Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NC Art Pottery Orange-Red Glazes -- Chrome? Uranium? A Touch Of Gold Dust, Perhaps?

by Jay Henderson

Did North Carolina potteries use uranium oxide glazes in the pre-WWII art pottery era? For a long time many students of North Carolina art pottery have held that they did, but this author has been unable to find any verifiable example of such a glaze. There are many examples of chromium oxide red-orange glazes, of course, and the colors of these glazes can be very similar. However, chromium oxide is not radioactive -- uranium oxide is, even in a glaze -- and chromium oxide does not glow under ultraviolet light, while uranium oxide glazes often do fluoresce in the presence of UV light.

About a year ago, North Carolina pottery collector Peg Wiebe mentioned that she had used an ultraviolet light on pottery -- this can be used to detect repairs, for example. Intrigued, I did some reading and found that UV light can induce fluorescence in certain minerals, including uranium oxide. Cazart! A means to test the assumption that North Carolina potters used uranium oxide glazes! However, neither Peg Wiebe nor I have, so far, found a pre-WWII orange or red glaze which responds to UV light.

So why did most North Carolina potteries discontinue chrome red glazes after WWII? One assumption had been that the orange-red glazes couldn't be made once the U. S. government monopolized the supply of uranium oxide during WWII. Not so, it appears. Part of he answer may be changes in consumer preferences -- the 1940s and 1950s saw a shift to pastels and the 1960s a shift to rustic glazes. Probably more important was the necessity to adopt economies of scale in the post-war era in order to survive against competition from factory-made and imported wares.

Chrome red glazes are restricted to earthenware fired to Cone 08 or below, with Cone 010 being typical, and a finishing temperature of no more than 1750 degrees F. Above that temperature, chromium oxide changes to a green color in a lead glaze. (Exposure to a reduction atmosphere during firing will also turn the glaze black.) This firing range is much lower than the North Carolina potters used for earthenware and far below the Cone 3 (more or less) temperatures achieved at the J. B. Cole and A. R. Cole operations. Thus, chrome red pottery would have to be fired by the entire kilnload -- and that became economically impracticable as consumer tastes changed.


One persistent myth is that J. B. Cole Pottery used gold dust in its pre-WWII chrome red glazes. I can identify the source of this myth -- it came from Waymon Cole, who had an impish sense of humor and foisted the gold-dust story off on me in my gullible youth. Not until four decades later, when I began to take pottery classes at a local community college and studied clay and glazes, did I realize that Waymon had been pulling my leg. Gold is used in ceramics, but its use is very limited, partly by its volatility when heated to high temperatures and partly by its expense.

Consider this: in the late 1920s, the price of gold ran $21 per ounce -- about $260 per ounce in today's money. J. B. Cole's Pottery mixed its glazes in huge lots -- clawfoot bathtubs, for example. The cost of mixing in enough gold dust to have an effect on the finished glaze would have been prohibitive. Granted, chromium oxide isn't cheap, but at about two bits to a buck a pound, it was much more affordable than gold dust.

I cannot, of course, eliminate either possibility -- that some NC art pottery glazes contained either uranium oxide or gold dust. But in the absence of evidence, one must presume that neither was used. If anyone finds a vintage NC art pottery glaze that fluoresces under black light -- please send me pictures!


Uranium oxide added to a lead-fluxed glaze produces a spectrum of bright, attractive colors ranging from ivory, yellow, and orange to deep orange-red, depending on the amount added and the other characteristics of the glaze composition. The dark orange-red versions of uranium glazes are often spotted or streaked with black or cream-colored areas.

The glazes were very popular during the pre-WWII art pottery era and remain popular with collectors today - - good examples bring premium prices, especially for deep red pieces, even though this glaze is among the most available from that time. While uranium oxide has recently become available to potters once more, restrictions on the use of lead are likely to preclude the return of the lead-uranium glazes found on vintage art pottery pieces.

Although uranium glazes had been developed long ago (written formulas survive from the mid-19th century), they were not widely used until the 1920s. Following the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, pitchblende was mined and processed for its very small radium content (about one gram of radium per three tons of pitchblende), resulting in the production of many hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium oxide compounds as by-products. These by-products were sold inexpensively for various uses, including glass and ceramics, until World War II. "Vaseline glass" made during the Depression era uses uranium oxide to produce its green hue.

Uranium pottery glazes were used commercially until 1943, when the supply of uranium oxide was monopolized by the United States government during the development of the atomic bomb. A familiar example is the "Fiesta" line produced beginning in 1936 by the Homer Laughlin Company of West Virginia, which used uranium oxide to make Fiesta Red and Fiesta Ivory glazes. The J. A. Bauer Pottery Co. in California reportedly used 450 pounds of sodium uranate per week during the 1930s.

The color of the finished glaze is determined by the amount of uranium oxide added to the base. Sodium uranate was the most common form of the oxide used by potteries. Because uranium oxide remains in a refractory state and does not contribute to the fluxing of the glaze, it can be added in relatively large amounts. Depending on the other constituents, lead-fluxed glazes would be colored yellow by additions of 5% to 10% sodium uranate by weight; orange by additions of 10% to 15%; and red by additions of 15% to 20%.

Finally, uranium oxide remains radioactive even when melted in a glaze. It can be detected with a real Geiger counter (not one of the yellow civil defense models; those are not real Geiger counters) and sometimes by the use of ultraviolet light. The response to the Geiger counter or "black light" is weakest for ivory and yellow versions, and strongest for the deep orange-red glazes. (Note that not all uranium glazes respond to a "black light.")

Is vintage uranium-glazed art pottery safe? Probably, as long as you don't use it to decant acidic substances such as orange juice, which will leach both lead and uranium from the glaze. A few pieces of uranium-glazed pottery in a collection are unlikely to be hazardous, although a large number in an unvented room might be; see the References for articles on this subject. Ironically, the most radioactive ware was Fiesta Red made by Homer Laughlin from 1959 to 1972, using depleted uranium which the Atomic Energy Commission had made available for commercial use; depleted uranium is far more radioactive and toxic than sodium uranate and resulted in glazes that produced radon.

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Copyright 2010 by J. R. Henderson. This article was originally published in Backcountry Notes, which provides references to source articles. Reprinted by permission.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Treasure Chest - Three Mountaineers Pottery

By Jay Henderson

Revised 5/10/2010
Updated 5/15/2010

The Treasure Chest of Asheville, North Carolina, and its successor firm, Three Mountaineers, Inc., was a well-known seller of "mountain pottery" from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s. So how much of this "mountain pottery" was actually made in the mountains of North Carolina? As far as I can tell, very little of it. The "Sunset Mountain" line came from J. B. Cole's Pottery in the North Carolina Piedmont. Some pottery was produced by Pisgah Forest Pottery in the late 1920s. The remainder of the pottery wares seem very likely to have been made by Cornelison Pottery in central Kentucky.

Note: Click on any image in this article for a larger view. Scans of pages from 1929 Treasure Chest catalog were provided by Peg Wiebe.

Hugh C. Brown, Edwin Brown and W. H. Lashley were partners in the original Treasure Chest venture in 1925 or 1926, operating out of Brown's Hardware in downtown Asheville. Local retail sales soon took second place to a two-pronged marketing strategy in which Treasure Chest goods were sold in wholesale lots by means of a print catalog and also by driving truckloads of goods to trade fairs and distribution outlets.

Why the partners chose the name "Treasure Chest" is unknown. Published research on the operation is sketchy and sometimes obviously inaccurate. The images of pirates and buried treasure were popular at the time, even in Appalachia, very distant from the beaches and islands of the Atlantic (there was a Treasure Island firm operating in Washington County, Virginia, for example). Despite its name, Treasure Chest marketed its wares primarily as "mountain" crafts. The contradiction was resolved in 1932, when the three men incorporated Three Mountaineers, Inc. The new business absorbed the Treasure Chest and another craft-marketing operation, The Log Cabin.

There is little doubt that Hugh C. Brown had a genius for marketing crafts in general and pottery in particular. I speculate that Hugh Brown's untimely death in 1938 lead quickly to the extinction of the pottery lines. Edwin Brown had died young in 1933 but had not been known as a mover and shaker of the marketing end of the business. After 1938, W. H. Lashley ran the business, concentrating on hand-made furniture and other wooden items until the business closed in 1992. Included among products sold by Three Mountaineers, Inc., was a wooden-bound book, "Just Cocktails," which was reprinted several times, and a popular run of illustrated spice racks which still trades actively on the secondary market.

Contrary to some reports, Three Mountaineers, Inc., remains a legally-registered and active company. The records of the North Carolina Secretary of State show that the business was incorporated on May 30, 1932, and that its status is "Current-Active." The company's Annual Report filed on August 16, 1991, described its business as "manufacturer of furniture and decorative accessories." The annual report filed on July 16, 1992, reported, "Company in process of liquidation -- remaining assets are real estate only." Subsequent filings advised that the business was in a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy reorganization proceeding. By 1998, Three Mountaineers, Inc., described its business as "leasing corporate assets."


The relationship between Treasure Chest - Three Mountaineers and J. B. Cole's Pottery is well-documented. J. B. Cole's Pottery began supplying wares marked as "Sunset Mountain Pottery" to Treasure Chest in 1929 and the arrangement continued through 1935. Part of Hugh Brown's marketing genius was the choice of suggestive names -- in the 1920s, Sunset Mountain on the north side of Asheville was nationally famous as the situs of the exquisite Grove Park Inn. Thus "Sunset Mountain Pottery" took advantage of instant name recognition and apparently was quite profitable for both the Cole and Brown operations. The 1929 Treasure Chest catalog insert described the wares as "quaint hand-turned pottery from the 'Hill Country' of Carolina."

The oft-repeated romantic version of the origin of Sunset Mountain Pottery holds that, during the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck Hugh Brown sought out J. B. Cole and offered to buy pottery on a consignment arrangement in order to keep Brown's Hardware and J. B. Cole's Pottery out of insolvency. In fact, the Brown-Cole arrangement was made early in 1929 and the Treasure Chest catalog introducing Sunset Mountain Pottery was issued in July, 1929, at which point the Dow Jones average was still on its upward climb, industrial production was high, and farm prices were stable -- all indicators of continued prosperity. The Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, was unanticipated. It seems more likely that Hugh Brown and Jace Cole were kindred spirits, savvy Backcountry businessmen who took a liking to each other and saw advantage in the arrangement.

All Sunset Mountain Pottery appears to have been made at the Cole shop in the Auman's Hill - Asbury community in the northeastern corner of Montgomery County, quite a jog from the mountains where Asheville lay. The forms and glazes of marked pieces provide many close matches when compared to the 1932 and 1940 J. B. Cole catalogs. Because the Sunset Mountain Pottery marque is by far the most prolific of the J. B. Cole's Pottery contractual arrangements prior to World War II, surviving pieces are found with some frequency and have been of great value in establishing the characteristics of the pottery's output in the early North Carolina Art Pottery era.

Yet, ironically, embedded in this arrangement is a very rare mark -- a characteristic Cole stamp which reads "Treasure Chest Pottery." Very few pieces so marked are known to exist and the likelihood is that this was a short run. Why the "Treasure Chest Pottery" stamp was used is not known, but I speculate that it may have been an attempt to keep the Treasure Chest name alive after the formation of Three Mountaineers, Inc. Presumably it was soon established that the "Treasure Chest" imagery was inconsistent with the "mountain pottery" theme and this line was abandoned. The characteristics of the few surviving pieces with this stamp establish that they were, like the Sunset Mountain line, made by J. B. Cole's Pottery in North Carolina.

According to Rodney Leftwich, an authority on Western North Carolina pottery, Pisgah Forest Pottery near Arden, NC, made pieces for the Treasure Chest during the late 1920s. There are at least three different base stampings - The Treasure Chest in block letters, Pine Tree stamp worded Pine Tree and Treasure Chest, and an identical Pine Tree stamp without the Treasure Chest wording. These are pictured in Leftwich's book, "Pisgah Forest and Nonconnah, the Potteries of Walter B. Stephen." I do not yet have illustrations of these pieces but will add them when I can.


Another line sold by Treasure Chest was "Junaluska" pottery, unglazed terra-cotta ware intended primarily for outdoor use. The illustrations for this pottery were line drawings by W. H. Lashley, which are far less useful for identification of surviving pieces than the photographs used to illustrate the Sunset Mountain and other lines. The intended use of Junaluska ware in outdoor settings most certainly led to a high rate of loss, probably reducing the numbers of intact pieces by 50 per cent every five years. Nonetheless, the illustrated forms and the description of the clay tends to be consistent with the assumption that "Junaluska Unglazed Pottery" was made in central Kentucky.

The "Junaluska" name illustrates Hugh Brown's marketing genius. Members of the Hilton family, located in the mountains of North Carolina, had begun producing a line of "Cherokee Indian" pottery in the early 1920s. The Hilton line used a heavy terra-cotta clay and was glazed on the inside. Junaluska was a renowned Cherokee leader who is buried in North Carolina, where a mountain and a lake are named for him. The choice of the name thus produced a high degree of immediate recognition and invoked a similarity with the Hilton product. However, numerous examples of the Hilton "Cherokee Indian" line survive and I have yet to see one which compares closely with Junaluska pottery market by Treasure Chest. On the other hand, some of the line-drawing illustrations do closely resemble other Treasure Chest lines which can be traced to the Cornelison family pottery in Bybee, Kentucky. Compare, for example, IMAGE 8, No. 325, with IMAGE 9, below, Nos. C8 and C18.


The 1929 Treasure Chest catalog describes Cumberland Mountain "Hand Turned Blue Pottery" as having been made "by an old mountain potter." The name of this line traded on the familiar "Cumberland" name, although a precise location is not given -- it could have been in Tennessee, or Virginia, or Kentucky, all of which share the Cumberland range. The actual provenance of this "Hand Turned Blue Pottery" was nowhere in the Cumberland Mountains range and has been reliably established as the Cornelison family pottery in Bybee, Kentucky.

In recent years, a revival of interest in Kentucky Art Pottery has resulted in museum exhibits and publications, including a reprint of the 1924 Cornelison Pottery catalog, which provide a reliable means for authenticating unmarked pieces. Prior to changing its name to Bybee Pottery in 1952, Cornelison Pottery marked some of its output with a round stamp but left many pieces unmarked. Beginning in the early 1920s, Cornelison produced a line of pottery glazed in "Bybee Blue" which was not marked with the Cornelison Pottery stamp. Many of these pieces are found with the glaze left intact in the center of the bottom of the pot, glaze having been cleaned around the rim before firing. This method of glazing made Bybee Blue pieces flattering imitations of a popular line of cobalt-blue-glazed pottery manufactured by UHL Pottery in Indiana. Cornelison "Bybee Blue" pieces are occasionally offered for sale as UHL, but the UHL Pottery products were molded and thus should be readily distinguishable from the hand-turned Cornelison output.

A comparison of attributed Cornelison "Bybee Blue" pieces with the 1929 catalog photographs of the Treasure Island "Cumberland Mountain" line reveals a high degree of similarity. The two "Bybee Blue" vases shown in IMAGE 9, above, are very close matches to Cumberland Mountain Nos. C5 and C6, illustrated in IMAGE 8. I have also seen a C1 glazed in "Bybee Blue."

The Cornelison Pottery vases shown in IMAGE 10, above, are close matches for Cumberland Mountain Nos. C7 and and C11 shown in IMAGE 8.

The large "Bybee Blue" pitcher illustrated in IMAGE 11, above, matches up with Cumberland Mountain No. C12. The handle formation and attachment on this vase; another just like it, not illustrated; and the C11 vase shown above, all are characteristic of a single potter and are consistent with handles on marked Cornelison Pottery pieces.

The three pots shown in IMAGE 12, above, are all marked or verifiable Cornelison Pottery pieces. The two-handled vase in the center is a close match for Cumberland Mountain C19 and is finished in a well-known Cornelison Pottery "Butterscotch" glaze.


Attribution of the Treasure Chest "Log Cabin Green" line is less certain but the evidence appears to weigh in favor of Cornelison Pottery as the source. Another central Kentucky art pottery, Waco Pottery, produced a well-known line finished in a "Log Cabin Green" glaze. This glaze had a tendency to matte, however, and Cornelison had its own green glaze.

The "Log Cabin Green" line probably did not sell as well as the Cumberland Mountain "Blue," and it may be that some of this output is attributed mistakenly to Waco Pottery. There is no direct overlap of Cumberland Mountain and Log Cabin Green in the forms illustrated in the 1929 Treasure Island Catalog. Nonetheless, I have seen "Log Cabin Green" forms No. 356, No. 372, No. 374 and No. 375 glazed in "Bybee Blue." The small green pitcher illustrated in IMAGE 12 is the same form as Junaluska No. 314 and is marked with the round Cornelison Pottery stamp. Although the line-drawing illustrations of the Junaluska pieces makes comparison less exacting, there are similarities between the two lines; compare Junaluska No. 319 with Log Cabin Green No. 354.

The conclusions reached in this article are, as always, subject to revision in light of new information. At this time, the evidence is conclusive that J. B. Cole's Pottery produced the stamped "Sunset Mountain Pottery" and "Treasure Chest Pottery." The available information weighs in favor of Cornelison Pottery having produced the unmarked Junaluska, Cumberland, and Log Cabin Green lines sold by Treasure Chest -- Three Mountaineers, Inc.

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Copyright 2010 by J. R. Henderson. This article was originally published in Backcountry Notes, which provides references to source articles. Reprinted by permission.

UPDATE -- May 15, 2010

The following information has been provided by Jerry Nichols of Lexington, Kentucky:
Wow, that's pretty exciting here in Kentucky. We figured it out about 1998 after Robert Brunk published his "May We All Remember Well.." in which he published the "Log Cabin Green" and "Cumberland Blue" pages and attributed them to the North Carolina potters. I haven't had many people to tell from your area. There is a new book on Kentucky pottery about to be published--June 2010---titled "Clear as Mud" that tries to clear up some of the confusion.

"Log Cabin Green" was indeed produced by the Waco Pottery and "Cumberland Blue" was produced by the Cornelison Pottery. The shapes match the old catalogues. However the "Junaluska Pottery" was not made in Kentucky. The shapes do not match and the "Ring Jug" is clearly a North Carolina piece. These jugs were never made in Kentucky.

There is much more to the story. Cornelison's Pottery is the oldest continuous operating pottery west of the Allegheny's and this fact has created a huge amount material. I have done 10 years+ research myself along with others and the Eastern Kentucky University located in Madison County. Cornelisons/Waco was sold early on with Jugtown and Pisgah, according to my Allanstand Catalogue from the 20's, and the Pennland catalogue circa 1940, available on line, has mostly a lot of Ky pottery shown. The Madison County potteries may have numbered up to 40 and have been here because of large natural deposits of the "Irvin Clay" which is also well written up on the the internet. And a lot more.
This confirms the Kentucky origin of the Cumberland Mountain Blue and Log Cabin Green pottery lines sold by The Treasure Chest. The Junaluska line remains unattributed.