The Outstanding Pottery & Tile of Santa Catalina Island
A decorative “Submarine Garden” plate produced by Catalina Clay Products on the island of Santa Catalina in the 1930s. These were made in more than one size and border color and are very popular and pricey with collectors.
The Catalina story is a fascinating chapter in the history of Southern California ceramics. In operation for only 10 years, Catalina Clay Products—a project of the Santa Catalina Island Company—produced an extraordinary array of articles between 1927 and its takeover by major mainland competitor, Gladding-McBean & Co., in 1937.
Ownership of the picturesque island, located just 26 miles off the California coast, was in the hands of chewing gum baron William Wrigley, Jr. at the time the business began. He was instrumental in its inception as paving and decorative tile were needed for his pet project, the large and iconic Catalina Casino, which was completed in 1929. Wrigley stubbornly insisted on using only materials native to his island, which proved to be a double-edge sword for the pottery business that would follow.
The Catalina pottery plant at Pebbly Beach, circa 1932.
Tile was the initial output of the plant located at Pebbly Beach on the outskirts of Avalon, Catalina’s renowned tourist resort. By 1929, a line of ornamental pottery, ranging in size from modestly scaled vases and flower pots to large oil jars, was being produced in a bevy of vivid glazes. A line of souvenir novelties was added later, many of which were designed by Bud Upton, one of Avalon’s resident artists.
Some of Upton’s standouts were the Sleeping Mexican ashtray and pipe holder, the “Cat-lina” cactus planter, the goat ashtray, and the bear ashtray. At that time, smoking accessories were an important product of any pottery company as smoking was not frowned on like it is today. Eventually, a complete line of dinnerware and artware was offered in island gift shops and was being shipped to retail outlets on the mainland of California and beyond. Most of these mold-made items were designed to be practical as well as ornamental.
A handled vase glazed in Catalina blue over brown island clay.
A Toyon red-glazed teapot with a 6-inch rolled-rim plate used as a under plate.
A pelican flower frog. This was designed to hold flower stems in place.
A Catalina Art Deco-design vase in sea foam glaze over island clay.
Three Catalina lamps in Descanso green, Catalina blue and Toyon red.
Catalina pottery, besides providing many island residents with needed employment during the Depression years, became a launching pad for key individuals wanting to start mainland businesses of their own following the buyout by Gladding-McBean. Ceramic engineer Virgil Haldeman and glaze wizard Harold Johnson, known for his early polychrome glazes, each headed successful Los Angeles area businesses during the California pottery bonanza of the 1940s. Lucy Watkins, a native artist who specialized in hand-fashioned floral artware, was another.
The native clay used in tile production was a brown-burning terracotta and the same clay was employed for the dinnerware and other pottery produced in the beginning. The brown clay combined beautifully with the colorful glazes developed by both Johnson and Haldeman. The names of the glazes were also colorful, and included Descanso green, Toyon red, Monterey brown, Mandarin yellow, Catalina blue, sea foam and pearly white. But the fact that the ware was not structurally sound and was easily chipped or broken was a shortcoming. Because Wrigley was a stickler for using only raw materials found on the island, the importing of a better, white-burning clay was not possible until after his death in 1932. Although a more substantial product, the remarkable effects that the native clay and glazes induced were unfortunately lost. Ironically, the costly importation of better quality clay to Avalon was a major factor in the consequential sale of the Catalina line.
A few of the many Catalina tiles installed on walls and buildings throughout Avalon.
The display case in the Catalina Island Museum in Avalon shows a variety of ware produced by the Catalina Clay Products Co.
A view of the William Wrigley, Jr. Memorial in Avalon. It’s a Catalina tile tour de force.
There is some debate over who—Bauer or Catalina—was first to introduce the popular colored pottery dinnerware that many collectors covet. Bauer was definitely better positioned to get its line marketed successfully and this probably gave the Los Angeles company an edge. Because it had cultivated a network of nurseries for its stoneware products, the new dishes were quickly distributed to these outlets as soon as they were cool enough to transport. In any event, the dishes and kitchen articles produced by the Catalina pottery were certainly on a par with any of the other California manufacturers.
The company’s artware is what collectors tend to favor. At its best, Catalina Clay Products produced items rivaling any of the acknowledged Art Pottery enterprises. It’s stunning decorative tile plaques that were fitted into Spanish style wrought-iron frames, its tile-top tables, its artist-painted pictorial plates, its glazed vases, lamps and other items were exceptional and are holding their value in today’s unsettled pottery market. Whether many of these products ever find their way into major museum collections remains uncertain. If history tells us anything, what lives on is what the so-called experts collectively decide to endorse and validate.
A decorative Moorish-design plate. These have always been popular with collectors.
Catalina Island ware can be distinguished from other California lines by its distinctive glazes and, in the case of the pre-1932 items, its brown clay body. Marks are also helpful and confusion can arise over this. The words “Catalina” or “Catalina Island” (occasionally “Catalina Isle”) are what one should look for. Gladding-McBean utilized some of the original island molds after its purchase of the company. It also produced an original and noteworthy line of its own called Catalina Pottery. Any item found marked Catalina Pottery is a Gladding-McBean product.
Jack Chipman, an authority on California pottery and particularly Bauer pottery, has been collecting California ceramics for more than 25 years. His first book, “The Complete Collectors Guide to Bauer Pottery” (1982, co-authored with Judy Stangler). He also wrote “Collector’s Encyclopedia of California Pottery” (Collector Books, 1992 & 1999), Collector’s Encyclopedia of Bauer Pottery (Collector Books, 1997), “Barbara Willis: Classic California Modernism” (self-published, 2003) and “California Pottery Scrapbook” (Collector Books, 2005). Jack is also a fine artist, having graduated from the Chouinard/California Institute of the Arts; his work is in the collections of several museums as well as private collections. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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