Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Remembrances in China

QUESTION: I recently purchased a souvenir plate at an antique show. The plate shows a picture of Jackson Square in New Orleans and has a stencil-like border design around its edge. On the bottom is a mark that says “Wheelock, Made in Germany for the Curio Store, Canal St., New Orleans, La.” What can you tell me anything about Wheelock? I’ve never heard of that china company.

ANSWER: Souvenir china was popular from the last two decades of the 19th century to eh first decade of the 20th because most of the pieces came from Germany and Austria and with the outbreak of World War I, the flow of pieces stopped. 

Tourism blossomed during the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. As people traveled, they collected souvenirs as remembrances of where they had been and what they had seen. Postcards, photographs and small items of souvenir china became popular. At first, all of the souvenir china came from Europe.

Souvenir china is often overlooked by serious collectors of antiques, yet it’s a fascinating part of Americana, especially pieces produced from 1890 to 1916. Merchants in over 2,000 villages and towns throughout the U.S. sold a variety of pieces, each featuring a local landmark—a church, school, store, bank, river, train depot, street, hospital, or historical site or monument.

China collectors consider Wheelock one of the founders of ceramic pictorial souvenir ware in the U.S. It wasn’t a large firm but a cooperative enterprise owned by three brothers—Charles, George, and Arthur Wheelock.

In 1877, Charles took charge of a store selling fine china in South Bend, Indiana. Five years later, his brother George joined Charles as a clerk in the store. A year after that, George opened his own store, also in South Bend. In 1887, Charles moved his business to Peoria, Illinois, while George operated the two stores in South Bend. About 1888, a third brother, Arthur, opened a branch of the Wheelock stores in Rockford, Illinois, with later branches in Des Moines, Iowa and Milwaukee. A fourth son, Frank, remained with his father store in Janesville, Wisconsin.

The Wheelocks became one of the largest wholesalers and retailers of fine china in the United States. When Charles moved his business to Peoria, he hired John H. Roth to work for him, and the brothers became interested in a new enterprise, souvenir china. Their contacts with German and Austrian potteries, which produced their fine china, provided a source for the souvenir ware.

Around 1894, the Wheelock Brothers hired traveling salesmen specifically to market souvenir china in the towns and hamlets of Illinois and nearby states. The salesmen carried pattern books that listed the hundreds of shapes available. The merchants provided the scenic photos which the salesmen sent to the European potteries which   reproduced them as black decals that workers applied to the porcelain blanks before the initial firing. Other workers hand colored the pieces and applied other decoration before the final firing. A hand-painted label identified the scene on each piece.

Most of the pieces received a stamp on the bottom or back with the name and town of the merchant as well as the word Wheelock and the town and/or country where it had been produced. The European potteries then shipped the pieces directly to the shopkeepers. 

The Wheelocks continued to produce souvenir china until the start of World War I when access to the European potteries ended. Unfortunately, it never resumed.

Wheelock souvenir ware comes in over 1,500 shapes and sizes, ranging from 2-inch trinket boxes to 12½-inch dishes and plates. More than 80 percent of the pieces produced were white porcelain. Less than 20 percent were white porcelain coated on the outside with cobalt blue or, in a few cases, dark green pigment.

Of more than 7,000 different pieces of white Wheelock souvenir china, a little more than half are plates, the most popular of which ranged in size from 5½ to 6½ inches in diameter. The most common of these are smooth-edged rimless plates, ranging in size from 3½  to 10 inches in diameter. Creamers and cups each represent a bit less than 10 percent of the pieces.

The makeup of the shapes of the cobalt pieces isn’t the same as the white porcelain ones. Creamers are the most common, representing 20 percent of the more than 1,400 cobalt pieces. There are nearly as many cobalt vases as creamers. Cobalt cups, toothpick holders, and dishes follow in that order.

Today, the average price of a piece of Wheelock china is around $20. But some of the more unique ones, like beer steins, have sold for several hundred dollars. Prices paid for Wheelock pieces vary widely, with the higher prices being paid for some unique pieces or historic locations. For example, a dish from the historic mining town of Lead, S.D., sold for $242, while a dish from Watertown, South Dakota, sold for $24. Plates tend to sell for more than other forms.

Part of the enjoyment of collecting souvenir china is the search. Even though Wheelock had thousands of pieces made, they’re scattered all over the country. Antique shops in the East and Midwest seem to have more of them than shops in the South and West since nearly 75 percent are souvenirs of the former areas.

Read more about Victorian souvenirs in  "Wish You Were Here," the story of souvenir postcards in The Antiques Almanac.

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