The only remaining U.S. manufacturer of fine porcelain china got its start locally nearly 117 years ago. Learn why collectors covet this fine pottery and why government officials – including the First Family – still order the company’s place settings and gifts of state.
From the clay beds of southern Wisconsin to the elegant tables of White House state dinners, the Pickard China Company has occupied a unique niche in American history for 117 years.
Wilder Austin Pickard, company founder, was a Chicago businessman and salesman when, in 1889, he was appointed Midwest sales representative for Pauline Pottery of Edgerton, Wis., a manufacturer of decorated fine art pottery made from local clay. The business failed in 1893, after the death of its founder, Oscar Jacobus, so Pickard started his own china decorating business. He imported porcelain china “blanks,” or undecorated whiteware, from Europe – mostly England, France and Germany – distributed them to artists in their homes, and then collected the decorated pieces and fired them in his home.
In 1895, Pickard moved the business to Chicago, so he could be closer both to European immigrant artists, many from The Art Institute of Chicago, and the metropolitan railroad hub used to distribute his finished products. The company specialized in hand-painted art pieces, dessert ware and tea sets; many are highly sought by collectors today.
“They were very attractive pieces, often gilded, with extremely detailed natural elements,” says Joel Van Haaften, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society, Janesville. “The artists based their paintings on real images or objects, so the ways in which they represented flora, fauna and landscapes on the porcelain are extremely accurate. Individual pieces are often signed by the artists.”
An extensive exhibit of Pickard china is currently on display at the Rock County Museum Center in Janesville (see related story).
From the beginning, the Pickard business was a family affair, a tradition which continues to this day. Wilder’s wife, Minnie, kept the books and painted china – her favorite flowers were violets. Her brothers delivered and collected the decorated blanks. Her parents’ home on LaSalle Street provided space for a kiln to fire the finished pieces.
As the business prospered, a larger work space was needed. After renting and outgrowing several nearby horse barns, Wilder bought a large carriage barn and constructed a studio for artists. By 1903, the business again required additional space, so Pickard built a three-story facility at 4853 N. Ravenswood Ave., in what was then the sparsely-populated north end of Chicago. It opened in 1905.
The top two floors were studio space for the growing group of artists, and included a library and piano, part of the Pickard tradition of treating employees as members of an extended family. The rest of the building was used to receive, wash, store, etch and fire pieces before their shipment to customers all over the country.
Marshall Field & Co. was Pickard’s biggest customer. Sometimes, Pickard artists would decorate and fire china within the store to promote the sale of their products. Dr. Harry Poulos is the great-grandson of Joseph Yeschek and the grandson of Frank Yeschek, two of Pickard’s artists. Poulos remembers being told as a boy that Great-Grandfather Joseph decorated china in Marshall Field’s store windows.
“They were both gifted artists and often developed interesting designs and techniques on-site,” says Poulos. “They were constantly trying to adapt to the needs of the marketplace.”
Pickard introduced etched china to his customers in 1911, a new, very labor-intensive technique. Portions of a fired china blank were covered with an asphalt-like compound, then dipped into a bath of hydrofluoric acid. The acid dissolved the exposed areas of glaze, producing a dull, recessed finish. After the asphalt was removed with kerosene, two coats of gold were applied to the piece.
The process was adapted for the manufacture of group items, such as dinnerware sets, by using asphalt-printed paper transfers. The designs were engraved by hand onto steel plates, which were then coated with asphalt. Paper transfers carried the design from the plates to the chinaware, which was then immersed in the acid.
“My grandfather, Frank Yeschek, was director of the etching department for many years,” says Poulos. “The technique was especially popular during World War I, since Pickard couldn’t obtain china blanks from Europe. He had to import them from Japan, and they were not of the same quality. The etching process served to hide some of the imperfections.”
Sherry Platt Schellenbach is the granddaughter of Wilder and Minnie Pickard. Her mother, Dorothy Pickard Platt, avidly supported the business, and produced the first book about the company, The Story of Pickard China, in 1970.
“My cousin, ‘Pete’ Pickard, became the third president of the company in 1966,” says Schellenbach. “He used to say that my mom was the second-largest purchaser of Pickard china, right behind Marshall Field. One day her cleaning lady called me because she couldn’t locate my mother at home. We discovered that she had taken some visitors to the factory for a tour. It happened on the spur of the moment, and she hadn’t told anyone where she was going.”
During the 1930s, Wilder Pickard began to explore the possibility of manufacturing his own porcelain. His son, Henry, worked with ceramic engineers to develop their own china body and glaze, and by 1936 they had perfected both.
“During the antique era [1893-1930s], Pickard China was a decorating company, producing primarily giftware pieces and some dinnerware,” says Andrew Pickard Morgan, the company’s fifth and current president, and great-grandson of its founder. “But the steady growth of the dinnerware business in the 1920s convinced my grandfather, Austin Pickard, that we should become a dinnerware manufacturing company. Basically, the company reinvented itself in the middle of the Great Depression.”
A key aspect of that reinvention was relocation from Chicago to Antioch, Ill., on the northern edge of Lake County, near the Wisconsin border. According to Morgan, Pickard acquired Antioch’s former Corona Pen factory at a bargain price, which provided ample space for the manufacturing processes. It also protected the firing stages from air contamination by pollutants in Chicago.
“And it put the company closer to lots of German immigrants in southeastern Wisconsin,” says Morgan. “We were able to hire people who had worked in German china manufacturing plants. Our gilding department was 100 percent German immigrants into the early 1970s.”
During World War II, Austin Pickard obtained a government contract to produce ceramic gravy boats for the U.S. Navy. These clunky-looking institutional items hardly resembled the finely-sculptured porcelain for which Pickard China was known, but their manufacture brought in much-needed revenue.
“That contract was key to keeping the company going,” says Morgan. “Without our producing something for the war effort, we wouldn’t have received enough fuel rations to keep the kilns operating.”
By the 1950s, Pickard China was no longer a producer of ornate giftware and hand-painted china, but rather a retail-based manufacturer of fine dinnerware, catering primarily to the bridal market. It also produced award-winning limited edition collectors’ plates during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1977, it obtained a contract with the U.S. State Department to produce crested and uncrested fine china service for all U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions around the world, and has done so ever since.
Today, in an era of mergers and mega companies, Pickard China is still a small, privately-held, family-owned business which manufactures fine porcelain products. It produces china in four divisions: retail; government; gift; and food service/custom commercial.
“Our food service business has grown exponentially in recent years,” says Morgan. “Our niche in that department has become high-end, short run, custom china for institutions of all kinds.” Customers include the King of Saudi Arabia, the Queen of England, Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton hotels, as well as Blair House (the U.S. vice-president’s official residence), the White House, Air Force One and Camp David.
“In our gift division, we have made protocol giftware [official state gift items] since the Truman administration,” says Morgan.
Last spring, Pickard China completed a project for First Lady Michelle Obama, a gift of state for the wives of premiers and presidents attending a G-20 (Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors) luncheon in Pittsburgh, Pa. The gift included a custom tea service presented in a mahogany box. The china was decorated with three official flowers: The mountain laurel is Pennsylvania’s official flower; the violet is the state flower of Illinois, Michelle Obama’s home state; and the rose is the official flower of the United States. The box also contained a hand-blown glass jar filled with honey from Mrs. Obama’s White House beehive.
Four generations later, the Pickard factory in Antioch still produces fine porcelain china dinnerware and giftware. Each piece passes through 21 stages and three 100 percent inspections. The 40-plus employees average 18 years of experience on the job.
The china body mix contains nine ingredients, and the contents are a trade secret. One ingredient comes from England, the rest from domestic sources. All pieces undergo at least two production firings in electric kilns. The raw clay, called greenware, is fired to completely dry it out, creating bisque. After glaze is applied to the bisque, the piece is fired again to melt the glaze.
Although no freehand painting is done on Pickard china anymore, decorations such as ceramic decals and gilding in gold, platinum or cobalt are applied by hand. The decorated pieces are then fired again to secure the decorations. Decoration firings are done at lower temperatures (1500 degrees F.) than production firings (2300 degrees F.), and are four-to-six hour cycles, rather than 18-hour cycles.
“Gilding is a very specialized and difficult skill,” says Morgan. “It requires a very steady hand and intense concentration. Applying ceramic decals also requires special skills. If the worker leaves any air or moisture under the decal, the piece will explode during the decoration firing.”
After the second production firing, pieces are carefully inspected for flaws. A-selection pieces are stored for later decorating; off-selection pieces are sold in the factory outlet shop; rejection pieces are thrown out.
“My father, Eben Morgan, always reminded me, ‘If you want to judge the quality of a ceramic company, look in its trash cans,’” says Morgan. “You cannot produce quality china without losses.”Janesville Exhibit Showcases Pickard China
The Rock County Historical Society and the Pickard Collectors Club are exhibiting Pickard china at the Helen Jeffries Wood Museum Center, 426 N. Jackson St., in Janesville. The exhibit traces the history of the Pickard China Co., and is made up nearly entirely from the private collections of club members. It will be open to the public through March 20, 2011.
“This exhibit is part of our club goal of public education about Pickard china,” says Fred Brown, a member of the board of directors. Founded in 1992, the nationwide club produces a monthly newsletter edited by Susan Speth, Brown’s wife, and holds annual conventions which draw members from all over the country. The next convention of the Pickard Collectors Club will be in Portland, Ore., in May of 2011.
Brown’s late mother, Doris, an avid collector of Pickard china, was a charter member. “Mom liked the adventure of collecting, finding pieces in flea markets and antique shops,” recalls Brown. “She took photos of each piece she acquired, put them in a spiral notebook and listed details like the date and place where she bought it, its size, pattern and cost.”
“She collected Pickard pieces from 1988 until her death in 2004,” says Speth. “Before she died, I showed her Pickard items for sale on eBay. There were 188 items listed that day. She said, ‘Good thing I didn’t have access to the Internet when I was collecting!’”
Speth and Brown have become avid collectors, too.
“It’s an American product, done by true artists, and each item is a unique piece of art,” says Brown. “The glaze is incredibly smooth. Pickard had the process down to a science. You can tell by the feel that it’s a Pickard piece, without even turning it over to examine the trademark.”
The exhibit in Janesville includes several Pickard pieces from the collection of Dr. Harry Poulos, a descendant of two Pickard artists. His grandparents received an oil painting as a wedding present from another Pickard artist, Arthur Cummings. The painting depicted a rural stone bridge “somewhere in Massachusetts.” Later, Poulos bought a ceramic Pickard plate on eBay with the same scene, signed by Cummings.
“My son and I went looking for the bridge, while returning him to Boston University one year,” says Poulos. “We found the spot, and the exhibit in Janesville includes a photo of my son on the very same bridge.”
As an adjunct to the exhibit, the club and the Rock County Historical Society are running a china painting design contest in Rock County schools. Students are encouraged to submit a design to the museum for judging.
“Two of our members are experienced china painters,” says Brown. “They will paint the winning designs on a blank, which will then be fired and brought back to Janesville and presented to the winners.”