How good design saved McCoy Pottery

McCoy Pottery Identification & Price Guide by Mark F. MoranAlmost 30 years after they retired from the pottery business, the legacy of Nelson and Billie McCoy can be found in the thousands of avid collectors who treasure the wares that made their name a household word for decades. But it’s the creative process, from design to final production, that the couple are most fond of recalling. The following interview was conducted for the second edition of “Warman’s McCoy Pottery” by Mark F. Moran.

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Collectors still make the pilgrimage to the McCoy home, to show off their finds and inquire about glazes, designs and eras. Nelson and Billie do their best to provide information, but as Nelson admits, “You’re talking about a span of more than 80 years. I look at a vase and say, ‘Did my father make it or did I?’

“But we never put a price on things now,” said Billie. “It’s worth what someone will pay for it.”

The timeline of their memories has a stark dividing point: the fire that destroyed the plant in 1950.

“We were entertaining the S.H. Kress buyer here at the house,” Nelson recalled in an interview in May 2007, “and the phone rang about 11 at night and someone said the pottery is on fire.

“I don’t know whatever happened to the Kress buyer,” Nelson said with a rueful laugh, “I don’t think I ever saw him again.”

“All the employees were there, running back and forth, and I was getting donuts for them,” said Billie.

Also on the scene was Nelson Melick, Nelson McCoy’s cousin who was the president of the company at the time. Melick had started out as a water boy, bringing drinking water to the workers. He worked there all his life, and oversaw the plant rebuilding process, which took just six months.

“I learned a lot from him,” Nelson said of his cousin, “He was a very quiet, do-it-yourself guy. We got along very well. I respected him and he respected me — ’course, I had more stock in the company than he did.”

Nelson McCoy Sr. had died in 1945, and the younger Nelson came to the pottery in 1948. Melick died in 1954.

Billie recalled that after Nelson graduated from the University of Michigan (a topic not often discussed in the heart of Buckeye country), he came home to Zanesville and said to his mother, “I think it’s time for me to take a vacation.” And his mother said, “Son, I think that’s a great idea. See you at work Monday morning.”

“I never expected to work anyplace else,” Nelson said. “When I was in the Air Force, I always thought I might like to be a pilot after the war, but it didn’t work out that way.”

“Billie was interested in design, and as soon as the kids were big enough for her to spend some time on it, she was a big help to me,” Nelson added. “She kept a notebook that she filled with information about popular colors and styles.”

But both of them knew the best designs had long been coming from the minds of Sidney and Leslie Cope, the father-son team that had joined McCoy in the mid-1930s.

“Sidney was very English,” Nelson said. “He preferred to work in clay, while Leslie drew his designs out.”

Billie might come up with an idea, and say, “Butterflies are good.” Sidney Cope would say, “We can work something out.” “And he’d come back in a day or two with a tiny clay model, not fired,” Nelson recalled. “Then Leslie did all the drawings.”

“Mr. (Sidney) Cope loved the library,” said Billie. “He’d go every Saturday and study, and that’s why our birds look like real birds.”

“And he used to like to do the first colored piece,” Nelson added. “He would personally go out and mix up paint in a little tin can. Those Cope pieces were really great.

“Good design made us successful. I could sit here and say I did it, but it was good design that made the difference.”

The arrival of the Czech designer Al Klubert in about 1968 marked another milestone in the McCoy design legacy.

“Klubert was behind the Iron Curtain. We brought him over through Canada and he came down to visit the pottery,” Nelson said. “He was clever and a good designer. He was quite special.

“After he toured the plant, he came in and said, ‘What would you like me to model?’ And I can’t recall exactly what we came up with, probably a bird, but he said, ‘I’ll do that for you.’ And four hours later — not a week or two as you might expect — he came in and said, ‘Oh, before I leave, here’s the piece I did for you.’”

Another design landmark arrived via a less artistic path, but the result was no less memorable.

“Our sales manager came back from a show in Chicago, and he said, ‘I think the smile (meaning the smiley face “Have a Nice Day” design of the late 1960s and early ’70s) is going to be good.’

“That theme was the best the pottery ever had in terms of volume,” Nelson said. “We made plates, mugs, banks, planters, cookie jars, vases. You’d walk into a sales meeting and the buyer might have be in a grouchy mood, but you put one of those pieces down in front of him, and he’d start to smile, and you’d say to yourself, ‘Things are starting to go my way.’ ”

“But the success of our dinnerware was one of my proudest moments,” Nelson said. “In the late 1970s, the artware had fallen off and there was a lot of competition in those days from overseas. All of a sudden, JC Penney came to us and said, ‘You are being presented with an award for being our biggest supplier of casual dinnerware.’ ”

Another overdue compliment was paid in the 1970s when Tiffany came calling and asked to recreate some of the best-loved McCoy floral-form vases in sterling silver. One of the Tiffany pieces sits proudly on a shelf in Nelson and Billie’s dining room.

When Nelson and Billie retired, the pottery was producing 125,000 pieces a week and had 500 employees. “It was the biggest family you ever saw,” Billie recalls, “and they were just wonderful people.”  ?

Mark F. Moran is senior editor for Krause Publications antiques & collectibles books division. He has been a contributing editor for Antique Trader magazine, editor of Antiques Review East, producer of the Atlantique City antique show, and editorial director of F+W Media’s Antiques Group. He has also authored more than 25 books on antiques and collectibles, including the Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide.

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