|By Susan Mellish
Growing a garden in the Buckeye state can be a labor of love as gardeners have to man-handle Ohio’s non-porous clay. Pottery collectors, on the other hand, think Ohio is the place to be. The number of potteries operating in Ohio during the late 19th to early 20th century is legendary. Some institutions were long-lived like Roseville, McCoy and Hall. Others had very short life spans like RumRill Pottery.
Operating in Minnesota from 1931 to 1938 and in Ohio from 1938 to 1942, this company had more ups and downs than can be imagined during its short lifespan. Collectors of the ware love not only the variety of items produced, but the stories behind their creation.
In her book RumRill Pottery, the Ohio Years 1938-1942, (Collector Books, 2008) author Fracesca Fisher features her private collection, which is extensive, but also details the history of this small company.
RumRill Pottery was the brainchild of George Rumrill, a Texan whose forte was sales. Fisher said no one really knows why Rumrill turned to pottery, but one of his earlier jobs in 1926 was as a sales manager for the Louis Schneider Candy Company, Little Rock, Ark. For reasons unknown, in 1930 he started the Arkansas Products Company which sold art pottery such as Niloak and Camark.
Over the course of the next two years, Rumrill began producing a line of pottery under the RumRill name but it was not manufactured in Arkansas, though the RumRill Pottery Company did have offices in Little Rock. Rather, Rumrill farmed out his designs to be manufactured at established companies such as Red Wing in Minnesota and Shawnee, Florence, and finally Gonder – all located in Ohio. By doing so, RumRill Pottery suffered its share of woes.
It was 1931. Red Wing was tired of its everyday ware and wanted to produce art pottery. A deal was made between Rumrill and Red Wing that Red Wing would manufacture art pottery under the RUMRILL name over the course of a five-year period. Red Wing filed for trademark protection for “Rum Rill” in 1935. Through research, author Fisher found “that George Rumrill assigned his ’RUMRILL’ trademark to Red Wing Potteries in 1936.”
And here is where it gets sketchy.
Rumrill, possibly believing Red Wing Potteries was on its last leg, began looking elsewhere to have his ware produced. According to Fisher, Rumrill was trying to recruit a team of designers in 1937 in order to make the switch. As predicted, in 1938 Red Wing announced they would be no longer be producing pottery wearing the RUMRILL mark, but would be producing the same designs sans Rumrill and his trademark. It appears a trademark dispute was eminent. In an effort to by-pass this, Red Wing and Rumrill worked out a deal where Red Wing would still produce Rumrill designs, but without the RUMRILL mark, and in the process, the RUMRILL trademark was reassigned to the RumRill Pottery Co.
So with his trademark back in hand, but without a company to produce his line of designs, Rumrill started shopping around. The Shawnee Pottery Company of Zanesville, Ohio, was chosen to take on production of Rumrill’s designs. Unfortunately, this collaboration only lasted about a year. It seems the vases Shawnee produced for Rumrill leaked water. “The ceramic used by Shawnee was too porous and on the base where glaze does not exist, the water would leak through,” said Fisher. Not a great selling point especially when a big chunk of your clientele is the floral industry. Add to the leakage issue, the fact that the cost to produce ware at Shawnee was expensive, and Rumrill renewed his search for a manufacturer. He found one - again, in Ohio.
The Florence Pottery Company in nearby Mt. Gilead was a good choice for Rumrill. A small company, Florence produced high quality pottery – a nice change of pace – and Florence was entranced by Rumrill and his business plan, according to Fisher. Remember, Rumrill was a polished salesman, and he knew how to promote his ideas.
So enamored was Florence with Rumrill, the company upgraded its kiln and hired 60 extra employees to take on the Rumrill account.
One of those new hires was Lawton Gonder. Acting as the general manager, Gonder not only was in charge of preparing Florence for the Rumrill account, but was also put in charge of production. Gonder would play a key role in Rumrill’s history.
With the first order of Florence-produced RumRill pottery in place by January 1939, the RumRill history began again with Gonder and Rumrill at the helm. Unfortunately, the next three years of production would be difficult for a variety of reasons.
Though George Rumrill was a fantastic businessman – great product, great sales team, great company – doing business long distance had its issues. Rumrill worked out of Arkansas. The RumRill pottery was produced in Ohio. The day to day problems that can arise at a manufacturer were hard to deal with from afar. There were lots of problems at the pottery most being blamed on miscommunication and lack of supervision according to Fisher. Orders weren’t filled correctly. Orders were not packed properly resulting in breakage. Inappropriate substitutions concerning orders took place. Retailers buying RumRill to fill their shelves were not happy.
George Rumrill tried to deal with these issues via letter writing, and often his solutions were long-winded, at times unrealistic and often ignored. Rumrill was also known to change his mind countless times concerning areas of the business which just added to the confusion. According to Fisher, “He discontinued shapes, changed finish colors, renamed sizes and whipped up new ideas virtually overnight.” This mania did not translate well at Florence where confusion was commonplace.
The workers at Florence seemed to perpetuate the problem. Orders were not filled in a timely manner, instructions for special orders were not followed, and some orders were never filled. Gonder had his hands full trying to deal with Rumrill’s enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations as well as the production of the product. Rumrill’s love of sales resulted in lots of orders that Gonder and the Florence Pottery Company could not fulfill. Gonder and Rumrill seemed to always be at odds with each other.
Then in October of 1941 a fire destroyed the building housing the Florence Pottery Co. In December a press release stated it would not be rebuilt.
The Florence Pottery Company was not rebuilt due to lack of funds and to add to the tragedy, Rumrill was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
However, while the fire destroyed the Florence Pottery, Rumrill’s molds had been stored elsewhere and within six weeks of the fire plant manager Gonder had “secured financial backing so he could start his own pottery, Gonder Ceramic Arts Company in Zanesville, Ohio,” Fisher wrote.
Gonder began producing RumRill pottery, but the production of RumRill Pottery was affected by George Rumrill’s declining health. Fisher found a press release dated January 1943 saying Gonder Ceramic Arts, Inc. had “ceased doing a specialized mold business with a ’prominent pottery company,’” though it never mentioned Rumrill by name. Another release published in the Crockery and Glass Journal in February of 1943 stated the RumRill Pottery Company had ceased operations due to the illness of George D. Rumrill, and in July of 1943 that same publication reported Rumrill’s death.
Rumrill, like many of the people who worked in the pottery industry, developed breathing issues from the dust he encountered when visiting his pottery. “Many pottery workers of this era either develop emphysema or tuberculosis,” said Fisher. His death ended the RumRill pottery line.