I started a ceramics class last week. Since I’m the only designer in my department at work that didn’t go to art school, I’m even more aware of the making-things-by-hand skills I missed out on while I was studying constitutional law and torts, and when a coworker asked if I’d be interested in taking a ceramics class, I said something like hell yes. It seems like the wheel class is more popular than hand-building, either because of Demi Moore or because people are drawn to perfect symmetry, but we signed up for the hand building class for now. I have started a plate and a small pot. It’s pretty great.
For ideas about color and glaze, I started looking my apartment and noticed this lovely tray that belonged to my grandmother:
My grandparents were very active Democrats and had a massive collection of political memorabilia, a small part of which includes a set of Frankoma donkey mugs from each year they were manufactured until the late 1990’s.
While not particularly valuable in monetary terms (the donkeys sell for around $10 – $30 each), I love these mugs for their sentimental meaning, and I think they’re a perfect collectible for someone who likes old things, likes politics (yes, they come in elephants too), and doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. Frankoma is one of those less-common pottery companies that has nothing to do with Ohio, but instead was born in – you guessed it – Oklahoma. John Frank, a ceramic arts professor at the University of Oklahoma, started the company with colleagues from the University in 1933 and soon named it Frankoma Pottery – “Frank” and “Oklahoma” combined. Their goal was to create beautiful everyday dinnerware that would be affordable even for families during the Great Depression. And they are beautiful – their Southwest-inspired glazes look surprisingly modern.
This plate is made from Sapulpa clay, which was used by Frankoma after 1955. All Frankoma pieces made before 1955 were made from Ada clay – clay that was dug from trenches in Ada, Oklahoma. After twenty-some years of being mined, Ada clay became more difficult to get in quality and quantity, and had to be transported 150 miles from Ada to Sapulpa, where the Frankoma factory was by then located. Thus, after 1955, Frankoma was made from local Sapulpa clay, which turned out to work beautifully with their glazes. To determine whether a piece is Ada or Sapulpa clay, look at the unglazed parts – Ada clay is more of a golden tan, and will not change color when lightly dampened, while Sapulpa clay is reddish and will darken if you wet the end of your finger and touch the unglazed clay (although this one doesn’t really change color). Early marks – until about 1934 – use Frank’s initials or his last name (“Frank Pottery” or “Frank Potteries”), and a particularly rare mark from 1938 doesn’t use the Frank name at all, but rather “FIRST KILN SAPULPA”. Early Frankoma marks after 1934 that use the entire name are in some way impressed into the clay, while marks later than the mid-1960s were part of the molds and are raised on the piece like you see with the above plate.
The political mugs started with a white elephant in 1968 for the National Republican Women’s Club, and were so popular that they continued the new tradition the next year with the 1969 Nixon/Agnew mug in Flame orange-red. These two early mugs are slightly more valuable than the rest of the set (with the exception of a specially made 1974 mug marked “Nixon Agnew” which is particularly rare and can run you a few hundred dollars), but none will run you more than $30 – $50. The mugs were made yearly – the Democrats got their own donkey mug starting in 1975 – and were marked with the year as well as, in inaugural years, the names of the newly elected president and vice president on the appropriate party’s mug.
Though the company has changed hands a few times since Frank died in 1973, but they continue to produce their political mugs, including 2008’s Obama Biden mug (which is sort of garish and flecked with blue on white, so I’m not posting a photo here. Keep our weblogs clean, you know?).