Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise

 

The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise is a distinctive American pottery in which industrious and talented women led the way through the first part of the 20th century, resulting in the creation of a distinctive art form expressed through a myriad of well-thought-out designs reflecting the flora and fauna of the Gulf South.

In 1895, the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College established the Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans primarily as an educational program. However, its underpinnings were really a social experiment to develop a Southern artist collective comprised of women artisans. Their hand-made products were sold as a business enterprise under the Newcomb College.

In the shadow of the English Arts and Crafts movement, these American women began to embrace the art of design, as well as the art of the sale, in order to become financially independent. Newcomb Pottery’s decorative art objects are spectacular to this day. Designs feature everything from a three-handled pottery cup so three people could share a sip, to a chocolate pot, vases, jars, jugs, pitchers, as well as metalwork (pendants, necklaces, silver utensils), embroidered textiles (table runners, wall hangings, pocketbooks), leather bookbinding and paper bookplates, lamps, and historical artifacts. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the times), every piece of pottery was made by a man! Yes, only men made the pottery, and the women decorated them. That is, only white men and women.

Newcomb Pottery was all the rage in the early 20th century, taking awards abroad in Paris and in United States expositions, sometimes putting their designs in direct competition with Tiffany. The broad education the women received at Newcomb College, the first to offer a college certificate to women in the U.S., was life-changing. It was as important as the social experiment they were part of, as it was the first time well-bred women worked to personally earn a living wage. Seeds of the women’s movement and the need to become financially independent became obvious after the Civil War, when there were more women than men. It was a matter of survival. Women had to find a way to take care of their families post-Civil War, pre- and post-World War I, and coming up to World War II.

potterypainting“To me Newcomb isn’t just a group of buildings. A part of me is there, a precious joyous part of me.” Gertrude Kerr Jackman, Newcomb College alumna, class of 1899

The pottery is graceful, beautiful lines blurred with smoky topaz, autumn yellow, muted greys, and midnight blues. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and reflects its artist, her delight with design and laser focus on the balance of color, form, and function. The fact that Newcomb College only allowed men to throw the pots the women were to decorate was one of the last vestiges of the stronghold American men had over women of the time. The women artists knew the importance of moving the merchandise through to sales, paying the expenses, and enjoying the balance left over—it was theirs. Lowering the price was a way they could undercut the competition. “I think these pieces whisper, they don’t shout,” says Holly Keris, Chief Curator, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.

As one wanders silently through the exhibit at The Cummer, looking meticulously at each hand-made item drawn from public and private collections for the first time in decades, the items are displayed beautifully in original frames and cases, wall hangings embroidered in silk thread perched on the walls, and a panel indicating the various women’s maker marks. You will find a world in which 100 gifted women expressed themselves for more than 40 years by creating collective beauty. Their philosophy resonated within the beautiful and practical objets d’art.

Each woman had her own maker’s mark, as did the man who made the pot, both next to the infamous NC mark for Newcomb College. With the Newcomb women’s newly developed skills came personal independence. Social skills were broadened, and access to new paths of culture opened up to these women who meticulously hand-tooled pine trees, moss, and daffodils into personal motifs, all iconic and eloquent. Bronze, silver, and copper were melded into ornate designs, even hand-engraved to form extraordinary objects. Even Christmas cards became a sellable item. Everything was for sale!

Today, Newcomb Pottery—all of its wonder and significance in this history of American women—is highly collectible. This social experience worked and became a cornerstone onto which the women’s movement was built, expanding and furthering the rights of women in American culture. This is a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition. The exhibit runs through Sunday, January 3, 2016. Take the time to visit this exhibit at the Cummer. You will experience a look back in time and see what happens when well-bred women are unleashed and allowed to strike out and support themselves for the first time using style and aesthetics as their framework.

About Liza Mitchell

october, 2021

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