by: Maureen Timm

As seen in The Antique -Shoppe Newspaper August 2006

Tiles depicting two parrots on a branch, c. 1930s (Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum)

In 1958, musical artists known as The Four Preps, wrote the song "Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin for me," which became one of the top hits of the fifties. Today, Santa Catalina welcomes visitors with a picturesque coastline, ample anchorages, clear water, and fresh air. The world famous Catalina Casino, completed in 1929, houses Avalon's movie theater, the world's largest circular ballroom (famous for its Big Band dances) a museum and art gallery.

Catalina Island, located about 26 miles off the southern California Coast, has a fascinating and colorful history.

Native Americans have been living on the island for over 7,000 years and the most important advance in their culture was the art of soapstone carving. Soapstone is very soft, which makes it easy to carve and polish. This material was widely used in cooking because their high talc content made them relatively immune to heat fracture, a common problem with other types of stone bowls.

The island experienced financial difficulties until 1919 when the island was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr., chewing-gum magnate. Wrigley and his heirs brought many changes to the island.

In 1927 extensive clay and mineral deposits were found on the island and a tile plant was established at Pebbly Beach near the City of Avalon. William Wrigley, Jr., and his close business associate, David Renton, wanted to provide employment for Catalina residents and needed building materials for the development of Avalon as a tourist resort. At its peak the operation included a furniture workshop and ornamental iron foundry that employed several hundred residents.  

Tiles depicting egret, c. 1930s (Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum)

At first the principal product of the Catalina plant was tile and by 1929 a line of ornamental pottery was being manufactured in vivid colored glazes to help meet the demands of civic improvement. Harold Johnson, who joined the business in 1928, contributed numerous pottery designs and glazes.

Wrigley was in the process of building the huge multi-level Catalina Casino, which kept the factory operating during its first three years. Roofing tile was required. Walls required hollow tile and floors and promenades were paved with handmade octagonal patio tile interspersed with colorful glazed inserts.

When the casino was completed in 1929, they received the Honor Award from the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

After completion of the monumental casino project, Catalina Clay products began to diversify. Island souvenirs were stressed, but a complete line of vases, flower bowls, candle holders, lamps and other decorative accessories for the home were produced and made available in island gift shops. Most of these slip-cast items were quite functional and original in design.

The clay used in production was a brown-burning type trucked in from a dry lakebed located a short distance from the plant. Pulverized rock (felsite) recovered from the Pebbly Beach rock quarry was also used. David Renton, who managed the pottery, hired ceramic engineer, Virgil Haldeman, after Harold Johnson's departure in 1930. The glazes of Johnson and Haldeman were developed from native oxides. When the glazes united with the island's brown clay some remarkable effects were achieved. The company's press kit included the following description of one of the Catalina glazes.

Art plate by Catalina ARtist, Graham, c. 1920s

"The yellow found in Catalina Pottery is one that has for centuries been, the royal color of the reigning house of China, and therefore known as Mandarin or Manchu yellow. The exact hue has never before been duplicated outside the great wall of China, though chemists the world over have striven to achieve this one shade of yellow that can be best described as "yellow-yellow" or the true gold of a California sun."

Other standard glazes were Catalina blue, Descanso green, Toyon red, turquoise, pearly white, sea foam and Monterey brown. Later colors, which Haldeman furnished, included beige, coral island, powder blue and colonial yellow (all satin-matte finish). The output of the Catalina pottery, which covered several acres and included twelve kilns of various size and type, averaged between 10,000 and 15,000 pieces per week. The wide range of clay products was well suited to the Spanish architecture seen throughout Southern California in the twenties.

The ware was further enhanced in this capacity by the addition of Spanish style wrought-iron frames and stands crafted by the island's foundry. Both the foundry and the furniture shop produced attractive tables that were fitted with scenic tile panels designed by a crew of Catalina artists. Motifs for these, and a related series of decorative wall plates were suggestive of the island; undersea gardens, exotic birds of the Avalon Bird Park (now closed) flying fish and Spanish galleons. Numerous hand-painted scenes were also rendered over-glaze on plates of various sizes.

Framed tile image depicting a sea place, c. 1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum)

Tableware was introduced about 1930, with the entire spectrum of pottery glazes employed. Three basic dinnerware designs were offered along with many interchangeable serving pieces. In 1936 another complete service with a raised rope border was added in all satin-finish pastel colors. The pottery was popular with Catalina residents and tourists despite the Depression, and was shipped to many retail outlets on , the mainland of California and elsewhere.

The only flaw in an otherwise successful operation was the native brown clay which proved to be brittle and damaged easily. William Wrigley insisted that Catalina pottery be manufactured only from indigenous materials. Even though it was less than satisfactory the clay body could not be improved until after Wrigley's death in 1932. At this time a tougher, white burning clay was imported from Lincoln, California. The costly importation of clay to Avalon was ironically the major factor necessitating the sale of the Catalina line to mainland competitor Gladding-McBean in 1937.

Catalina Island ware can be distinguished from other Southern California lines of colored pottery by its remarkable series of glazes and, in the case of the pre 1932 ware, its brown clay body. Marks are also helpful. There were a few that were impressed into the leather-hard clay. The words "Catalina" or "Catalina Island" are the most common of these. Sometimes these words were incised by hand, with variations in handwriting.

Certain early items were stamped under glaze "Catalina Island" in an oval, or similarly stamped overgraze. Variations on most of the marks exist, making it difficult to determine the dates that specific ones were in use. Paper labels were also used. The recessed or stamped mark "Catalina Pottery" was used by Gladding-McBean on its Catalina Pottery line and should not be confused with the earlier island productions.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at antshoppe@aol.com

The Antique Shoppe
"Florida's Best Newspaper for Antiques and Collectibles

PO Box 2175, Keystone Heights, FL 32656-2175
Phone: (352)475-1679 Fax: (352)475-5326

[Top of Page | Editorial Articles | Home]
Copyright 2006, Antique Shoppe Newspaper