? I'd appreciate it so much.

    1. Full color majolica with the GSH logo dates to the earliest period of majolica manufacture at the Phoenix Pottery, before it adopted the name "Etruscan Works." I'm guessing your plate also has a solid ivory reverse which was the most commonly used reverse glaze treatment during this period.