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Decorative Arts

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Decorative Arts of Illinois

On January 10, 1856, when Joel A. Matteson, Illinois’ tenth governor, hosted his first official reception in the newly completed Governor’s Mansion, guests were served on porcelain imported from Europe, in rooms furnished with sofas, chairs, and gilt-framed mirrors shipped from New York or Boston. Nonetheless, the Illinois State Journal noted, “some very handsome extension tables, and bureaus, &c. made expressly for the splendid mansion of the Governor” had been procured from the shop of local cabinetmaker John Hutchinson.1 Like most early Illinois furniture makers, Hutchinson’s establishment combined furniture making with undertaking, supplying coffins and a “good hearse with two horses” in addition to sofas, bedsteads, tables, and various cabinet goods. Trained in Philadelphia, Hutchinson arrived in Springfield from his native Pennsylvania in the early 1830s. He proudly introduced steam-powered machinery into his shop in 1849.2

In the 1850s, Illinois was still a frontier state. Elaborately carved or veneered mahogany and rosewood furniture was imported from the East by way of St. Louis or New Orleans; however, less ornate pieces made of native walnut, maple, and cherry were crafted within the state. Nearly every Illinois hamlet had a local cabinetmaker who could provide a few pieces of simple and well-made furniture. Other household goods were supplied by chair makers, weavers, coopers, tinners, silversmiths, and other “mechanics,” as such practical artisans were called. Many had migrated west from southern or eastern states in the 1820s and 1830s. Others arrived in the 1840s from Germany, Ireland, England, and other parts of western and northern Europe—drawn to Illinois by promises of jobs, cheap land, and freedom. Early craft industries were closely allied with the state’s agricultural economy; in many cases, practitioners were considered primarily as farmers and secondarily as craftsmen.

Unseen by visitors, the kitchen in the Governor’s Mansion in those days would have contained a supply of practical Illinois-made ceramic food and storage containers intended for everyday use. Throughout the state, potters plied their craft using the native materials indigenous to their location, as had Native Americans living in the area since Pre-Columbian times. By the early 1830s, several production regions had been established in the state. The U.S. Industrial Census of 1840 listed 23 potteries in Illinois; by 1860, more than 74 were known to exist.

Most of the earliest documented potters made redware, which had a porous earthenware body, meeting the demand for kitchen ware, flower pots, roof and drainage tiles, and sewer pipe. Except in the Lead Mine District around Galena, redware was soon replaced by the more durable stoneware, which was stronger and had a density that required no glaze to be waterproof. High quality stoneware clay, found in west-central Illinois in a belt that stretched from Rock Island to Alton, was the source for potteries operated in Brown, Scott, Greene, and Madison counties.

Early ware, hand formed by master potters, consisted largely of plain jugs, jars, crocks, churns, pitchers, and other utilitarian pieces essential for storing and processing food. Jugs in various shapes and sizes were required for transportation and packaging of liquids, particularly whiskey, which was widely consumed and was also used for medicinal purposes. Some potters applied a salt glaze, others used a brown Albany slip; a few decorated their wares and stamped their name on their wares, but the majority remained plain and unmarked.

Before the Illinois Central Railroad was chartered to lay tracks across the state in 1851, the major mode of transportation for people and goods was still the steamboat, which caused the building of canals and the commercial predominance of towns located either on Lake Michigan or on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The state’s population was concentrated along these water routes, and much of the interior remained sparsely settled. The appearance of several railroads in the 1850s greatly expanded the commerce and population of Illinois, with Chicago quickly rising to predominance as the nation’s rail center. By 1860, Illinois ranked second in the nation in rail mileage, and it was the fourth most populous state in the Union.

Illinois, with its abundant supply of quality clay as well as coal, developed into a major pottery producing state in the late nineteenth century. By the 1870s, advancements in ceramic production techniques initiated at eastern manufactories began to filter west, with an influx of eastern capitalists and skilled craftsmen looking at Illinois for manufacturing sites. Small family-operated workshops, typified by the Kirkpatrick’s pottery in Anna, were replaced by large stoneware factories operated at production centers across the state, including Macomb, Monmouth, Peoria, Rock Island, and White Hall. In 1875, the Peoria Pottery Company alone produced 500,000 flower pots, 36,000 fruit jars, and 100,000 milk pans.

In addition to potteries producing utilitarian and garden ware, specialized works supplied clay building materials such as bricks, tiles, and architectural terra cotta, with large factories operating in Blue Island, Chicago, Galesburg, Ottawa, and Terra Cotta. Located along major railway corridors, these new ceramic factories supplied the state and much of the trans-Mississippi West with stoneware and construction materials.

Railroads also gave Illinois’ furniture makers access to lumber and markets, which they combined with a skilled immigrant labor supply, primarily German and Scandinavian craftsmen. By 1870, fifty percent of Chicago’s cabinetmakers had been born in Germany, ten percent in Scandinavia, and another sixteen percent represented a mixture of craftspeople from other European countries.3 Within the city, the abundance of trained workers, coupled with advances in labor-saving woodworking machinery, encouraged specialty production, with factories specializing in chairs, parlor or bedroom furniture, frames for upholsterers, carvings, school and commercial furniture, even musical instruments. There was also room for custom shops, with highly skilled woodcarvers like Gustav F. Behm producing notable one-of-a-kind pieces for wealthy local patrons. Chicago-made furniture was soon found throughout midwestern and far western states, as farmers transported their livestock and products to Chicago by rail and used their profits to purchase household furnishings that were shipped home.

In Rockford, the arrival of large numbers of Swedish immigrants after the Civil War led to the establishment of an important furniture industry surpassed only by Chicago and Grand Rapids in the Midwest. By 1877, 16 plants were operational in the city, employing nearly one-fourth of the city’s workingmen. Here too, plants specialized, producing so many library and dining room case goods that Rockford became known as the “Bookcase Town.” Closely allied with the furniture business were plants supplying mirrors, glass, mattresses, and woodworking machinery. Similar growth occurred in Illinois industries producing decorative metalwork, glass, clocks, pianos, and harps.

In 1893, Chicago and the state’s ascendancy as an industrial powerhouse was recognized when the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. In the Illinois State Building, the largest of all state-sponsored exhibition halls at the time, all aspects of its residents’ activities from agriculture to zoology were on display. Of special interest, and receiving much publicity, were the exotic parlor and bedroom furnishings hand-carved by Carthage farmer William H. Bartels, on display in the private suite of Governor John Peter Altgeld.

But not all Illinois residents celebrated or profited from the perceived prosperity accompanying the state’s growth and progress. Beginning in the 1890s, the ideals and design aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement found a sympathetic audience among Illinois art workers, educators, and others involved in progressive cultural and social reforms. Reacting to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, Arts and Crafts practitioners embraced simplicity of line, durable honest materials, and the human touch. Societies, guilds, and schools spread the “craftsman ideal” and promoted handworkmanship as a moral regenerative force. Less a style than an approach to the making of objects, the Arts and Crafts philosophy found tangible expression in the revival of traditional handicrafts—particularly metalwork, ceramics (art pottery and hand-painted china), furniture, stained and cut glass, leatherwork, printing, and weaving.

After 1900, shops specializing in Arts and Crafts goods could be found in most Illinois cities. Women established the first workshops in Chicago devoted exclusively to the production, exhibition, and sale of artistic items made according to the new philosophy. One of the earliest, and one which would play an important role in the renaissance of handwrought Chicago metalwork, was operated by Clara Barck Welles, who co-founded the Kalo Shop in Chicago in 1900 and the Kalo Arts Crafts Community in Park Ridge. The Kalo Shop, which operated for 70 years, was the training ground for many jewelers and silversmiths who established their own shops in Chicago, Evanston, DeKalb, and Park Ridge. Jessie M. Preston and other female metalworkers maintained studios in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building, where they produced unique jewelry and household furnishings. Other highly skilled metalsmiths, newly arrived from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, produced handwrought silver tableware, trophies, and jewelry at the Jarvie Shop, Petterson Studios, Chicago Art Silver Shop, Lebolt & Company, or Marshall Field & Company’s craft shops, to name but a few.

Silversmiths in the Kalo Shop workshop at 32 N.
Michigan Avenue, Chicago, around 1914.
Author’s Collection.

The cabinet shop at Rockford Standard Furniture
Company,Rockford, in 1901.
Benson Stone Co., Rockford, Illinois

Women dominated the field of china painting, artistically hand-painting porcelain blanks to create the “fancy china” popular at the time. Practitioners, who could be found in virtually every Illinois town and city, ranged in skill from members of the elite Atlan Ceramic Art Club—a select group of Chicago’s finest female china painters—to artists offering lessons in small town art shops, to hobbyists painting in their homes. Annual exhibitions were held in homes, studios, museums, art shops, and department stores throughout the state. As early as September 1895, the Chicago Ceramic Association’s exhibition included entries from 147 cities and entertained 5,000 visitors. Within a decade, Pickard China Company and smaller commercial studios in Chicago employed large numbers of professional male and female artists to produce large quantities of fine hand-painted china for the specialty and gift markets.

Many producers adapted industrial standards to Arts and Crafts aesthetics, using machines to assist the worker and employing mass production techniques to moderate the cost of their goods. This was particularly true in ceramics, where some of the largest producers of “art pottery” were primarily engaged in the manufacture of utilitarian clay products or architectural terra cotta. Gates Potteries, a subsidiary of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company, produced Teco ware in strikinglythe worker and employing mass production techniques to moderate the cost of their goods. This was particularly true in ceramics, where some of the largest producers of “art pottery” were primarily engaged in the manufacture of utilitarian clay products or architectural terra cotta. Gates Potteries, a subsidiary of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company, produced Teco ware in strikingly modern shapes at Terra Cotta (now Crystal Lake) after 1899. On a smaller scale, the Norse Pottery began making art pottery in Rockford in 1903. In East Dundee, the Haeger pottery transitioned from making bricks and flower pots to art pottery in 1914; in Monmouth, Western Stoneware added a new line of art ware in 1919; the Cliftwood Art Potteries opened on the site of Morton Earthenware Company in 1920.

A china-painting class taught by Atlan Ceramic Art Club member Jeanne M. Stewart in 1904.

Author’s Collection.

Workmen unmolding Teco art pottery at Gates Potteries, a subsidiary of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company, in Terra Cotta (now Crystal Lake) around 1905.
Author’s Collection.

The popularity of elaborately decorated “brilliant” cut glass reached its peak, with at least a dozen large glass cutting firms active in Chicago and St. Charles by 1906. Steam, gas, and later electric-powered machines—along with the invention of steel cutting wheels and better brushes—allowed the craftsman to turn out high quality work. The flow of European immigrants brought both experienced entrepreneurs and skilled craftsmen to put American technology and assembly-line techniques to good use.

To meet the demand for handcrafted furniture, some large furniture and department stores added custom cabinetmaking shops. In Chicago, the Tobey Furniture Company introduced Tobey Handmade Furniture, while Marshall Field & Company added a custom furniture workshop to its interior design department.

Illinois architects who worked in the style now known as the Prairie school incorporated the Arts and Crafts movement’s principles in their interior designs. One outstanding example is the Springfield residence designed for Susan Lawrence Dana by Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902. Now the Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site, the house’s interior incorporates custom furniture, art glass, and ceramics made by Chicago firms.

The Linden Glass Company, one of many small art glass studios operating in Chicago, fabricated the intricate windows and lampshades in the Dana-Thomas House. Essentially a handicraft industry, the making of stained glass windows for churches and residences or shades for the newly popular electric lamps required few tools and little equipment; the process could be undertaken anyplace from a small workshop to a large factory, providing work for thousands of highly skilled craftsmen.

Although many of these craft-based industries survived World War I, the years after 1918 were marked by dramatic changes in those Illinois industries producing household objects. Electrical devices became an important part of modern life, with cabinets for radios, and later televisions, produced in large numbers by many Illinois furniture makers. New materials such as aluminum and tempered glass resulted in exciting new forms, while the new profession of industrial design joined the form and function of common household products ranging from tea sets to toasters.

Chicago, leveraging its reputation as the Great Central Market for the output of regional furniture makers, became the site of the American Furniture Mart in 1924, followed by the Merchandise Mart for home furnishings in 1930. Architectural styles—particularly modern and international—exerted a strong influence on decorative design. Illinois designers and companies were truly playing key roles in the evolution of modern furniture design. Factories in Chicago, Geneva, Rockford, and St. Charles engaged in what would become a major trend—the manufacture of metal and plastic furniture.

Industrial expansion in the 1920s was followed by decline during the following decades, brought on first by the Great Depression and, after 1941, by America’s involvement in World War II. In the postwar years many of Chicago and Rockford’s larger furniture manufactories relocated their factories to southern states in search of cheaper labor and lower overhead costs. Nevertheless, Illinois retained a prominent position in the industry, although as a result of design and marketing innovations rather than volume of production. A striking development was the establishment of a great variety of small furniture-making firms by European refugees and returned servicemen, often in collaboration with other members of their families.

The state’s largest potteries, responding to the availability of tin and glass containers, adjusted to competition by converting production to inexpensive tableware or industrial ceramics, which could be marketed to a larger consumer population. Western Stoneware successfully produced large quantities of stoneware containers for home and commercial use well into the twentieth century; it made design history in the early 1950s when it engaged internationally known designer Eva Zeisel to design a modern line of fine stoneware. Haeger Potteries remained a successful family-owned business until 2017, when, like Western Stoneware, it too fell to overseas competition.

Postwar financial prosperity also led to a renaissance of artistic craft in the state, in which designers began creating works that revived historic handicraft methods and rejected mass-production. The studio craft movement, characterized by small studios set up for one-of-a-kind production, remains a dominant force within Illinois today. Independent studio artists working with wood, glass, clay, textiles, or metal using traditional craft processes to produce decorative objects can be found in every section of the state. Like traditional objects of decorative art, studio craft works serve or allude to a functional or utilitarian purpose, although they are often handled and exhibited in ways like fine art.

Sharon S. Darling, co-curator Art of Illinois, is an independent decorative arts historian who lives in St. Charles, Illinois. While curator of decorative and industrial arts at the Chicago History Museum, 1972–1986, she conceived and produced a series of award-winning exhibitions and publications on Chicago creativity. Publications include Chicago Metalsmiths (1977), Chicago Ceramics & Glass (1979), Decorative & Architectural Arts in Chicago (1982); Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft & Industry (1984), and Teco: Art Pottery of the Prairie School (1989); and The Legacy of Harry J. Lucas; Northwestern Terra Cotta Company (2013). She served as director of the Motorola Museum in Schaumburg, 1986–2007. Since then, she has contributed essays on Arts and Crafts jewelry, art pottery, and furniture made in Chicago and Illinois for various exhibition catalogues and publications. Darling graduated with Honors in History from North Carolina State University. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Duke University and a Master of Management degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.