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Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans operated for almost fifty years and was one of the most successful and admired potteries in the American Arts and Crafts movement. Founded in 1886 by wealthy widow Josephine Louise Newcomb (pictured), Newcomb College was, in essence, the women’s branch of nearby men’s-only Tulane University. The pottery itself developed in stages and grew out of the omnipresent belief that crafts were an appropriate, and acceptable, career choice for women.
Art classes at Newcomb were first guided by the brothers William and Ellsworth Woodward, New England transplants with design training who were heavily influenced by the incredible display of ingenuity at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. They taught art classes at Newcomb through the late 1880s, all the while hiring staff that would help build the foundations of the pottery. Joseph Fortune Meyer, a local potter, was hired to build the kiln and throw pots, and even George Ohr worked there for a brief stint as Meyer’s assistant. Mary Given Sheerer, a Cincinnati-trained ceramist, was hired in 1894 to teach pottery and china decoration, unofficially launching Newcomb College Pottery. The enterprise blossomed quickly from there. In 1896 the college held its first exhibition and sale of pottery produced by Sheerer and her students, and in 1900 Newcomb pottery won a bronze medal at the Paris International Exposition. By 1901, demand was outpacing supply and the University provided the financial and official recognition needed to turn the Newcomb College Pottery into a long-term commercial enterprise.
Newcomb College Pottery was influenced primarily by traditional English Arts and Crafts principles, in large part due to the Woodwards, who had been trained by English instructors at American schools. One of the main concerns of the movement was the interrelationship between art, industry, and design, and the importance of every artisan involved in the process of creation. This led to Newcomb’s complex system of marks, which were created with the express purpose of recognizing each craftsperson involved, from the thrower (often Joseph Fortune Meter, denoted with a ‘JM’) to the decorator (one of the ninety young women who attended the school over the course of its existence). Also in keeping with Arts and Crafts tenets, each piece was unique, though some designs were repeated with small variations. Flora and, occasionally, fauna were the primary subjects, with special emphasis placed on Southern species.