Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc.
Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc.
Incorporated: 1877 as Red Wing Stoneware Co.
Sales: $1.5 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 327112 Vitreous China, Fine Earthenware and Other Pottery Product Manufacturing; 442299 All Other Home Furnishings Stores
Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc. is a retailer of dinnerware and art pottery located in a small Minnesota town along the Mississippi River. The store sells imported wares in a large showroom as well as two locally produced lines of pottery that replicate the stoneware produced in the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The store also serves as a tourist attraction for collectors of the pottery that was produced in Red Wing before the factory closed in 1967.
The Red Wing name is best known for the stoneware industry that flourished in the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, the factories in Red Wing were among the largest producers of stoneware in the United States. The stoneware, dinnerware, and art pottery produced from 1877 to 1967 is now sought after by collectors across the nation. The Red Wing Collectors Society, formed in 1977, meets annually in Red Wing to support collection and research on the historic stoneware. Items in good condition can fetch high prices. The Red Wing Pottery Sales web site lists the value of a 10 to 20 gallon crock at $50 to $90, while a 50 to 60 gallon crock is worth as much as $1,500.
The 19th-century Birth of a Prosperous Industry
Stoneware was first produced in Red Wing in 1861, when a German immigrant named John Paul moved to a farm near Red Wing. Paul had been a potter in Germany and was familiar with the processes needed to produce durable stoneware, including how to build a kiln, how to cool the stoneware carefully, and how to glaze the product in order to seal porous clay. Paul made stoneware for himself using the natural red clay along the Mississippi River, and later established a small pottery business in an old schoolhouse. However, Paul’s production method, using only a potter’s wheel and a wood-fired kiln, was not efficient enough to support a larger endeavor. Paul left the area soon after the Civil War.
William M. Philleo continued the pottery industry with a plant that operated from 1863 to 1880. Philleo improved on Paul’s technique by mixing red clay with silica to produce tougher stoneware. However, the chemical makeup of the clay made it unfit for the usual glazing processes. Philleo was most successful with unglazed earthenware and architectural terra cotta. The factory burned down in 1870, but Philleo rebuilt and produced pickle jars, crocks, and churns under the name Red Wing Terra Cotta Works until 1880, when he moved the business to St. Paul.
Philleo’s one-time foreman, David Hallum, had used his tenure at the Terra Cotta Works to experiment with various mixes of clay and firing techniques. In 1874 he started the Minnesota Pottery Co., using an improved production method. The new method made use of white clay, which was found under the layer of red clay and was able to withstand very high temperatures. Hallum would fire pots in a giant kiln for four days, and, when the temperature peaked, throw rock salt into the kiln. The chloride in the salt vaporized and the pure sodium adhered to the surface of the stoneware. The resulting product was hard, waterproof, and acidproof. The salt-glaze technique, with its characteristic “orange peel” finish, was used in Red Wing until the end of the century. However, Hallum was driven out of business when an Akron, Ohio competitor deliberately undersold him at half price over the course of two years.
The pottery industry gained its first solid footing in Red Wing in 1877. A group of local investors gathered enough capital to buy Hallum’s assets and hired him to run the Red Wing Stoneware Co., which was the first of three large pottery factories to be founded in Red Wing in the late 1800s. The company, headed by businessman E.T. Howard, built a sizeable factory making use of large up-draft kilns fired with wood and coal. Numerous fire holes in the bottom of the kiln allowed for control of the conditions inside, and a central chimney produced an immense draft. Many technological changes later adopted by other local companies originated at the Red Wing Stoneware Co., including colored markings on pots and the eventual replacement of the salt glaze with white zinc glaze.
The pottery industry prospered, taking advantage of the distribution system already in place for Red Wing’s grain exporting business. Major products in the early days of production were crocks, jugs, churns, and water coolers. But the industry soon diversified into producing items such as mixing bowls, canning jars, baking pans, and chicken feeders. Because stoneware was the only viable option for storage in the 19th century, there was great demand for stoneware of all types.
In 1883 a second group of investors founded the Minnesota Stoneware Co. The two pottery companies maintained good relations, sharing some of the same stockholders and producing similar wares. The market was big enough for both factories to be successful, since the pottery industry had no large competitors in all of the Dakota territory and northern Wisconsin. After the first few months of operation, Minnesota Stoneware was producing 18,000 gallons of stoneware a week from 44 employees. The company was more efficient than its competition and made use of new down-draft kilns. When the Red Wing Stoneware factory burned down in 1884, it was rebuilt with the new type of kiln.
The third of the three early factories, North Star Stoneware Co., was incorporated in 1892. The company built a modern factory notable for its efficient production techniques and the use of molds, rather than the hand-turning technique, for almost all of its products. Unfortunately, an economic downturn in the early 1890s forced all three companies to reduce production and close down for extended periods. To cope with the situation, the companies in 1894 formed a marketing and sales cooperative, the Union Stoneware Co. North Star was the weakest link in the cooperative and was absorbed by the other two companies in 1896.
By 1900, the pottery industry was once again prosperous. The two existing companies had added more kilns and modernized their methods. The white “Bristol” glaze, making use of a chemical recipe that included large amounts of zinc oxide, replaced the salt-glaze method. The new glaze produced more uniform results and reduced the amount of stoneware that was destroyed during the firing process. Another innovation was in the area of stoneware decoration, as stamps were increasingly used in place of hand-painted designs. Efficiency was also improved by a growing reliance on molds rather than the hand-turning method. Molds could be used in several different ways. In the “jiggering” method, clay is placed in a plaster mold and a paddle comes down into the center of the mold, forcing the clay into the desired shape. Another possibility was the slip-casting method, in which clay, reduced to a runny consistency, is poured into a mold and congeals on the inside surface. The excess clay is poured out once the deposit has reached the desired thickness.
Both pottery factories burned down in 1900 but were soon rebuilt and back in operation. After the fire, the affiliation between Minnesota Stoneware and Red Wing Stoneware increased and the division between their individual product lines, employees, and equipment blurred. In 1906 the companies merged completely and reincorporated as the Red Wing Union Stoneware Co. Around 1909 the distinctive red wing trademark and stamped oval company identification replaced the blue or black birch leaves and other markings found on earlier stoneware.
Changing Focus in the 20th Century
The 20th century saw the development of new, convenient household products, challenging the prosperity of the stoneware industry. After 1910 the industry lost market share due to the increasing use of glass and metal for canning and cooking. In the 1940s, the proliferation of plastic made stoneware storage a quaint relic of the past. A new direction was required if the industry was to survive.
Dinnerware and art pottery provided this new direction as the 20th century advanced. In the early 1930s the company discontinued the production of the traditional crocks, jars, and churns and began experimenting with new products. Rumrill art pottery, marketed by George Rumrill and designed by his wife, was sold from 1933 to 1938. In 1935 a line of dinnerware patterns, solid color place settings, and serving pieces known as Gypsy Trail was introduced. The next year the company dropped the old-fashioned reference to “stoneware” in its title and renamed itself Red Wing Potteries, Inc. Brightly colored, hand-painted products such as tea cups, relish trays, vases, pitchers, and ashtrays appeared in company catalogs. Fiesta Ware and Nokomis Ware became well-known product lines. The company developed a reputation for high-quality, hand-painted dinnerware. In 1967 it was the only producer of hand-painted dinnerware in the United States.
Foreign imports, using cheaper production methods, provided stiff competition, however. Postwar Japan became a major producer of dinnerware and pottery in the mid-1950s. Plastics were also becoming more widespread. Wage concessions kept the company alive for a time, but by 1967 the company had been in marginal operation for several years. The stage was set for the confrontation that would finally close the Red Wing factory.
In June 1967 the firm’s production workers called a strike. They demanded higher pay, better benefits, and a pension plan. The firm’s president, R.A. Gillmer, countered that such concessions would force the factory to close. The strike dragged on through the summer without a resolution. On August 24, after unsuccessful attempts at reaching an agreement, the firm’s stockholders met and voted to close the factory.
We are in business to provide pottery, dinnerware and gifts to our retail customers, and to provide one of the best visitor attractions in southeast Minnesota with our large retail salesroom and our pottery manufacturing operation.
The shutdown was a blow to the city of Red Wing. The pottery factory was the county’s top taxpaying industry and one of the city’s largest employers with more than 100 workers. But the impact was more than economic. Red Wing lost the industry that had spread the city’s name across the Midwest and formed its identity for 90 years.
Retail and Rebirth After 1967
Traces of the pottery industry managed to survive the shutdown of the factory. Company President R.A. Gillmer bought the significant assets of the Red Wing factory for $76,000, while the warehouse in St. Paul went to Tri-Investments Co. for $68,500. Gillmer formed the corporation Remnicha, Inc., named after a Dakota word for the Red Wing area. Remnicha continued to operate the factory outlet that had opened a year earlier. The store sold the remaining inventory of locally manufactured pottery and gradually introduced imported dinnerware, pottery, and gifts. Once liquidation of the Red Wing Pottery, Inc. assets was complete in 1970, Gillmer changed the firm’s name from Remnicha to Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc. By the mid-1970s, only a few items from the old factory, mostly remnants of unmatched sets, remained on the store’s shelves. Instead the showroom was filled with pottery from around the world, including the brand names Pfaltzgraff, Fiesta, Noritake, and Johnson Bros.
But pottery production in Red Wing never died out completely. By the late 1990s, the showroom carried two locally produced lines of pottery. The first was made by Red Wing Stoneware Co., a firm founded in 1984 by potter John Falconer. Falconer bought the rights to the Red Wing name and technical records and began making replicas of the bristol-glazed Red Wing stoneware that was produced after about 1900. In 2001 the firm employed two potters who made hand-turned stoneware with a potter’s wheel, as well as about ten other workers involved in making pottery from molds using the slip-casting method. The firm’s products were sold locally to wholesale customers and could be purchased at the retail store adjoining the pottery factory on the edge of town. Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc. added the locally produced stoneware to the imports on its shelves.
In 1996 Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc. introduced its own line of locally manufactured pottery. Scott Gillmer, grandson of R.A. Gillmer, announced that the firm would produce salt-glazed stoneware, replicating the method used in the Red Wing factories up until about 1900. The company expressed its hope that the pottery would be both functional and valuable as a collector’s item. In 2001 the firm employed two potters who hand-turned each piece on a potter’s wheel and stamped it with the firm’s logo, the date, and the potter’s initials. The chance to once again see locally produced pottery in Red Wing added to the attractions of the town for tourists and collectors. Both pottery firms offered tours of the production facilities. Although overshadowed by the ghost of the industry that died in 1967, new locally manufactured pottery was once again gaining a foothold in Red Wing.
- German immigrant John Paul makes the first pottery in Red Wing.
- Red Wing Stoneware Co. is incorporated.
- Minnesota Stoneware Co. is founded.
- North Star Stoneware Co. is founded.
- North Star is absorbed by the other two companies.
- The two remaining companies merge completely as the Red Wing Union Stoneware Co.
- Name change to Red Wing Potteries, Inc. reflects a shift in focus.
- Pottery factory closes after a strike.
- Replica salt-glazed pottery begins to be produced for the retail store.
- Firm now employs its own potters to produce salt-glazed pottery.
Gillmer, Sue, “A Brief History of the Pottery Industry in Red Wing,” http://www.redwingcollectors.org/History.htm.
Johnson, Frederick L., Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History, Red Wing: Goodhue County Historical Society Press, 2000, pp. 99-101, 295-96.
“Potteries Salesroom Is Sold to Remnicha,” Red Wing Daily Republican Eagle, February 9, 1968.
Tefft, Gary, and Bonnie Tefft, Red Wing Potters & Their Wares, Menomonee Falls, Wis.: Locust Enterprises, 1996, 200 p.
Viel, Lyndon C, The Clay Giants, Des Moines: Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 1977, 128 p.
“What Is Red Wing Stoneware?,” http://www.msr.net/gsrw/page2.html.
—Sarah Ruth Lorenz