Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The JB Cole 1940 Catalog

by Jay Henderson

One of the nicer finds for any collector or student of vintage North Carolina art pottery is a copy of the 1940 J. B. Cole's Pottery Catalogue.[1] I am fortunate to own an original copy of this well-made, paperback booklet. There is also a reprint, issued in 1997 by Holly Hill Pottery with some added material, which occasionally crops up. The reprint is well done but suffers some loss of detail in the process of reproducing the 1940 version.

The J. B. Cole catalog itself is not dated, but it is typically found with a folded-insert price list dated June 1st, 1940. If there was an earlier or later price list, no sample has surfaced. The price list, by the way, should be read as a curiosity; otherwise, it may drive you mad to realize that a 16-inch Waymon Cole rat-tail-handled floor vase, which would sell for several hundred dollars today, went for $1.25 in 1940. If only . . . .

The catalog features monochrome photographs of 526 pieces and sets pottery of all descriptions, ranging in size from 1-3/4" miniatures made by Nell Graves to a yard-high Rebecca pitcher by Waymon Cole. Each piece or set is separately identified by a designator like the following examples: W 80 - 5"; N 235 - 3-1/2"; G 278 - 11"; or B 513 - 7". The letter W indicates Waymon Cole; the letter N indicates Nell Cole Graves; the letter G indicates Phil Graves; and the letter B indicates Bascom King, in each case identifying the person who would turn the piece or set. The letter is followed by a serial number, and then a hyphen and a number indicating the height of the finished piece in inches.

The serial numbers run from 1 through 524; in two cases, errors were made in the numbering and a letter "A" was added before the designator (AB 422 and AB 453). The serial numbers are grouped by potter, with a few exceptions. The numbers for Waymon Cole begin at 1 and continue through 177; however, four Nell Graves pieces were photographed out of order (N 47, N 48, N 72, N 120). There are other out-of-order pieces here and there. When these are accounted for, the number of pieces and sets by potter runs as follows: Waymon Cole, 174; Nell Graves, 86; Phil Graves, 153; and Bascom King, 113. I am convinced that some errors were not caught and there are a few pieces which may be mis-identified; comparing W 93 - 7-1/2" with the very similar N 241 - 3-1/2", for example, leads me to believe that the un-Waymonlike 93 piece was actually turned by Nell.

The high number of pieces attributed to Waymon Cole appears to have been the result of his taking over certain forms formerly turned by his father, J. B. Cole, who had quit turning before 1940. For example, known surviving pieces of W 31 - 15-1/2" are reliably attributed to J. B. Cole. A comparison of one of the J. B. Cole pieces with a W 31 turned by Waymon reveals characteristic differences, such as the difference in handle formation.

The lower number of pieces listed for Nell is probably related to the size of her wares. Because Nell turned many small and miniature pieces, her father modified her wheel to make it more suitable for that specialty. A riser was added to the wheelhead (this is shown in the photograph of Nell in the catalog, reproduced at the end of this article) and Nell's wheel was belt-driven by an electric motor, powered by a generator. These modifications were useful for making 3-1/2 inch pitchers and vases, but at the same time limited the maximum width of the base of a piece and probably also the weight of the ball of clay that could be used on the modified wheelhead.

The 1940 Catalogue identification system is very helpful for identifying the work of the J. B. Cole potters.[2] While many pieces are easy to pin down, such as the massive Waymon Cole floor vases and the tiny Nell Cole items, others are more difficult. Knowing the approximate height of the finished piece is very helpful. The picture of the form, the height, and the designation of the potter assist not only in distinguishing among pieces made at J. B. Cole's Pottery but also among the many similar pieces made by competitors. The J. B. Cole potters made pots to sell, and some sold more than others - - and therefore, more examples of the popular wares survived to the present time. Some forms, like W 80, W 157, W 177, N 183, N 230, G 354, G 395, B 466 and B 516, come up for sale frequently and are familiar to collectors and students. Other forms are rare and the catalog is invaluable for confirmation of their authenticity.

Also useful is the catalog's listing of colors: "yellow, white, rose, dark blue, Alice blue, periwinkle blue, turquoise, blue-green, enamel-green, peacock blue, blue-and-white, orange, rust, and antique." As with the forms, some of these colors were popular and some were not. Alice blue (a pale, bluish-gray) seems to be rare, while orange (usually called "chrome red") is relatively common.

Neither the forms in the catalog or the glaze colors should be considered a complete listing. Very early pieces were finished with commercial glazes, and new forms and glazes were developed over time, with some shapes being dropped and new ones being added, in addition to changes in the making of established forms. A major example of this is the Waymon Cole signature piece, the Aladdin's Lamp teapot; it had not been developed in 1940, although the bowl-vase on which it was based is in the catalog (W 6 - 5"). The 1940 Catalogue is nonetheless a valuable guidebook for pre-WWII J. B. Cole Pottery wares.

One should exercise caution when identifying post-WWII J. B. Cole pieces. The fact that a form appears in the 1940 Catalogue does not mean that it was made before World War II; other characteristics must be taken into account. Having a copy of the 1940 Catalogue won't make you an expert. Inspecting many pieces of J. B. Cole's Pottery wares is the only way to achieve sufficient knowledge.

NOTES: [1] The name "J. B. Cole's Pottery" was used until J. B. Cole died; Waymon Cole and Nell Graves bought out the heirship interests of their siblings and changed the name to "J. B. Cole Pottery." The spelling "Catalogue" is used in the 1940 booklet.

[2] There are smaller catalogs, one known as the 1932 J. B. Cole catalog and another known for C. C. Cole; these are very hard to come by and as far as I know have not been reprinted.

This article originally appeared in Backcountry Notes.

Copyright © 2008 by Jay Henderson.