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North Carolina Art Potteries: North State Pottery Company

The North State Art Pottery was one of the three largest art potteries in North Carolina. The pottery was established by Rebecca Palmer Cooper at the northwest corner of the intersection of Highway 42 and Secondary Road 1007, eight miles west of Sanford. In 1924, Cooper was enamored with the beauty of native North Carolina pottery. She had clay from the Cooper land sent to potters in Moore County for testing. Good clay ratings led her to hire Jonah (Jonie) Owen in 1924 from nearby Moore County. Rebecca Cooper took up pottery as a hobby. She started a pottery across the road from her house, on Route 42. She supervised the pottery for two years, until her husband, Henry Alexander Cooper, a traveling salesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, quit his current job in 1926 to become the pottery's business manager. In 1925 the Coopers hired a second potter, Walter Nelson Owen, Jonie's younger brother.

Incorporating in 1926, North State Pottery Company sold stock to raise capital for the installation of $10,000 worth of clay workin equipment. A pug mill for mixing clay; a disintegrator for breaking up clay; a plunger for mixing water with clay; a mesh screen for removing gravel; a mixer to stir the clay; and a squeezer to press out excess water were purchased with the new money. Cooper bought a machine to mix the metallic oxides and water before glazing took place. A frit kiln was also built.

A publicity campaign was launched in 1925. Perhaps 5,000 pieces were publically exhibited at the Raleigh State Fair. Much of the work was sold. In 1926 the Coopers exhibited at the Sesqui-Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia. In a speech at the Fair, Rebecca Cooper discussed how the culture and craft traditions of "simple, primitive folk" produced an artform that merged simplicity with beauty and utility, hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts movement [a long section of the speech is quoted in Zug, Turners and Burners, p. 411] With old logs trucked from North Carolina, Mr. Cooper and Jonie Owen erected a log cabin, like the one which housed the first sales office of North State back home. The jury awarded them a silver medal and certificate (for "old fashioned pottery"). In 1927 there was a large display of North State Pottery at the NC State Museum of Natural History in Raleigh. There was also advertising literature and newspaper articles which helped to boost interest and sales.

In 1926 Jonie Owen left North State to set up his own pottery, some 35 miles away in Seagrove. Charlie Craven arrived there about the same time. Walter Owen continued to work there. He took over the pottery company in 1959 upon Henry Cooper's death and renamed in Pine State Pottery. Pine State was active through the 1970s.

Cooper himself studies the science of glaze chemistry--reminiscent of Jacques Busbee's involvement with glazes. He became expert in glaze preparation. In each kiln load Cooper would place clay andf glaze tests. This helped him create new clay bodies and glaze colors. Cooper worked closely with the Ceramic Engineering Department at North Carolina State College (later University). He would trade information and ideas with professors there. Interested students would be invited to work summers at the pottery in order to learn production techniques of traditional potters of the "Old North State." This practice was similar to large art potteries in Cincinnati, Boston and New Orleans.

Glazes became one of the best known features of North State Pottery. The double- and triple- dipping process produced unique color combinations, where several glazes are discovered on one piece. Such glazes are applied in layers or bands of color. The Pottery also produced marbleized or swirl ware. This resembled the famous Niloak wares--the mixing of two or three clays to produce swirls of dark and lighter clay that circled the round form of the vessel. This technique of decoration was perfected by Bullet Huyten at the Niloak Pottery in Benton Arkansas. These clays had to fire out at the same temperature. Swirl ware was made in the western Piedmont during the 1930s and later. Henry Cooper at North State produced a very good "spider-webbing"or crackle glaze. Mrs. Cooper introduced new shapes and personally directed the turning and production of greenware. Wares were bisque-fired and glazes were fired in groundhog kilns. Salt-glazed wares were only produced for the first few years. It was too costly to replace fire bricks. The pottery also produced a bright red glaze resembling the Chinese oxblood type and a Chinese blue glaze. There was also a bright green glaze that was widely used for decorative purposes.

The first pottery site had sheds for turning and glazing, two kilns and the log cabin for sales displays. The first site went under during the Depression. The second site was flooded out. The third site has a much larger enclosing building with turning room, glazing area and drying room. At the rear, a shed covers one remaining groundhog kiln. North State Pottery used barrels (originally containing cleaning compounds for hotel laundry) to ship the fragile wares across America. A twelve-page brochure of North State products was widely distributed. There was a gift shop in Sanford and a salesroom just outside Washington D.C. (run by the oldest Cooper daughter). Pottery was sold to craft stores and gift shops throughout the state. Cooper himself drove carloads of ware into the mountains in his Buick. Inn the wholesale catalogue of the 1930s, shop owners were to pick the shapes and colors they wished to stock. Marblehead Art Pottery did this in Marblehead, Massachusetts. A good resource for the North State Pottery is Stuart Schwartz, The North State Pottery Company, Charlotte: Mint Museum, 1977.


See two left-side vessels in Color Plate #20 of Turners and Burners. See Figures 13-17, 13-18 and 13-21 in Turners and Burners.

left--Walter Nelson Owen, Chinese Blue Glaze Pitcher, c. 1940s; middle--Walter Nelson Owen, Swirl Vase, c. 1940s; right--Triple Glaze Stoneware Vase, c. 1840s. All three were made for North State Pottery.

The blue -green and dark red (left) reveal a successful reduction firiing. The marble swirl patterns of North State Pottery (center vase) made use of distinct clays that were set off by the glaze which was brushed on and might drip down the side. North State was known for one or two glazes over a slip glazed vessel, as seen on the right. The runny overglazes on North State ware were often shades of blue, green, off-white or brown.

left--Walter Nelson Owen, Earthenware Teapot, 1940s; middle--Earthenware Rebecca Pitcher, 1940s; right--Earhtenware Vase, 1940s. All were North State Pottery.

The green double glaze (left), the Chinese blue over semi-gloss white slip glaze (center picture) and the dark metalic reserved overglaze on top of a yellow slip glaze (right picture) were common glaze types.  

left--Jonah Franklin Owen, Stoneware Vase, ca. 1925-1939; middle--Earthenware Pitcher, ca. 1920s; right--Salt-glazed Stoneware Ring Jug. All were made for North State Pottery

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