Mark of the Week: Bybee Pottery

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Although Bybee typically worked with solid colors, at one point they produced a range of spongeware–a mottled glaze pattern created by sponging the glaze onto the piece.

The Company

Bybee Pottery was founded by Webster Cornelison in 1809 (although this date has been debated, as there are no written sales records for the pottery prior to the year 1845). The pottery started out as Cornelison Pottery but was renamed in 1954 after Bybee, the town in Kentucky where the pottery is located. Bybee Pottery is the second oldest pottery company in the USA and has stayed in the ownership of the Cornelison family until the present day, having been managed by at least 6 generations of the family. Manufacturing techniques and the ethos of the company have changed surprisingly little; the pottery has always been made in a rudimentary log cabin using local clay.

Earlier generations of the Cornelison family hired potters and people from the local area to make their simple utilitarian designs in heavy stoneware with a robust salt glaze, usually in brown.  However, Walter Lee Cornelison – the 5th generation – had become a talented potter, having learned to throw thanks to a childhood spent in the pottery workshop so when he inherited leadership of the pottery, he took on the role of master potter. He was an incredibly prolific potter, spending most of his time on the potter’s wheel while local finishers added spouts, handles and other details to the pieces. His work was in keeping with the Cornelison tradition, a less involved design process with more time spent producing simple, functional pots.

Up until 1915, the pottery produced consisted mainly of large utilitarian pieces such as churns and pots in earthy colors with a salt glaze.

Up until 1915, the pottery produced consisted mainly of large utilitarian pieces such as churns and pots in earthy colors with a salt glaze. After this date, the company introduced a series of more brightly colored glazes, adding garden and patio ware to their collection and moving away from the starker, utilitarian ceramics they had produced in the past. This was when the famous Bybee blue glaze was first introduced. In the 1940’s, the company began focusing on table ware and homewares, with much commercial success. In the early 1980’s, a revival of interest in Kentucky folk art saw Bybee featured in the famous Manhattan department store, Bloomingdale’s, thus demand increased significantly.

In early 2011, the Cornelison family ceased production at Bybee Pottery due to rising production costs and a decrease in demand. Staff were dismissed and the remaining stock was sold, but the company has suggested that the pottery may reopen in future.

What To Look For

A lot of Cornelison/Bybee pottery is unmarked, and a proliferation of stoneware with salt glaze produced at this time makes early pieces very difficult to identify. Early Bybee pottery (pre-1954) is likely to be marked with the Cornelison family name, whereas from the mid 1950’s onwards, the Bybee name was used, either the full name or the initials BB, in a stylized lettering design feature on the maker’s mark.

While most Bybee items are utilitarian in design, there are some different items, usually owls and cats, made by the company during the 1960s and 1970s.

Pieces are usually coated thickly in a solid glaze in various bright colors, but Bybee also produced a range of spongeware (a mottled glaze pattern created by sponging the glaze onto the piece). Solids glazes are much more common than decorated or painted pieces, but there are a few decorated ranges. Painted decoration tends to be very rustic and simple. The company produced a number of items with text “From the Hills of old KY intended as souvenirs of Kentucky. While most Bybee items are utilitarian in design – vases, tableware and bowls – there are some different items, usually owls and cats, made by the company during the 1960s and 1970s.

Beware of pieces that are marked with an outline of the Kentucky state featuring the handwritten incised words “genuine Bybee,” “Bybee Selden” or “genuine Bybee KY.” Items with this mark were actually made by a pottery company called Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington – a totally unconnected pottery maker that is often confused with the Cornelison/Bybee pottery.

One interesting aspect of Bornelison/Bybee pottery is the fact that the base of an item was often left uncleaned, so there may be some trace of glaze marks or drips on the bottom of a piece. This sometimes obscures the maker’s mark, but it also helps identify a Bybee piece.

Any item marked with the Cornelison name, rather than the Bybee pottery name, is pre-1954.

Marks

The marking of Bybee pottery is quite sporadic; many pieces are unmarked, and there are many slight variations of backstamps and incised marks as these were often made by hand rather than stamped or inked.

Any item marked with the Cornelison name, rather than the Bybee pottery name, is pre-1954. The Cornelison mark may be a circle containing the words Cornelison Pottery arched at the top and the words Bybee, KY arched below. This mark may or may not contain a number relating to the shape; some items have a number on the base but most do not. Alternative Cornelison marks may include more written information, for example the circular stamp with handwritten lettering inside stating “Cornelison Pottery” followed by “Handmade by Cornelison since 1809” and the location “Bybee, KY.” No Cornelison/Bybee items are marked with a map or outline of the state of Kentucky.

Since the mid-1950’s when Cornelison changed their name to Bybee Pottery, the typical maker’s mark has been a very simple incised mark with “BB.” This is often in a stylized, handwritten font that is often mistaken for the number “1313.” This mark is generally incised into the clay but sometimes it is scraped to remove a layer of glaze.

Since the mid-1950’s when Cornelison changed their name to Bybee Pottery, the typical maker’s mark has been a very simple incised mark with “BB.

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