Teco pottery earned a Gold Medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition more commonly known as the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904. However ’Teco’ did not become the American staple as did the waffle ice cream cone, hamburger, hot dogs, peanut butter, iced tea, cotton candy and Dr Pepper which were all first introduced to a national audience at that fair!|
John Philip Sousa led his band while President Theodore Roosevelt opened the fair remotely via telegraph. Thomas Edison visited, Helen Keller lectured, Geronimo hosted the Ethnology Exhibit teepee and Scott Joplin inspired by the waterfalls of the Grand Basin wrote the ragtime tune “The Cascades”.
Teco pottery had become a sideline business of the American TErra COotta Tile and Ceramic Company (ATCT&CC) founded in 1881 by William D Gates, a Chicago lawyer. Gates had used an inheritance to buy a farm near what is now Crystal Lake, Illinois. Finding a clay deposit on the farm, Gates began making simple architectural terra cotta such as drain tiles, bricks, chimney caps and finials. The company’s product line grew into more decorative architectural terra cotta which became instantly popular as a fire proof building material following the great Chicago Fire. Many Chicago, Indianapolis and Minneapolis/St Paul buildings are clad with ATCT&CC architectural terra cotta including Chicago’s famous Wrigley Building.
However, the construction of buildings was often interrupted due to economic conditions, labor disputes, politics and weather so Gates used Teco pottery production as filler to keep his factory and kilns busy during slack intervals.
Gates’ early Teco pottery designs and glazes were not much of a success. But following the lead of Grueby, Gates developed his own trademark bluish green matte glaze. But unlike Grueby’s hand thrown and hand decorated pottery, since Teco was the sideline of an architectural terra cotta firm, Gates also slip cast his Teco pottery from molds.
Teco subsequently also became known as the Prairie School Pottery because Gates invited his Chicago Prairie School architect friends to design pottery shapes. Of the 500 or so Teco pottery shapes, about half were designed by Gates and the other half by such notable Prairie School Architects as Cady, Dean, Dodd, Dunning, Elmslie, Fellows, Garden, Jenny, Mundie, Nimmons, Shaw and Wright. Additionally, some shapes were also the designs of famous sculptors and artists of the era such as Albert, Giannini, Maratta, Moreau, Ostertag, Schneider and White.
Teco Pottery shapes usually fit within three design categories:
1) Architectural: Since American Terra Cotta Tile & Ceramic Company (ATCT&CC) had developed into a commercial architectural terra cotta manufacturer, Teco shapes with an architectural motif were a natural. Owner William D Gates himself often designed the architectural shapes as with our 4-Buttress, 2-Buttress and Prairie style vases. Architectural shapes have buttresses, corbels, squarish handles or other architectural elements.
2) Classical: Again, since ATCT&CC was cladding the new Chicago post-fire buildings of the early 1900’s, there were classical designs incorporated into the terra cotta facades. Think Corinthian columns and pillars with capitals, court houses and other municipal buildings with a semi-Beaux Arts design facades. Since this was the everyday vernacular of commercial terra cotta, it was only natural classical design crept into Teco pottery designs. Again, Gates himself often used this motif. The Orb, Kiss and Pagoda Vases, classical shapes are designs you would expect to see incorporated in the terra cotta facade of a municipal building.
3) Organic: It’s easy to slide from Classical into Organic. The Kiss and Pagoda shapes above could also be called organic if instead of a squat flask you see a seed pod and instead of an Japanesque design you see an allium bulb. But more clearly our Rocket and Double Gourd vases are clearly organic. The Rocket Vase is sympathetic with an Art Deco or Art Nouveau motif; certainly not architectural or classical. And the Double Gourd looks like any gourd fruit you might buy at a fall farmers market. Usually the Organic shapes were designed by the artistic and sculptural artists on Gates staff: Albert, Moreau and Schneider.
Then as now, the buying public wants to see pottery in colors but then usually buys the safe color: Green! So Gates summoned his resources and developed Teco Green, a velvet like blue-green glaze. Problem: there was no OSHA in the early 1900’s and a 16% lead content not fired water tight would not be legal today. So today‘s Teco Green is an imitated color without the lead and our Teco Art Pottery Collection® is fired to be water tight. Close, but necessarily not exactly the same.
Finally, if you see a piece of Grueby, Hampshire, Newcomb, SEG or Rookwood at an antique show, they look like beautiful pieces of antique pottery. Desirable yes but not terribly sympathetic with the many design periods after the early 1900’s Arts & Crafts period to today’s Modernism and eclectic décor.
Teco’s designs are notably different; just like the Prairie School influence when they were designed to the still popular Prairie School designs of today. Be they Architectural, Classical or Organic in design; Teco looks Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, mid-Century Modern or Modern. No ornate Victorian decoration, painted flowers, faces and scenes but instead an emphasis on simple form. To use Gates’ own ad copy "a certain moral quality in both the substance and outline of Teco. To have it always nearby is to feel a chaste refreshment of the spirit when harassed by the trails of daily life".
To borrow a quote from Curator John Vanco‘s Catalog Foreword in the "Teco: Art Pottery of the Prairie School" 1989 seminal Exhibit at the Eric Art Museum: "Early in my personal investigations into historical American ceramic art, I was shown one of the Gates Potteries Teco catalogs. I was amazed. Here was an impressively powerful expression of modernist form in a commercial catalog dated 1904. And issuing not from one of the cultural centers of Europe, but the from the American Midwest."
Fair Oak Workshops, having access to a nice Teco collection, loaned some popular shapes to Prairie Arts to copy for reproduction purposes. Prairie Arts found model and mold makers and an Illinois pottery to slip cast what is now the Teco Art Pottery Collection®. Unlike the original Teco, the reproduction glazes are lead free and are kiln fired water tight.
Here is the history on the original Teco shapes shown:
1) The Rocket Vase was designed by sculptor Fernand Moreau, a Frenchman who had come to Chicago to work on the 1893 Columbian Exposition project. It was shape 127 in the Teco Catalog.
As a word of caution, the Teco shapes in our Teco Art Pottery Collection® are so authentic looking, they could be confused by an uneducated eye as an original antique. See below:
Shown above: Left is the hallmark of an original Teco vase; right the hallmark from a reproduction Teco Art Pottery Collection® vase.
Available Cherokee Red shapes are listed below.