Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Ring the Bells for Bell Pottery
ANSWER: It seems that you’ve stumbled upon a rare piece of china made by the Bell Pottery Company of Findlay, Ohio. The firm only produced fine china rivaling French Haviland and Limoges porcelain for five years, from 1899 to 1904. And for that reason, the pieces are scarce. The dealer in that coop probably also thought it was a copy.
Located in northwestern Ohio, Findlay is better known for its glass. Bell located there because of cheap natural gas which it used to fire its kilns. The pottery began as a partnership between three East Liverpool, Ohio, men—brothers William M. and Edward F. Bell and Henry W. Flentke—who named their new company the Bell Brothers & Co. Pottery. Unfortunately, a series of disasters befell the young company, so it’s life was short lived.
Bell Pottery fired its first wares in July 1889, and by the following month 150 workers kept the dinnerware, toilet ware and hotel china rolling out. By March 1890, the pottery was running night and day and unable to keep up with orders. The partners added three new kilns to increase production.
The first problem occurred in January, 1891, when all the employees struck because of an attempt by the owners to reduce wages. By July, the Bells and Flentke settled the labor dispute and most of the old hands went back to work. But in March 1892, a shortage of natural gas became a problem, and the pottery had to rely on purchased gas from the city. In January 1893, the pottery converted to coal, which meant that all of their raw materials now had to be imported, and in May 893, a rumor that the plant would be leaving Findlay surfaced. That same month, a severe windstorm blew the roof off the decorating room on the third floor of the south building and destroyed six kilns north of the decorating room, causing over $8,000 damage.
In April 1894, the partners began to disagree and with the dissolution of the partnership, the court ordered the property to be sold. Flentke, then living in Evansville, Indiana, stopped the sale of the pottery. He resolved the differences between himself and the Bell brothers before the sale date, enabling the pottery to resume operations in August 1894, after a year of standing idle. But the peace lasted only two years, and in January of 1896, the court once again ordered the property sold for not less than $30,000. The Bell brothers purchased the pottery for 36,450 and paid Flentke $7,295 for his share. By that time, the pottery hadn’t been in full operation for four years, and foreign imports had reduced the demand for its wares.
In 1898, the Bell brothers incorporated the firm as the Bell Pottery Company. A sherd from one of the early wares, marked “BBC/CHINA,” was discovered at an Ohio farmhouse site.
In August 1899, the Bell Pottery announced that it would begin producing hand-decorated white china, employing about 25 decorators. Common decorative motifs included currants, roses, blackberries, chestnuts and hops. By December, improvements included the installation of an oval dish jigger to enable the production of footed dishes for use as nut bowls or candy dishes.
Following a serious fire in April 1900, and more storm damage in June 1900, which knocked down both smokestacks for the decorating kilns, the Bell brothers erected a new brick building, and in 1901, issued additional stock with the intention of doubling the pottery’s capacity, employing 400. Their intention was to produce fine china that rivaled Haviland.
As often happens with small, young companies, they expanded too much and too fast. The Bell brothers planned on building a second factory in Columbus, Ohio, but William Bell died suddenly in 1902. His brother Edward took over management of the pottery, which soon became a union shop.
Edward had grand plans for the Columbus operation. He planned on 17 buildings with 12 kilns, to be doubled as the need arose. Lack of equipment caused more delays. By November 1904, he announced that he would move the Findlay operation to Columbus. The new pottery produced wares for about a year but by September of 1906, it was in the hands of a receiver.
Today, Bell vases and pitchers sell for $150 to $200 while smaller mugs and nut bowls sell for $50 to $75 each.