Ceramic Charmers Of The 1940s and 1950s

August 7, 2012

"A pretty girl is like a melody, that haunts you night and day!
Just like the strain of a haunting refrain,
She'll start upon a marathon, and run around your brain!"
Irving Berlin, 1919
A bevy of beauties descends a seemingly endless staircase in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Irving Berlin’s latest hit stops the show (as do all those elaborately-clad—or semi-clad—girls). It’s a scenario repeated over the years in dozens of "backstage" movie musicals. Need to perk up the plot? Then forget the dialog. Cut the comedy. Just "Bring On The Beautiful Girls"!
Nowhere is this focus on the feminine more readily discernible than in the ceramics that flooded America during World War II. War-weary consumers were in the mood for a bit of winsome charm. With overseas imports suspended for the duration, U.S. manufacturers rushed to fill the gap. From "Gay ‘90s" gals to demure Victorian damsels, shy shepherdesses to sultry sirens, the ceramics beauty parade was a lengthy one.
Celebrating the diversity of womanhood were women themselves: the majority of female figural ceramics produced during World War II were the work of female designers. Previously unable to break into the male-dominated manufacturing world, they were now presented with a wartime window of opportunity.
From an extensive lineup, here are five favorites, each offering a singular approach to a common theme: the "pretty lady".
Yona Lippen
Yona Lippen of Yona Ceramics is often dismissed as "just another Hedi Schoop ". But, even though she began her career as a Schoop decorator, Yona soon moved beyond churning out subtly altered replicas; her "pretty ladies" have their own distinctive flair. Decked out in turn-of-the-20th-century elegance, Yona’s figurines, smaller-scale than Schoop’s, boast such attractive three-dimensional "add-ons" as ceramic bows, ribbons, and spaghetti spackling.
With the popularity of The King and I in the early 1950s, Yona essentially abandoned her focus on female figurals, in favor of pseudo-Siamese themes, often lavishly adorned with gold or silver overglaze. Yona Ceramics, (run in conjunction with Yona’s husband, Mac), closed its doors in 1958.
Ynez Ward
Billed as "semi-porcelain", the operative word in this description of Ynez Ceramics is "semi". Most Ynez pieces had earthenware bodies, adding to their weight, as well as their fragility.
The studio of Ynez Ward, and her husband Carleton, was located in Inglewood, California; some of the firm’s "pretty ladies" date from as early as 1942. Ynez is often credited with the first successful use of "real lace" in the Victorian-influenced costuming for her demure maidens. (Actual lace, coated with slip, was burned off during firing, leaving only its ceramic imprint).
All Ynez figurines were "named", and her female figurines were often accompanied by an escort. A successful series dating from 1947 presented an "adorable little girl" for every month of the year, each accompanied by a "colorful gallant".
Jimmie Lee Stewart
It’s nearly impossible not to recognize a figurine designed by Jimmie Lee Stewart for her Los Angeles firm, deLee Art. Jimmie Lee’s "pretty ladies", (and men, and children, and even animals), invariably boast demurely downcast, impossibly long, eyelashes; running across a deLee with eyes wide open is in itself an eye-opener.
Stewart opened deLee Art in the late 1930s, making her one of the very first California ceramicists to carve out a successful career. (It was also a lengthy one: deLee continued in operation until the late 1950s). One of Stewart’s earliest innovations was the figurine-as-flowerholder, a staple of deLee Art designs long before Hedi Schoop "originated" the trend in the 1940s.
Although deLee’s "Gay ‘90s"-ish ladies remain a favorite with collectors, the company’s eventual bread-and-butter was the "De-Stinker" line: ceramic skunk matchholders, useful in the days before room deodorizers.
Florence Ward
Acclaimed for their diverse, and richly detailed costuming, female figurals by the Florence Ceramics Company are the epitome of the "pretty lady". Invariably rooted in another era (or country), figurines by designer Florence Ward exhibit both a delicacy in execution, and a captivating attention to pose and movement.
During World War II, with her husband in the service, the previously-untrained Ward took a course in ceramics. Intrigued with the process, and possessing an abundance of native talent, she opened a studio in her garage. By war’s end, Florence, her husband Clifford, and a staff of 40, were operating a booming business from their plant in Pasadena.
Florence ceramics often tell a story—a given, since many of the subjects are drawn from history ("Madame Pompadour"), or popular fiction ("Scarlett and Rhett"). Like Ynez, Florence Ward was an early pioneer in the use of actual lace in her designs.
Following the death of her husband in 1964, Florence sold the firm. Although Florence Ceramics continued in operation until 1977, the production of its evocative "pretty ladies" ended with the sale.
Betty Harrington
Although mid-century figurals are often identified with the West Coast, the top producer was actually Madison’s Ceramic Arts Studio. During its heyday, CAS turned out 500,000 figurines annually. Of the nearly 1000 designs released from 1941-1955, over 95 percent were the work of premier designer Betty Harrington.
A natural, untrained artist, Harrington found her career by lucky accident. Using clay excavated during a well installation at her home, she created the figurine of a young girl. Wanting to preserve the work by having it "fired", Betty stopped at Ceramic Arts Studio, a business she passed each day en route to her secretarial job. Although CAS had previously specialized in "thrown pottery" (pots and bowls), owner Reuben Sand knew a good thing when he saw it. Sand immediately hired Harrington to create more figurines, and the public fell in love with her work.
In addition to their skillful execution and vivid colors, Ceramic Arts Studio figurines are also prized for their durability. Thanks to extensive experimentation, the formulas for CAS clay slip mixtures and glazes do not craze: figurines created over 70 years ago still possess a "look" as fresh and vibrant as when they were first introduced.
But the real reason for the success of Ceramic Arts Studio was the creative imagination of Betty Harrington. Her seemingly-inexhaustible supply of heartwarming themes runs the gamut, from playful children and frisky animals, to fairy tale favorites, dramatic personae, and — of course — "pretty ladies"!
Good Night, Ladies
As the 1960s rolled inexorably onward, an influx of inexpensive ceramic imports gradually reclaimed the United States market. Soon, the domestic production of "pretty lady" figurines kissed the world goodbye. But, thanks to the imaginative design talent of the "ladies behind the ladies", their beauty is enduring. . .and endearing. Or, as Mr. Berlin put it:
"You can't escape, she's in your memory--
By morning night and noon!
She will leave you, and then, come back again,
A pretty girl is just like a pretty tune."

Ceramic charmers by Betty Harrington of Ceramic Art Studio will be on view at the 2012 CAS Collectors Convention. The event will be held Saturday, August 25th, at Madison’s Howard Johnson Plaza, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Pottery Association Show & Sale. This year’s theme: "A CAS Summer Vacation". Registration information is available at www.cascollectors.com
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-twentieth century design including "Ceramic Arts Studio: The Legacy of Betty Harrington". His latest, "Postwar Pop", includes more on mid-twentieth century ceramics. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com
Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.


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