The Woodland vase, one of four distinct and highly decorative vases produced for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, was thought to have been lost or destroyed for decades, until it recently surfaced in a California auction. This unique piece was purchased for the Trenton City Museum by the Trenton Museum Society after museum society trustee Bob Cunningham learned the vase was to be featured for auction at Bonhams and Butterfields in Los Angeles, California. The lid was missing and it had been misidentified because of its similarity to those designed by Sevres, a French porcelain manufacturer popular during the 19th century. However, the size and shape of the vase were the first clues that it was the missing Woodland vase.
Trenton Potteries Company was known for its production of bathroom fixtures, but when the invitation came from St. Louis to create something special for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Trenton Potteries answered the call, creating four ornamental vases, each standing four feet seven inches tall, with the express purpose of showing off the heights America had reached in pottery and to highlight Trenton’s pottery industry in particular. Despite the two-decade existence of a decidedly upscale product line in American Belleek style pottery, the prevailing opinion at that time remained stubbornly biased in favor of European porcelains. Though large vases created in Trenton sold at Tiffany’s for as much as $1,400 in the early 20th century (about $32,000 in today’s dollars), American potteries were still considered inferior to their European competitors.
The creation of the vases demanded fine artistry, from the design sketches to the molding of the porcelain to the painting of the landscapes, to the gilding with gold paste. Trenton Potteries enlisted the talents of its employee, renowned French ceramic artist, Anton Lucien Boullemier, who likely lent the French design and Sevres style to each piece. Each vase was also carefully fired several times at precise temperatures to set the colors and prevent the gold from blistering or burning. Three of the four pieces depicted traditional courting scenes. However, the fourth illustrated Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.
Despite the success of the pottery industry in Trenton in the late 1800s and early 1900s – with so many producers that skilled workers were in high demand – American pottery manufacturers, including those in Trenton, were better known for their functional products: electrical fixtures, hotel china and toilets. By choosing to create these magnificent vases, the Trenton Potteries Company was able to match European quality and beauty of the day and put the old prejudices to rest.
With the production of the four vases, Trenton announced to the world that, as a ceramics industry, it had arrived and was among the best in the world at making fine porcelain. With the Trenton Museum Society’s purchase of the long-lost Woodland Vase and its return to Trenton, the Trenton City Museum can now announce that it has arrived and takes its place among the best museums interpreting Trenton’s illustrious ceramics history.
These vases are considered by some to be the best and most important decorative porcelain pieces ever created in America. Their presence at the Trenton City Museum will surely draw national exposure and place Ellarslie in the top tier of American pottery collectors. The Crane Company, successors to the Trenton Potteries, donated the other three vases in this series to each of three local museums: the Washington vase to the New Jersey State Museum, the Grecian vase to the Newark Museum and the Rose vase to the Brooklyn Museum.