By Donald-Brian Johnson
From the “Germ-Proof Filter,” to enduring Arts & Crafts acclaim. That’s the unlikely journey of Fulper Pottery, maker of the early 20th-century uniquely glazed artware that’s become a favorite with today’s collectors.
Fulper began life in 1814 as the “Samuel Hill Pottery,” named after its founder, a New
Jersey potter. In its early years, the Pottery specialized in useful items, such as storage crocks and drain pipes, fashioned from the area’s red clay. Abraham Fulper, a worker at the Pottery, eventually became Hill’s partner, purchasing the company in 1860. Renamed after its new owner, Fulper Pottery continued to produce a variety of utilitarian tile and crockery.
By the turn of the 20th century, the firm, now led by Abraham’s sons, introduced a line of Fire-Proof Cookware, and the hugely successful “Germ-Proof Filter.” An ancestor of today’s water cooler, the “Filter” provided sanitary drinking water in less-than-sanitary public places, such as offices and railway stations.
In the early 1900s, Fulper’s master potter, John Kunsman, began creating various solid-glaze vessels, such as jugs and vases, which were offered for sale outside the Pottery. On a whim, William H. Fulper II (Abraham’s grandson, who’d become the company’s secretary/treasurer) took an assortment of these items for exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition — along with, of course, the “Germ-Proof Filter.” Kunsman’s artware took home honorable mention.
Since Chinese art pottery was then attracting national attention, Fulper saw an opening to produce similarly styled modern ware. Dr. Cullen Parmelee, who headed up the ceramics department at Rutgers, was recruited to create a contemporary series of glazes patterned after those of ancient China. The Fulper “Vasekraft” line of art pottery incorporating these glazes made its debut in 1909. Unfortunately, Parmelee’s glazes did not lend themselves well to mass production; they did not result in reliable coloration. Even more to their detriment, they were expensive to produce.
In 1910, most of Parmelee’s glazes disappeared from the line. A new ceramic engineer, Martin Stangl, was given the assignment of revitalizing Vasekraft. His most notable innovation: steering designs and glazes away from reinterpretations of ornate Chinese classics, toward the simplicity of the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement. Among his many Vasekraft successes: candleholders, bookends, perfume lamps, desk accessories, tobacco jars and even Vasekraft lamps. Here, both the lamp base and shade were of pottery; stained glass inserts in the shades allowed light to shine through. <br.
Always attuned to the mood of the times, William Fulper realized that by World War I the heavy Vasekraft stylings were fading in popularity. A new and lighter line of “Fulper Pottery Artware,” featuring Spanish Revival and English themes, was introduced. Among the most admired Fulper releases following the war were “Fulper Porcelaines”: dresser boxes, powder jars, ashtrays, lamps and other accessories designed to complement the fashionable boudoir.
“Fulper Fayence,” the popular line of solid-color, open-stock dinnerware eventually known as “Stangl Pottery” was introduced in the 1920s. In 1928, following William Fulper’s death, Martin Stangl was named company president. The artware that continued into the 1930s embraced Art Deco, as well as Classical and Primitive stylistic themes. From 1935 onward, “Stangl Pottery” became the sole Fulper output. In 1978, the Stangl assets came under the ownership of Pfaltzgraff.
Unlike wheel-thrown pottery, Fulper was made in molds; the true artistry came in the use of exceptionally rich, color-blended glazes. Each Fulper piece is one-of-a-kind; because of glaze divergence, two Fulper objects from the same mold can show a great variance.
While once a drawback for retailers seeking consistency, that uniqueness is now a boon to collectors: Each Fulper piece possesses its own singular visual appeal.