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‘Swatch Out’ for Red Wing Color Test Plates

by Rick Natynski (03/28/12).

A Red Wing Pottery test plate, used to see how new recipes for different glaze colors performed. (photographs by Stacy Wegner, Red Wing Collectors Society executive director)

These days, a person can run over to their local hobby shop and choose from a whole spectrum of glazes when deciding how to decorate their pottery. But back in the Red Wing Pottery days, a discrete group of four or five employees worked in a lab on the building’s second floor, and they were the ones who concocted the color formulations that would result in the ideal pink for the Pink Spice pattern, the trademark tones for Delta Blue, or the dark green used for the Tampico watermelon rind.

Once mixed, these glazes had to be fired to see how they would stand up to kiln temperatures. Thus, different glazes were applied to blank pieces of pottery, identified by a code number and sent off to bake. These test pieces had two primary objectives. One, of course, was to determine what the glaze color would look like once it had been fired. The other was to test glaze strength and consistency.

Many variables went into creating successful glazes. A quality recipe would need to result in no crazing or bubbling, and it would need to adhere to different types of clays and surfaces. Everything from the amount of time spent in the kilns to the exact spot where pieces sat inside the ovens contributed to whether glazes would turn out right.

While it’s likely that hundreds of plates, cups and vases were fired in the kilns to test potential dinnerware and art pottery glazes, only a small fraction survive today. One reason is that they had no commercial value at the time, which is why they were never signed. A person walking into the Sales Room was looking for something stylish to eat off of, not a bunch of color swatches with numbers next to them.

Second, these test pieces were directly tied to Red Wing’s proprietary research and development. Hundreds of lab hours went into perfecting the many glazes the pottery used, and the identification codes on the test pieces matched up with the closely guarded glaze recipes. If these recipes were to get into the wrong hands, competing potteries could save themselves the time it would take to create glazes of their own. Therefore, most of these pieces found their way to the dump, where they were shattered beyond recognition.

The pieces that did survive, however, are not only valuable and highly collectible, but also serve as excellent reminders of all the time and hard work that went into creating Red Wing’s wares.

The plates featured here are courtesy of the collection of RWCS Members Al & Jan Pinkert.

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Rick Natynski is the Red Wing Collectors Society Newsletter. The Red Wing Collectors Society was founded in 1977 in Red Wing, Minn. and is devoted to educating people about all American pottery. There are more than 4,000 members worldwide. The Red Wing Potteries had diverse pottery lines that included stoneware, dinnerware and art pottery. For more information or to become a member, call the RWCS business office at 800.977.7927, e-mail membership@redwingcollectors.org or log on to www.redwingcollectors.org.

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