The Background of Franciscan Pottery
“Franciscan Pottery” began in the mid-1930s as a venture of Gladding, McBean & Co., which had been founded in 1875 by Charles Gladding and his partners, Peter McGill McBean and George Chambers. Charles Gladding had come west the year before from Chicago to explore new economic opportunities in the area of clay sewer pipes, which had been his area of work in Chicago.
While hundreds of thousands of people had come from all over the world to California to seek fortune after gold was discovered in 1848, Charles Gladding decided to relocate to California when he learned of the discovery of… clay — massive clay deposits near Lincoln. Not long after its founding, the company was manufacturing and shipping clay sewer pipes throughout California.
By 1890, Gladding, McBean & Co. had expanded its production beyond sewer pipes. Those distinctive half-cylindrical unglazed red roof tiles of the main campus buildings that so distinguish Stanford University? A project of Gladding, McBean & Co. in 1891, when the university was founded. And that is just one example of scores of such projects. Other examples are the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan Presidential Libraries in California, and the Italian Embassy, in Washington, D.C.
The Beginnings of Franciscan Pottery
Gladding, McBean got the ball rolling when it bought Tropico Pottery, which was to become the site of the production of the Franciscan line of dinnerware in just over a decade hence. Things moved apace in 1933, when Gladding, McBean bought another company that had plants in Hermosa Beach and Vernon; and things really accelerated in 1934, when Frederic J. Grant, who had been vice president and then president (1932) of Weller Pottery in Zanesville, Ohio, was hired in January. He and his wife, Mary, a recognized designer, gave strong guidance the company until their departure in 1952. Some of her work was on display in exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
No less significant than the acquisition of additional companies and facilities to the later success of the Franciscan lines of dinnerware was the 1928 patent by A. Malinovszky of the Malinite process, which was improved upon and perfected in the ensuing years.
The Hotel Biltmore in Los Angeles in June 1934 and the China and Glass Show in New York the following month, were the west and east coast state venues where Franciscan art and dinner ware were first introduced to the public; the New York premier distinguished Franciscan as the first California pottery to be marketed in the East.
It was an astute marketing move when Gladding, McBean named its dinnerware and art pottery division “Franciscan.” With but a word, they were able to call to mind images of old California and Spanish padres — early missionaries to California — and, by extension, the myth of a simple, peasant existence, which they sought to bring to the rest of the country.
The Franciscan name also bespoke an image of historical tradition, which, coupled with the glamor of a burgeoning film industry and an exotic climate, both gave substance to and helped create a romanticized identity of things “California.”
It took more, though, than a cleverly chosen name to ensure the success over the years of Franciscan Pottery. (The name was changed to Franciscan Ware in 1936 to broaden its image and give it a more “upscale” image: another astute marketing move.) Those evocations of a simpler time in the West were fueled by promotions that were instrumental in popularizing the inexpensive dinner ware and served to propel it to heights of desirability over the years. An early example of this was a 1936 Lowell Thomas travelogue that showcased the Franciscan product and factory. In the 1950s, the Franciscan Ivy pattern was featured on I Love Lucy, and Mary Tyler Moore served guests on Franciscan Apple dinnerware on the original Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s.
Of course, without the highest quality designs and craftsmanship, the success that Franciscan enjoyed would have been short lived.
Designs changed over the years, from the initial solid pastel colors, through the floral hand-painted patterns — most note worth, the Apple, Desert Rose, and Ivy — of the 1940s, to the “atomic age” Star Burst pattern of the 1950s.
The End of the U.S. Production of Franciscan Pottery (/Ware)
Gladding, McBean, which had already moved from family to corporate ownership and control by the late 1920s, merged with Lock Joint Pipe Company in 1962 to form the International Pipe and Ceramics (whose name was later changed to the more “forward” sounding Interpace). In 1979, the behemoth Wedgwood Limited of England, bought out the Glendale property, and in 1984 all U.S. manufacturing of Franciscan pottery ceased when they closed the plant and moved production to England.
Although production of the Franciscan line of dinnerware continued, none of it was made any longer in the U.S. (nor with the “Malinite” process), and the years 1934 to 1984 are considered by collectors as the “Golden Days” of Franciscan Pottery.
Helpful Sources of Information:
Page, Bob, et. al. Franciscan: An American Dinnerware Tradition. Greensboro: Page-Frederiksen Publications, 1999 (Amazon preview)
Huntsville Antique Show: Franciscan Desert Rose Dinnerware http://huntsvilleantiques.blogspot.com/2010/04/franciscan-desert-rose-dinnerware.html
Gladding McBean http://www.gladdingmcbean.com/aboutus.html