Stanglware … still delightful

One of our childhood delights was following the back roads of Central New Jersey without rhyme or reason. These impromptu outings yielded surprises like jugs of fresh cider, plump pumpkins, or peach ice cream cones. And if we caught sight of Flemington’s bottle-shaped brink kilns in the distance, we always chorused, “Stangl’s!”

The Stangl Pottery Company began as Hill Pottery in 1814, producing utilitarian pipes, jars, and crocks from Flemington’s porous red clay. When Fulper acquired Hill Pottery decades later, in addition to low-kiln earthenware, he now added stoneware. Stoneware, actually man made stone produced under extremely high temperatures, is well suited for use as tableware.

Martin Stangl, a ceramic engineer hired to develop new shapes and glazes, soon became vice-president of Fulper’s. When fire destroyed the factory in 1929, Stangl bought it, renaming it Stangl Pottery. Six years later, when production moved to Trenton, N.J., the original Flemington facility became the Stangl Pottery Outlet and Factory Showroom. In addition to his hand painted dinnerware line, Stangl soon added hand carved, hand painted dinnerware, which, ultimately, became his most popular product.

Early American decorating in the late 1930s was at its peak. So Stangl’s new dinnerware, created by top designer Kay Hackett, featured folk art designs based on Pennsylvania Dutch motifs. Hackett’s nature-based designs, like Fruit, Garden Flower, Thistle, and Blueberry, became perennial pleasers.

To produce Hackett’s designs, and to contribute to the war effort, Stangl trained local women in basic artistic techniques. After the designs were traced and carved into the red clay dinnerware, the pieces were under-glazed with liquid white clay, then fired. Then the designs were hand painted and the pieces were fired again. Each piece of Stangl, then, features unique brush strokes, free form designs, and varied depths of color and carvings. Each is one of a kind. As a personal touch, carvers and painters also often added their initials on the backs.

Although most of Stanglware is marked, its trademarks varied through the years. The company’s earliest dinner and giftware, produced from the 1920s through 1943, features the Stangl trademark in a number of forms, either stamped, hand carved, or impressed into the base of the work. Pieces produced from 1942 through 1978 usually feature an oval stamp reading “Stangl Pottery Trenton New Jersey.” During this time as well, Roman numerals indicating the year of production and the name of the pattern were also often added. Later, though the word “Pottery” disappeared from Stangl’s trademarks altogether, some pieces featured the words “hand painted” or “hand crafted” outside the Stangl oval. Other Stangl pieces bore silver- or gold-colored stickers, and some, including Stangl’s bird series, came with hang tags. Some of these original, ephemeral stickers and tags still survive today.

Stangl, over the years, manufactured a variety of art forms that enjoyed brief shelf lives. These included ceramic hat and wig stands featuring stylized cheery, hand painted faces, as well as a limited number of male versions to store toupees. To increase interest, Stangl also converted some of these stands into unique lamps. Stangl’s hand painted animal figurines, 11 creatures in all, also lived brief lives. While his draft horse, rabbit, and gazelle still appear occasionally on the market, others, like his colt, calf, and cat, are far more elusive.

Hundreds of Stangl’s popular hand painted cigarette boxes and ashtrays, on the other hand, still abound. Ruffled edges, scallop sided, round, rectangular, or square, bearing flowers, birds, trees, and more, their variety dazzles the imagination.

Over the years, Stangl continued to experiment with innovative glazing techniques. His hand sprayed and brushed Art Wares feature gradual blending of similar hues. His earth-toned Pebblestone line, created by over-glazing base coats with sponges, boasts a pebbly texture. Tropical Ware features two sharply contrasting colored glazes, while Multi-colored Stangl Art Ware features four glazes in a characteristically dripping effect. Finally, Sunburst, or Rainbow Art Ware, also uses four glazes. But in this case, each piece was hand dipped in glaze to a certain height, which resulted in rainbowed frogs, vases, and the like. Stangl also marketed opulent, glazed Antique Gold pieces, created by dry brushing 22 carat gold over a green finish.

Stangl’s Birds of America Series, reproductions of American birds introduced in 1940, was inspired by Audubon’s popular illustrations. Farmyard fowl, including chickens, turkeys, and ducks, were among the first creations. They were soon joined by flocks of cockatoos, Baltimore orioles, chickadees, and more, altogether totaling over sixty species. Today, Birds of America are desirable collector’s items, with larger birds commanding higher prices. Prices for double bird figurines, like Stangl’s bluebird duo, run sky high.

A trip to the Flemington Stangl Factory Showroom was always an adventure. After browsing its open stock stacks and bins of dinnerware, our parents wandered past shelves of complimentary pitchers, serving dishes, creamers, gravy boats, and tea pots. But we children found Stangl’s novelty items much more alluring. Colorful salt and pepper sets, mini-flower pots, flowered tea bag holders, and bags of glass marbles, especially the luminous “puries,” caught our eye. Of course, Stangl’s Kiddieware, cup, bowl, and plate sets, also delighted us to no end. These whimsical sets, most designed by Kay Hackett, feature ABCs, elves, fairies, clowns, gingerbread men, bunny rabbits, along with bevies of beloved nursery rhyme characters. If memory serves me right, we kids were often urged to clean our plates by “finding” the choo-choo train, the Indian campfire, and the cat and the fiddle hiding at the bottom of our Kiddieware.

Another kiddy delight was the showroom’s brick pottery kiln. Though displays of Stangl’s early project and techniques graced its inner, rounded walls, we preferred frolicking in and around the kiln itself.

For nearly 50 years, hundreds of thousands of people visited Stangl’s Flemington showroom, lured by its dinnerware and figurines at attractive prices, its open stacks, and over a hundred charming patterns. From its heyday, when its products were marketed in over three thousand department, gift, and jewelry stores, until 1978 when production ceased, Stangl was an everyday word across America.

Many still enjoy collecting Stanglware. Some stalk Birds of America, while others concentrate on Stangl milk jugs, creamers, or Kiddieware. Because of large production runs, these items, which abound at flea markets, estate sales, pottery shows, and antique stores, are relatively inexpensive. Other Stangls, including hundreds of Kay Hackett sample creations never put into production, are far rarer, far costlier.

Stangl’s dinnerware was, to us, as familiar as the wildflowers that dotted our New Jersey country roads. We dined on Stangl’s most popular, longest produced, and best-selling product, Kay Hackett’s yellow rimmed Fruit pattern. Adorned with a handful of rosy cherries, a bunch of grapes, and a juicy peach, it offered a vision of endless summer. As Stangl advertised in 1955, “This luscious fruit design perks up the smallest appetite … makes every meal a cheerful, gracious event!”

It did.