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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Willets Manufacturing Company

In a follow up to our last post on new discoveries in American majolica, I thought we'd take a closer look at the Excelsior Pottery of the Willets Manufacturing Company.

The business that ultimately became the Willets Manufacturing Company began as the Excelsior Pottery of the William Young & Sons company. William Young was an English potter trained at Ridgeway who emigrated to the Trenton area in pursuit of fortune. In 1857 he established the Excelsior Pottery. He maintained it in operation under his name until 1879. That year it was sold to the Willets Manufacturing Company.

Until recently, the Willets Excelsior Pottery was best known for its production of American Belleek. Initiated in the U.S. in 1882 by the nearby Ott & Brewer Pottery, American Belleek wes intended to bring the elegance of Belleek porcelain to the U.S. In 1886 the Willets brothers, hired William Bromley Sr. from Ott & Brewer to initiate their own line of Belleek wares which went into production in 1887. In addition to imitating the shell formed designs of Irish Belleek, he used the porcelain base for elaborate hand painted decoration. This art pottery remained in production at Willets until the company was sold in 1912. Willets' successor, The New Jersey Pottery company, continued its manufacture for another two years before ceasing production entirely at the beginning of WW1 in 1914.

Willets American Belleek pitchers
Willets American Belleek cup & saucer
Willets American Belleek cream soup
Willets hand decorated American Belleek
Willets hand decorated American Belleek

Willets hand decorated American Belleek

American Belleek was not the only pottery created at Willets. They had a large pottery presence in Trenton, well known for their high quality art pottery, sanitary wares, dinner and dessert ware and white ironstone.

Willets ironstone basin and pitcher
Willets chocolate set

Willets partial toilet set
Ad from Crockery and Glass Journal, February 1882
Willets advertisement from Crockery and Glass Journal 1883
What was not known until recently was the company's contribution to the dialogue on American majolica. Although their other work was marked, their majolica was not.

This is why their fan themed work was until recently attributed to Eureka. Let's take a look at the list of majolica wares from an ad in Dr. Laura Microulis' lecture that appeared in Crockery and Glass Journal.

Most significant for our purposes is the presence of the "Fan Ice Cream Sets" described as consisting of a "large Double Fan dish and 12 small Fan Ice Cream dishes." These would certainly be the fan dishes until recently attributed to Eureka.

Fan butter pats
In addition, the ad describes a "Fan Tea Set" consisting of a teapot, cream pitcher and sugar bowl. These would most likely refer to the fan tea set also previously attributed to Eureka.

These pieces have matching pieces in the same design. The jugs are mentioned in the ad as having been manufactured in four sizes and came in three different color grounds: grey, white and yellow.

Considering the high level of craftsmanship exhibited by the Belleek wares these majolica wares are considerably less well made. The designs however are innovative and a good representation of the then current fashion for the Aesthetic taste.

So, what about the other pieces mentioned in the ad? Until more substantial evidence surfaces that allows us to attribute the pieces we can only venture to guess what designs were created by the company.

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