August 2, 2010

The Early History of Lenox China

(Reposted from Lenox-China.Net)

In 1859, the industrial city of Trenton, New Jersey was small but bustling. Its geographical proximity to both New York City and Philadelphia—as well as being located near major transportation lines—meant lots of workers flowed in and out every day. One of the many wares being produced in the city was pottery, due to the city’s abundant fuel and clay resources. It was then, as Trenton was working its way towards being America’s leading ceramics center, that Walter Scott Lenox was born.

From the time he was a child, Lenox was interested in designing ceramics. As a teenager in 1875, he began working as a decorator for several potteries. Within a few years, he was made the Design Director for Ott and Brewer Pottery Company, and later the Factory Art Design Director at Willets Manufacturing. Both companies produced a domestic version of Irish Belleek, which was a very intricate, eggshell-thin ceramic style.

In 1889, Lenox opened his own pottery studio, called Ceramic Art Company, with an acquaintance, Jonathan Coxon Sr. They strived to produce custom-made pieces for discerning clients, rather than producing item after item on a conveyor belt. Among the early pieces they made were vases, pitchers, and tea sets. While they, too, focused on Belleek-style pottery, Lenox would not stamp English markings onto his pieces, as many companies of the day did.

Nevertheless, Ceramic Art Company did not do well in the beginning. The cost of materials and labor exceeded any profits, and its debt was further compounded when Lenox bought out Coxon’s portion of the company. Yet despite their struggles, the American people were taking note of the fine craftsmanship being produced. By 1897, some of the pieces had even made their way onto display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Lenox’s luck changed, however, when at the turn of the 20th century fine home dining became trendy, leading to a rising interest in fancy dinnerware. They began producing custom-made bone china dinner and service plates, soon leading to complete dinnerware sets. They sometimes employed American artists, such as William Morley, as a way to stay competitive with established European potteries.

With the expanded line, the company changed its name to Lenox Incorporated. In 1910, they began using transfer prints enhanced with hand-applied color; but under the direction of award-winning Chief Designer Frank Graham Holmes, they eventually moved on to full-color lithographic decals.

The company’s popularity soared when, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned a 1,700-piece Lenox china service to use in the White House. Shortly thereafter, Walter Scott Lenox passed away, but not before seeing Lenox china surpass the competition, both domestically and internationally.

Today, Lenox china can be found on display in the White House’s China Room, in more than 300 U.S. embassies, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as in many exhibitions of decorative art around the world.

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