Twin Winton Ceramic’s early animals: The genius behind California’s whimsical pottery

This exclusive excerpt is from Early Twin Winton Animals (1936-1952) - a Pictorial Value Guide, the only collector's guide that has been written on the animal figurines created by boy genius twins Don and Ross Winton. Initially produced and sold from their family garage in 1936 when the boys were just teenagers in high school, these figurines became the foundation for one of America's great pottery companies - Twin Winton.

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From concept drawing to finished product, Don Winton's vision of "Koy Kitty"

Cute, whimsical, and charged with animated energy, Twin Winton’s early animal figures are arguably the most overlooked collectibles of any of the great California pottery companies. Although most recognized for their wood tone stained cookie jars, Twin Winton’s animals were what sustained and built the company 16 years before a single cookie jar was produced. Little has been written on these adorable critters, which surprised me when I first started to collect them.

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If you had asked me three years ago if I would ever become a figurine collector or write a book on the subject I would have emphatically answered no. I don’t like chotskies cluttering up my home and I abhor dusting. Actually all forms of house cleaning, especially anything that requires the use of a toilet brush but I did write a book, I do have a large ever growing collection of Twin Winton’s animals, and Swiffer Dusters are  permanently affixed to my Costco shopping list.

Like so many collectors familiar with Twin Winton, I assumed there were a couple dozen or so cute little woodland creatures, but there are in fact over 200 different animals ranging from a fierce looking bulldog to an ostrich dressed in his Sunday best. And they aren’t all little and they aren’t all figurines. 

But what’s truly amazing about the animals is that they were designed and produced by a couple of 17 year old twin brothers named Don and Ross Winton (thus the name Twin Winton – clever that, eh?), who were just trying to help dad make ends meet during the height of the Great Depression in 1936. They did have a good deal of experience in the production of ceramics, as they had been mucking about with clay since age five when their mum gave them a lump of it to keep their busy little hands occupied. It was readily apparent the boys had extraordinary talents and by age ten they had already been featured in local news papers, so when their family garage based business flourished their fate of founding one of California’s great pottery companies was sealed.

The animals, some of which resembled Disney characters, also caught the attention of Disney’s attorneys who put the kibosh on production until Walt himself stepped into the picture. Recognizing their talent and discovering it was the family’s sole source of income, he pulled his bulldogs off the boys and production resumed. Don, the eldest twin, would later design hundreds of pieces for Disney that were sold worldwide from Disney stores.

The first animals produced were indeed small figurines depicting woodland creatures – bunnies, chipmunks, deer, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks. But by the time the boys formed a partnership with Helen Burke in 1937 under the name Burke Winton, more animals had been added to the lineup and some had grown in height from a diminutive 2 inches to a whopping 11 inches tall. One year later, they amicably ended their partnership with Helen and opened their first commercial factory under the name Twin Winton Studios. They were now 19 years old. Nineteen! Had these boys been more interested in electronics than ceramics we may never have heard of Mr. Gates.

It was at this location that they hired their first workers, taught them the art of pouring and finishing ceramics, and broadened their customer base to include local gift shops. According to a wholesale catalog I have from this period, there were now at least 96 different animals produced, including the first of the axis leader caricatures – the Hitler Skunk. See, I told you they weren’t all cute woodland creatures.

The fourth caricature depicts Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini as a skunk ($250+ each).
The fourth caricature in Twin Winton’s World War II series depicts Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini as a skunk and is valued at about $250.
Photos courtesy Jack Chipman.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Don designed a 3 ½ inch skunk dressed in full regalia depicting Germany’s despicable tyrant. Later he designed three more axis leader caricatures – the Mussolini Skunk (shown at right), the Goring Pig, and the Tojo Rat. These are the rarest of the animals and are sought after by WWII and Anti Axis collectors, as well as diehard Twin Winton collectors and they don’t come cheap. You can expect to pay upwards of $250 for these little buggers.

In addition to broadening their customer base, the boys added the first utilitarian pieces to the lineup by incorporating the animals into flower frogs, planters, salt and pepper shakers, spice shakers, and the ever popular hors d’oeuvre holder. Actually, I’ve always thought these were toothpick holders but then maybe that’s because I’m a six foot tall Irishman with an enormous appetite whose idea of finger food is a leg of lamb.

Meanwhile, business boomed requiring a move to a larger plant in Pasadena, California and the hiring of more workers. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and American entered WWII. By early 1942, both Don and Ross had entered military service and the plant was closed. It remained closed until June of 1946 when they returned to Pasadena and reopened at a new location and under a new name – Twin Winton Ceramics.

They also had a new partner, older brother Bruce. Bruce didn’t have the artistic talents of his younger siblings but he did have extraordinary business acumen and guided the company to a new financial level. It’s also during this time that we see the colors and paint technique used on the animals change from hand-painted earth tones to air-brushed pastels that were popular in the late 1940’s. The color change and the fact that more of the animals had been redesigned as utilitarian pieces would have appealed to a broader consumer base and I’m confident this change was influenced by brother Bruce.

In April of 1953, Bruce bought Twin Winton from his brothers and production of the animals ceased. Ross went on to pursue other interests, while Don remained as Twin Winton’s sole designer on a freelance basis until it closed its doors in 1976. For the next 50 years and right up to his death in 2007, Don freelance designed for numerous companies including the Franklin Mint, Hagen-Renaker, Hanna Barbera, Amway, General Foods, Coca-Cola and Disney, to name just a few.

Perhaps you don’t recognize Don Winton’s name but you will recognize some of his designs. The Mickey Mouse telephone? He designed it for Disney. He also designed the Emmy award, the John Wooden Trophy and the Academy of Country Music Award. Additionally, the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan Presidential libraries commissioned him and Don’s bust of President Reagan, which sits on the veranda facing the Berlin Wall exhibit, is seen by millions of visitors to the Ronald Reagan Library each year.

But before he created the Mickey Mouse telephone, the Emmy Award, or Ronald Reagan’s bust Don and his twin brother Ross created the animals. Animals with exquisite expressions and energy that make them stand out from all other early California animal figures. And when you hold your first Twin Winton animal in your hands you won’t be holding just a terrific animal figurine – you’ll be holding a piece of California pottery history. A history enriched by the genius imaginations and talents of two teenage boys who founded one of America’s great pottery companies – Twin Winton.

Brian Parkinson is an Irish-American vintage cookie jar collector whose love of Don Winton designs led him to collecting and researching Twin Winton’s early animals three years ago. With the aid of Norma (Mrs, Don) Winton and his fellow collectors, he has created the first collector’s website devoted to Twin Winton’s early animal figures. The site provides detailed information on the history of the animals, their marks and values and contains more than 200 color pictures. Brian resides in southern California and may be contacted through his website.

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More Images:

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Don Winton photographed in 2003 surrounded by some of the iconic pieces he designed. (photo courtesy Norma Winton)
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Cute and whimsical, this Squirrel with Hammer ($100+) is obviously not impressed with the look-a-like chipmunk produced by Robert Simmons Ceramics. Look-alikes abound but most are clearly marked by the same era competing pottery companies that produced them. The chipmunk pictured here is marked "B&S" which was the mark used by Robert Simmons when he was in partnership with Helen Burke (Burke-Simmons), the same Helen Burke who partnered with Don and Ross Winton (Burke-Winton) in 1937.
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The first animals were small figurines depicting woodland creatures but it wasn't long before more animals were added to the lineup, including this fierce looking bulldog. The figure is valued at $80.
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Factory workers were taught how to decorate the animals and shakers sets produced by the workers in training are hard to find. This set of raccoon-styled shakers are valued at $75 per set.
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Three of the axis leader caricatures designed by Don Winton after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Pictured left to right are the Tojo Rat, Hitler Skunk, and Goring Pig. They are valued at $250 each.
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Facial expression and energetic animation are hallmarks of Twin Winton's animals. Pictured here is a rare Running Squirrel on Rocket Log, with this example running about $150.
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After WWII, the animals were airbrush decorated in pastel colors popular during the late 1940's. New molds were created increasing their size in order to accommodate their utilitarian functions. The pre-WWII "Frenchy the Cat" figurine (pictured left) transformed into a "Sugar Puss" sugar shaker after the war and was produced in blue, green, pink, and yellow.
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Research in the Don Winton archives produced original sketches of the company's most beloved character figurines, including this sleepy little elephant planter - shown here in sketch form as well as the finished product (below).
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