Wednesday, May 16, 2018

George Ohr—Just a Little Bit Eccentric

QUESTION: On a recent trip to New Orleans, I found and bought a quirky piece of art pottery in an antique shop. The dealer said it was by George Ohr, but I’ve never heard of him. I like the bizarre look this piece has and would like to find more. Can you tell me more about this potter?

ANSWER: George Ohr was a local potter that actually hailed from Biloxi, Mississippi. He was a real character and his personality definitely comes through in his pots.

In the early 1850s, Ohr’s parents moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where his father opened the town’s first blacksmith shop. George worked with him and learned the trade. But when he was 18, Ohr left to seek his fortune in New Orleans.  There he worked at a ship chandler's shop for free room and board plus soap for washing. After three years, he was still getting free soap and only $15 per month. So he went back home to Biloxi where he worked as an apprentice in a file cutter's shop and in a tinker's shop.

Disenchanted with his situation, he returned to New Orleans to learn all he could about potting. As soon as he mastered enough technical skills, Ohr left and spent two years traveling to 16 states to observe other potters and their potteries.

He returned to Biloxi in 1883 with $26.80 with which he equipped his own pottery. He spent most of the money on bricks for his kiln. He did all his own work—digging the clay from a nearby riverbank, loading it in a wheelbarrow, and hauling it back to his shop, which he called the "POT-OHR-E." He called his creations "mud babies" and made over 600 pieces in his first  year. He exhibited some of them at the North Cotton Centennial Exposition, but someone stole them.

On Sept. 15, 1886 Ohr married Josephine Gehring of New Orleans. They had 10 children, but the first two died very young. To support his family, he began selling novelty pottery and souvenir items, such as flowerpots, ceramic hats, children's banks and plaques of Southern buildings at local fairs. He once said that if it weren’t for the housewives of Biloxi who have a constant need of flowerpots, water coolers and flues, the Ohr family would go hungry. Ohr hated to part with his "mud baby" creations, so he put high prices on his best works to see what the market would bear.

It didn't take Ohr long to get the reputation of being just a little bit eccentric. People began calling him “the made potter from Biloxi.” This was in part due to his bizarre appearance. Ohr had long hair that he knotted on top of his head with a brass pin and a long beard that was usually tucked into his shirt to keep it from getting caught in the potter's wheel. He often made a public spectacle of himself—from boasting about his artistic talents to zooming down the street on his bicycle with his 18-inch-long mustache tucked behind his ears. Ohr admitted that he acted "crazy" to attract tourists to his shop.

Although Ohr won a medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, he became disillusioned with the pottery business because he didn't think people appreciated his work. So he abruptly closed his pottery in 1906 and became a motorcycle salesman and then an automobile dealer. Ohr died in 1918, still convinced he was the greatest potter who ever lived. He left his pottery to his children with the request that it not be sold until 50 years after his death. He believed the originality of his work would be appreciated in time.

In 1968, exactly 50 years after Ohr's death, James W. Carpenter, a New Jersey antique dealer, discovered over 7,000 pieces of Ohr's pottery in the attic of the Ohr Boy's Auto Repair Shop. He purchased all of them from Ohr's children and offered it for sale in the New York area. People soon recognized these works of an obscure turn-of-the-century potter as the creation of a genius ahead of his time and not just the works of "the mad potter of Biloxi."

Each piece of pottery created by George Ohr is totally unique. Although he made the usual bowls, vases, mugs, pitchers and teapots, no two were alike in shape or decoration. Ohr had a mischievous nature and enjoyed making unusual forms as well, such as puzzle cups for which the puzzle was how to drink from it without spilling the contents. He made a coffeepot with a lid that couldn’t be removed. The trick was to fill it from the bottom.

Some of Ohr's work showed the Art Nouveau influence of the time. He applied snakes, crabs, seashells, dragons and even the head of a wildcat. Today, these pieces sell for high prices.

Ohr was an expert on the potter’s wheel. He created eggshell-thin vessels of fine quality but wasn’t satisfied with their static quality. He dug his fingers into the moist clay and twisted, dented, pinched, squeezed and generally "tortured" the white and red local clays into amazing one-of-a-kind forms. Ohr designed his elaborate handles with curves and scrolls in the style of wrought iron, influenced by his work with his father as a blacksmith.

Ohr’s glazes, in deep and lustrous in shades of brown, red, bright pink, purple, cobalt blue, yellow and green luster, were as varied as his pottery forms. His colors were Many objects had a gunmetal or pewter finish. He experimented with volcanic, sponged, drip, blister, iridescent, tortoiseshell and pigeon feather glazes. And on some of his pieces, he flawed or sometimes even burned his glazes.

As he got older, he left his works in the unglazed bisque stage. He believed God put no color on souls, so why should he put color on his pots.

It wasn’t until Carpenter put the pieces he discovered up for sale in the 1970s that Ohr’s work found a market, and it was his bisque pieces that got the highest prices. It seems that some of the buyers then glazed these pieces in order to earn more money from resale.

Today, collectors seek Ohr’s twisted, tortured forms and colorful vibrant glazes. It’s what he would have wanted when he was making them.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mementos of Utopia

NOTE: On this day in 1939, the New York World's Fair was well underway. People flocked to it as if going to some sort of urban paradise. Although it wasn't Utopia, it was the next best thing for all those who suffered through the Great Depression. The Fair symbolized hope in the future---The World of Tomorrow.

QUESTION: My uncle's dad founded Greyhound Bus, and he had this keepsake from the 1939 World's Fair.He claimed they made a ton of metal buses to give away, but never really put this tram into production. Have you seen one like this? 

ANSWER: I get almost as many questions about souvenir items from the 1939 New York World’s Fair as there were items sold or given away at the Fair. Well, not really, but pretty many.

The item this person mentions--a small cast-iron Greyhound Bus tram---was one of over 25,000 different mementos made for the Fair. Fifty stands sold souvenirs–everything from postcards to guidebooks to view folders and books, as well as a myriad of novelties that gave "knick-knacks" a whole new meaning. Vendors also sold a myriad of pins. Orange and blue World’s Fair emblems graced the surfaces of every one of them.

The Fair opened on April 30 , 1939–the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City. At 10:00 A.M. Mayor LaGuardia cut the ribbon at a dedication ceremony in the Temple of Religion. Trumpets heralded the procession of thousands of police officers and military men and public officials. And at 2:00 P.M. President Roosevelt dedicated the fair. Altogether, 60 nations and international organizations took part. Thirty-three states of the United States also had exhibits–and every one of them had giveaways and more deluxe souvenirs for sale.

Why is it then that the New York World’s Fair’s souvenirs seem to stand out from the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that same year and the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago six years earlier? For one thing, the shear numbers of items–millions of them–flooded the U.S. and the world with mementos of the Fair. Every visitor, no matter their economic status, brought home something, from small toys like the Greyhound tram to three-legged folding cane/seats so visitors could take a rest while walking the Fair. There were also wallets, bracelets, woman’s compacts, snow globes, and thousands of pins. And for stamp collectors, the Fair offered first day covers, postmarked daily at special U.S. postal stations at the Fair.

Another reason the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered so much variety was that unlike previous world’s fairs of the 20th Century, it was truly a commercial phenomenon. There, housewives first got their first look at automatic washers, cooking mixes, and small appliances of all kinds. So the corporations who sponsored the Fair went all out to promote their new products–products of science and imagination.

So to answer the question above–have I seen such an item–probably not, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and can be worth some good money in the very specialized World’s Fairs’ collectible market.

For more information about 1939 New York World’s Fair memorabilia, click here.
To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

QUESTION: I like antique clocks and have a number of them in my home. I saw this English, tortoiseshell carriage clock sold by J.C. Vickery of London in 1904 at an antique show recently but was hesitant to buy it because tortoiseshell is now illegal. Can I still purchase this clock or will I be committing an illegal act? Also, what can you tell me about tortoiseshell decoration?

ANSWER: While it’s illegal to use tortoiseshell in manufacturing items, it is legal to buy and sell antiques in which tortoiseshell has been used as a decoration.

Tortoiseshell is an ornamental material obtained from the curved horny shields forming the shell of the hawksbill turtle. People have long valued tortoiseshell’s marbled, varicolored pattern and deep translucence for making jewelry, furniture, and other objects. The Romans first imported it from Egypt. During the 17th-century, the French raised the level of artistry for tortoiseshell in decorating jewel cases, trays, snuffboxes, and other items. The craft soon spread to other parts of Europe.

Eastern and Western artisans used tortoiseshell from ancient times until the buying and selling of raw tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Ancient Greeks used tortoiseshell to make their lyres and wealthy  Romans used inlaid veneers of tortoiseshell for furniture, especially couches for dining, and for small objects.

Craftsmen normally used it in thin slices or pieces to make a wide variety of objects such as combs, small boxes and frames and inlays in furniture. Despite its high price, manufacturers and consumers favored it because of its beautiful mottled appearance, its durability, and its organic warmth against the skin.

The French perfected the use of tortoiseshell on furniture by completely covering pieces with sheets of tortoiseshell and brass cut into intricate patterns that fit into one another, the tortoiseshell alternately forming the pattern and the ground, resulting in two types, boulle and counterboulle. André Charles Boulle, cabinetmaker to Louis XIV of France for whom this style of decoration is named, introduced and perfected marquetry combining thin inlays of tortoiseshell backed with metal or with woods and metal.

Another decorative technique, usually employed on tortoiseshell, was piqué work, in which artisans created inlaid designs using small gold or silver pins. The art reached its highest point in 17th- and 18th-century France, particularly for the decoration of smaller articles such as combs, match boxes, and snuffboxes.

To prepare tortoiseshell for decorative use, craftsmen would first separate it from the tortoise’s  bony skeleton by heat. They would then flatten the shields by softening them in warm salt water and flattening them using a press. finally rasping away any irregularities. Tortoiseshell can be easily worked using heat and pressure and can be shaped on a lathe. Two pieces could be fused by use of a hot iron, but like the earlier stages, craftsmen had to be careful not to lose the color. When a craftsman completed a piece, he would polish it using various techniques.

Victorians who wished to show off their wealth would prominently display tortoiseshell items in their homes. They enjoyed tortoiseshell boxes and containers as much for their decorative quality as for their storage possibilities. During the Victorian era, artisans embellished tortoiseshell jewelry with precious stones and gold and silver. They even hand carved some pieces.

Those who collect items made with tortoiseshell must be able to differentiate between the real thing and fake or faux tortoiseshell. But it takes an experienced eye to easily tell the difference. Generally, real tortoise shell is lighter than fake examples, and when compared, the former would have more depth and layers, which is part of the reason why it’s favored for use in jewelry making.

To help distinguish real tortoiseshell from faux tortoiseshell, collectors often use a pin test. However, the person selling a tortoiseshell item might not be too keen on having someone using a hot pin or a piece of sandpaper to see whether it will smell like burned hair since markings or spots may be left on the shell afterwards. Believe it or not, faux tortoiseshell smells more like burned hair than the real thing.

Collecting real antique tortoiseshell objects and jewelry can be expensive since these items are becoming increasingly rare.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.