Q I would be interested in learning what you think of this chocolate pot and its prospects at auction. Do the slight chips in the finish make it worthless?
A The story of American potters and pottery often reflects what was happening in society at a particular time in history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reformers sought to make women more economically secure by developing fields in which an educated woman could earn a respectable living for herself and her family.
The American South was particularly interested in this endeavor, because it was witnessing firsthand the devastation and poverty to which women were subjected after losing their husbands in the Civil War. With such economic needs and the Arts and Crafts movement's reverence for work, more opportunities for women began surfacing. One area was decorating porcelain and pottery.
In 1894, Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (now part of Tulane University in New Orleans) hired Ellsworth Woodward, who had been trained at Rhode Island School of Design, to create a vocational program for young women. It was a fine-arts curriculum adapted to equip its graduates for employment.
From 1895 until its closing in 1940, the Newcomb Pottery studio, as it was known, produced more than 70,000 pieces -- all designed and decorated by women, but thrown by men. The studio and artists had a very good system of marking their wares to identify the studio, the artists and the year the piece was made.
The marks on the bottom of this piece show an N inside a C, used on all the pieces from the Newcomb studio throughout its history. There's a "DB-22," which indicates the piece was the 22nd of Newcomb's standard 100-piece output per year, per shape; this piece was made in 1909. There's also an incised M, indicating the pot was thrown by Joseph Meyer, and an LeB, indicating it was designed and decorated by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc, a Creole-born, French-speaking New Orleans native. Like her sister Emilie, LeBlanc was a prolific designer, artist and lecturer who traveled and taught throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. She was awarded a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
The Newcomb artists limited their designs to interpretations of Louisiana flora and fauna, and developed their own palette of colors. The pot's painted and incised trees draped with Spanish moss are very typical of Newcomb Pottery's clean lines and soothing colors. Collectors love the pieces for their beauty and historic role in educating and empowering women.
The lidded chocolate pot is one of the rarer Newcomb shapes; despite the chips, this lovely, well-marked pot would have an estimate of $3,000-$5,000.
Interestingly, the Bay Area boasts a history of a pottery with a similar story. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco saw an epidemic of tuberculosis, especially among women. Dr. Philip King Brown opened the Arequipa Sanatorium in Marin County to offer the only known cure for tuberculosis at the time: rest, fresh air and nutritious food.
Doctors also saw a therapeutic value in handcrafts. So with the help of local philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, they developed a pottery-decorating studio. Arequipa Sanatorium closed in 1918, so pieces from its studio are highly prized.
Jane Alexiadis is a personal-property appraiser. Send questions, a brief description and measurements to email@example.com.