by Catherine S. Vodrey
More than a century after the American Revolution, America still had something of an inferiority complex. Our ancestors might have been thrilled to be out from under the thumb of a foreign power, but they still coveted the status conveyed by European products. While they were perfectly content to buy American china for everyday use, they looked overseas for really "good goods." In the waning light of the 19th century, Americans continued to prefer that their luxury items--vases, ewers, perfume flasks, potpourri jars--come from England, France, Ireland, and elsewhere.
It was a firmly entrenched tendency, and it irked Isaac Knowles to no end. Knowles was an East Liverpool, Ohio potter whose pottery was a longtime producer of common Rockingham pottery, yellow Queensware, and ceramic canning jars. East Liverpool, nicknamed Crockery City, boasted dozens and dozens of potteries by the 1880s. The city produced nearly half of all American domestic, restaurant, and hotel china.
Around 1870, Knowles decided that it was time for a change. He brought into the company his sons, Homer and Willis, and his son-in-law, Colonel John Taylor. Certainly he wanted to involve family members in the business, but he was also canny enough to know that he was bringing in like-minded progressives. Knowles had already earned a handful of patents having to do with pottery industry machinery and energy consumption. He knew that his sons and John Taylor were as forward-thinking as he, and would keep the pottery headed in the right direction: straight ahead into the 20th century.
Knowles was right. Shortly after their arrival, the Knowles brothers and John Taylor added white ware, or ironstone, to the product line in 1872. This proved so successful a venture that within a year, Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (or KT&K, as it was by then known) had completely abandoned production of the less-refined Rockingham and yellow ware. It was now 1880, and KT&K, with five kilns, was the largest pottery in East Liverpool.
KT&K's modern practices didn't stop with the production of ironstone. They equipped at least one of their ironstone kilns with a heat source of natural gas, claiming to be the first pottery in the world to do so. Beyond this, the company established an in-house shop instead of farming out design and decoration work as many potteries did.
The ceramics business throughout East Liverpool was booming, and KT&K in particular was flourishing. By 1888, the company had constructed an additional eight-kiln plant, bought out another pottery, and built another plant devoted exclusively to the production of fine porcelain, or bone china. Bone china was so called because it actually incorporated the ashes of calcined animal bones. Bone china had, for over a century, been an important product of English potteries; the addition of the bone ash to the clay heightened the whiteness and translucency of the ware. It had also been made in Trenton, New Jersey, another important American pottery center, well before anyone in East Liverpool attempted its production.
It was in tackling bone china that Isaac Knowles planned to make his mark. He was not the first East Liverpudlian to try this; John Burgess had already done so. A potter by trade, Burgess worked with his son-in-law, Willis Cunning, to produce a satisfactory formula for bone china. The pieces they manufactured briefly were widely admired, but Burgess and Cunning had not counted on the obstacle of opinion. Americans simply could not be convinced that fine porcelain manufactured in the United States could compete with that produced elsewhere. They were not willing to pay high prices for domestic bone china. Beyond this, the East Liverpool City Council declared the odor of the burning bones to be a health hazard and business at this pottery was suspended soon after.
Isaac Knowles remained unswayed by this local cautionary tale. He was determined that his pottery could make a difference. The confidence of Isaac Knowles and his family was well-placed. Within a few years, its twenty-nine kilns qualified KT&K as the largest pottery in America. The porcelain plant was ground zero of KT&K's bid to compete with the English and Irish porcelains in the American marketplace. KT&K planned to begin production of fine Belleek-type porcelain--modeled after the famed Irish ware--but their imposing new porcelain plant burned down in November 1889, after just eighteen months of operation. Although a huge loss for KT&K, this was not unheard-of news in East Liverpool at the time. Potteries burned down with some regularity in those days, combining as they did the fierce heat of the kilns with the wooden boxes and straw used to pack goods for shipment.
Instead of giving up, KT&K resolutely rebuilt the porcelain plant. American potteries in general were eager to position themselves as free of English domination and as powerhouses in the newly emergent industrial landscape. East Liverpool's Homer Laughlin China, flush with success and patriotic pride, even began employing a backstamp that depicted an American bald eagle hungrily making a meal of a prone and helpless English lion. All the East Liverpool potteries were doing well, but KT&K aimed for more than simply a healthy bottom line. The company wanted to create something rare and beautiful: art that simply happened to be rendered in porcelain. The extraordinary result was Lotus Ware.
It may be no coincidence that Lotus Ware appeared on the scene in 1892, right around the time that First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison had decided that no domestic ceramics were fine enough for the White House. Mrs. Harrison indulged a Victorian lady's interest in china painting. Guided by her painting instructor, Paul Putzki, she herself designed a rather fussy White House dinner service featuring scalloped edges, a cobalt blue rim overlaid with golden cornstalks, an inner border of tiny stars, and a fierce eagle in the center. Though Mrs. Harrison trusted her own taste enough to design the new china, she chose to have the entire service produced in the Limoges region of France. Mrs. Harrison's very public snubbing of the American pottery industry may well have helped sting Isaac Knowles into action.
As art, Lotus Ware was essentially the brainchild of two men. The first, an English pottery technician named Joshua Poole, was well-versed in clay chemistry and arrived in East Liverpool fresh from the Belleek pottery in western Ireland. He had been hired to make Belleek-type porcelain for KT&K, the brief production of which constituted the company's first step down the path which would soon lead them to Lotus Ware. Isaac Knowles was satisfied with KT&K's Belleek-type ware and decided to commit himself to Lotus Ware production. Poole's considerable experience was invaluable; he knew just how far KT&K could push the envelope of making Lotus as delicate as possible, while maintaining its structural integrity. With this background, he was in charge of designing the bodies of many Lotus Ware pieces.
The other man mainly responsible for Lotus was a pottery designer/decorator--or "fancy worker," in the pottery lingo of the time--named Heinrich Schmidt. Schmidt, a German had worked previously at the famed Meissen factory, was undoubtedly a rare talent, but he was temperamental as well. He spoke no English when he arrived in East Liverpool. He did not trouble himself to learn the language, either, content to be rude to his underlings in his native tongue. Schmidt favored pastel smocks for working, a bold and unusual choice in late Victorian Ohio. He carried the exact recipe for Lotus Ware slip (liquid clay) in his head, trusting no one else to make it to his standards. He requested that he be referred to not as a potter or as a designer, but as an artist. Perhaps anticipating the coming precedent-shattering importance of Lotus Ware, he even demanded that the factory windows be shaded and barred--the better to foil pottery industry spies. The room where he conducted most of his work didn't even have windows; it was lit simply with a skylight. Finally, Schmidt decreed that KT&K would sell no imperfect Lotus.
Isaac Knowles' faith in Schmidt and Poole was well-placed: Lotus Ware was an immediate sensation. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Lotus Ware swept the competition, handily earning every single award in the fine porcelain categories. This kind of acclaim for American pottery was unprecedented, and stunned both the European and the American ceramics communities.
Lotus Ware pieces exhibited distinct artistic influences of the time. Art Nouveau and Moorish or Persian were among the strongest of these motifs. The Art Nouveau-oriented pieces were sublimely naturalistic--shells, winding tendrils, leaves, coral branches, and berries were common forms. These adornments were usually hand-formed and applied, but sometimes pâté-sur-pâté ("paste upon paste") was practiced. This is a fiendishly difficult technique in which the worker carves semisolid, unfired clay before it dries and crumbles under his touch.
The Moorish- and Persian-influenced Lotus Ware, on the other hand, embraced the arching forms and lavish excess of detail typical of the art and architecture of those cultures. Filigree netting and ornately-patterned pierced work embellished with raised detail were among the distinguishing characteristics of these Lotus pieces.
These latter pieces in particular, with their exuberantly layered decoration, proved to be so demanding to adorn that Schmidt was obliged to develop an entirely new decorative technique. The decorators allowed the slip to reach the pliable consistency of jelly before decanting it into metal-tipped canvas sacks modeled after pastry bags. Will Blake, Schmidt's assistant and sometime translator, wrote of the practice, "His openwork patterns were first worked out on a small plaster of Paris mold. He would do a quick pencilling of his design on the mold, and then etch it out slowly with a sharp tool so that when he went to work on it with his . . . bag, these minute indentations served to support the moist clay while the design was drying. When the drying process was complete, the openwork would be removed from the mold by a slight jolt of the plaster form from the hand. He would next take the openwork design into his hand and apply a little fresh slip to its outer edges. Then he would attach the design to the vase or bowl on which he was working. This required much care. If too much pressure were applied, the pattern would be crushed and rendered useless.
Although the body of most Lotus Ware pieces was white, there was some experimentation with pale celadon green and a striking dark grayish-olive shade. The latter color was almost certainly chosen in reaction to the late 19th-century European fashion for it, but the celadon was a sly nod to the centuries-old tradition of Asian pottery-making: Lotus Ware was making its bid for immortality. The names of the pieces, too, indicated an admiration for things classical; Lotus forms were variously named Syrian, Thebian, Parmian, Grecian, Tiberian, and so on.
KT&K was still producing other pottery, but Lotus Ware was taking most of the company's time and energy. Accolades aside, it proved to be a financially crushing proposition from the start. KT&K made the mistake of not assigning specific kilns for firing Lotus Ware; the fragile pieces had to survive a firing in the normal upright kilns, which were originally designed for firing sturdy stoneware and other durable ceramics.
Lotus proved to be so delicate that only about one in every twelve pieces made it through these kilns unscathed. Of these survivors, fully a third were either accidentally broken (or even stolen) by factory workers. It was rumored that production at the porcelain plant was costing ten dollars for every single dollar it brought to the KT&K coffers.
Because of the World's Fair awards and the endless stream of rave reviews, however, KT&K felt obliged to continue. Lotus Ware had become not merely a product, but a mission--and a bold statement that American potteries could compete with such European stalwarts as Limoges, Wedgwood, and Minton.
The bottom line did eventually rule. Production difficulties and non-stop financial losses meant that Lotus Ware was produced for just four short years. By 1896, KT&K had ceased to manufacture Lotus. The company had amply made its point.
The pottery continued in good health until the mid-1920s, when KT&K began a downhill slide. Despite a brief merger with the American Chinaware Corporation in 1929, the sad spiral continued. What many consider to have been the greatest of all the major American potteries was completely defunct by 1931.
The men who had spun this gossamer out of common clay went their separate ways. Heinrich Schmidt moved with his East Liverpudlian wife and their daughter to Warren, Ohio, leaving behind his ceramics career. Joshua Poole prospered in East Liverpool, continuing to work in the pottery industry for the rest of his career. Homer Knowles died tragically young. Shortly after his brother's death, Willis Knowles moved to California, where he eventually became a successful avocado grower. John Taylor went on to operate a Mexican gold mine and later became a trusted confidante and adviser to President William McKinley.
Today, only about 5,000 pieces of Lotus Ware survive. The most comprehensive collection on display is at East Liverpool's Museum of Ceramics, a tiny gem of a showcase for local pottery from the 18th century through today. There are a number of substantive private collections in the East Liverpool area as well.
As with any collectible, there have always been whispers of the pieces that got away. One tale involves a Lotus Ware cradle, an exquisitely useless item which supposedly sat in the home of a KT&K potter for many years. Given the fragile nature of Lotus, it's unlikely that such a piece ever existed, but the thought of it does fire the imaginations of collectors.
Contributing to such rumors is the fact that no one knows for certain all the different forms Lotus took. Company records were spottily maintained, and the only solid documentation that collectors have to go on are copies of two torn pages from a KT&K Lotus catalogue. One particularly determined East Liverpool collector managed to acquire at least one example of each of the dozens of pieces depicted on those pages.
A century later, though still not widely known outside East Liverpool, Lotus Ware continues to command attention among discerning collectors of American porcelain. It was the subject of a January 14th, 1967 article in The New York Times,which lamented, "[Lotus Ware] has been collected with dismaying enthusiasm in Ohio, and now brings prices that rival those of 18th century porcelains." Still, despite some pieces having brought tens of thousands of dollars at auction, those willing to watch and wait have been known to find Lotus pieces for a few hundred dollars--less, if they are willing to turn a blind eye to hairline cracks or mended handles.
Among porcelain devotees and ceramics scholars, the lustrous glaze that distinguishes every piece of Lotus is still considered peerless. In fact, the term "Lotus" comes from the translucent pearliness of that glaze, which Isaac Knowles had once observed resembled the glowing sheen of a lotus blossom. Beyond the glaze, there is much to admire in Lotus Ware: its singular delicacy, the lush and fantastical ornamentation, and perhaps most of all, the stubborn Americanness of its very existence.