An Introduction to Collecting Newcomb College Pottery

Newcomb Pottery

Wikimedia Commons / Daderot

Newcomb College Pottery began as a collective designed to build on the Arts and Crafts ideal of handcrafted decorative arts being far superior in comparison to machine-made goods. This pottery, made in New Orleans, Louisiana, beginning in 1894, allowed women to learn the craft of decorating clay wares, and also gave them a means of successfully sharing their work with the world through 1939.

Unlike pieces made by George Ohr, who crafted his misunderstood wares in nearby Biloxi, Mississippi, and studied with Newcomb's master potter Joseph Fortune Meyer, Newcomb pottery was very highly regarded even when it was newly made. Today, collectors of American art pottery dating to the turn of the 20th century still see it as a skillful representation of this type of decorative art.

What Makes Newcomb Pottery Special?

With exacting standards reflecting the ideals of William Morris, founding father of the Arts and Crafts movement, early Newcomb wares were uniquely a southern American product. "The pots were to be well-designed, one of a kind, hand-thrown, and hand-decorated utilitarian pieces. The decoration was to be inspired by Louisiana flora and fauna. Local clays [dug] north of Lake Pontchartrain were used (although suitable clay for throwing required the addition of various materials from Alabama, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Indiana)."

"Before Newcomb pottery was offered to the public for sale, its quality had to pass a rigorous assessment by a four-person faculty jury. If a piece did not meet criteria of the committee, the College's impressed cipher of an "N" within a "C" was ground off the bottom of the pot with an abrasive wheel," according to the Louisiana State Museum's website. These pieces with an obliterated mark sometimes have other marks still in place denoting the decorator, when the piece was registered, and what mixture of clay was used. A piece with a line through the mark denotes it was likely sold as a "second."

How Come Newcomb Pottery Has Different Marks?

Being keenly aware of the importance of handcrafted design, Newcomb's mark system documents the making of each piece including who molded the clay, who decorated the item, and what clay mixture was used. The actual Newcomb marks vary from an "N" with a "C" to "Newcomb College" being spelled out. Another mark used was "N" and "C" on either side of a vase within a rectangle.

Several other marks were also incised into the bottom of each piece:

  • Artist's ciphers were applied by each female student decorating the pottery, which usually translates as one to three initials such as an "S" within a circle used by Gertrude R. Smith.
  • Potter's marks, such as a stylized "M" for master potter Joseph Fortune Myer, were used to document who actually molded the clay.
  • Letters R, U, and Q indicate the varied clay mixtures used, while the letters and numbers A1, A2, etc., served as registration marks.

This information was provided by as excerpted from Marks of American Potters by Edwin Atlee Barber printed in 1904. 

How Much Is Newcomb Pottery Worth?

Being regarded as high-quality representations of both American art pottery and the Arts and Crafts movement, Newcomb College pottery has its share of fans ranging from collectors with deep pockets to museums across the globe. If an antiquer happens to run across a piece of this pottery at a bargain price, it's considered a rare find today although it does happen on occasion.

The vase illustrating this article, decorated by Anna Frances Simpson, sold for $4,130 plus a 20 percent buyer's premium at Morphy Auctions in 2011. Like with pottery made by Rookwood and Weller, an artist's cipher can add value to a Newcomb piece when the work of that particular decorator is popular with a number of collectors. These types of pieces usually sell in the thousands. Even when sold through online auctions, quality Newcomb pieces with desirable decor can easily top $1,000.

Other Newcomb works by lesser-known decorators or those with less imaginative designs can sell in the $300-800 range. Unless an item is damaged, Newcomb pieces will very rarely sell for less than several hundred dollars through a knowledgeable dealer or auction house, and most go much higher.