S. P. I. HISTORY
In 1916, the Clinchfield, Carolina, and Ohio Railroad conceived the idea of constructing a pottery as a means of promoting industrial development along its railway. The tiny east Tennessee town of Erwin was selected as the site for the new "Clinchfield Pottery" in part due to the availability of raw materials essential to the manufacturing of pottery, including white Kaolin clay and Feldspar.
The first commercial china pieces, consisting mainly of gold trimmed dinnerware formed with common chinaware molds and using decal applied patterns, were produced by the pottery in 1917. On April 8, 1920 the company was granted a corporate charter under the name "Southern Potteries Incorporated" and $500,000 of stock offered for sale to the public. Within two years, the Erwin plant was purchased by Charles W. Foreman, an associate of E.J. Owens, the original pottery owner.
The Early Years (1917-1938)
Pottery produced during this era is commonly known as "Clinchfield Chinaware". Most pieces were marked with the Clinchfield crown back stamp. Patterns were applied to the bisque, the fired clay-like blank shapes, by use of decals many of which were commonly used by other period china producers. S.P.I.'s French Peasant, Normandy, Brittany, and Palisades patterns were derived from the designs of Quimper, the famous French pottery. Patterns were applied to a variety of mold shapes including:
Bowls also called "nappies" were produced in an additional assortment of odd shapes. Some of these more popular shapes were carried over to "Blue Ridge" when hand painting first began including Clinchfield, Watauga, and Trellis. A large percentage of the early Clinchfield production was advertising chinaware. The advertiser usually had the company name, wares, or services added to the front of the piece.
The name "Blue Ridge" first appeared on S.P.I. products sometime in 1932 or 1933.
The Hand Painted Era (1938-1957)
In 1938 Southern Potteries' owner, Charles W. Foreman, elevated the products produced by S.P.I. to an art form when he introduced the technique of hand painting under glaze. The earliest hand paintings consisted of accent strokes and simple designs around decals. The decals were gradually eliminated until all designs became hand painted, sometime in the early 1940's.
Prior to World War II, the pottery industry in the United States was small with the majority of our dinnerware being imported. As a result of the war, imports were shut off and the pottery business greatly expanded. By 1951 S.P.I. was the largest hand painting pottery in the United States producing over 24 million pieces annually and employing over 1000 persons.
Almost all, of over 2000 known, Blue Ridge patterns were designed by S.P.I. employees. Buyers from large companies and/or department stores could even work with S.P.I. decorators and designers to produce their own patterns, e.g., Avon, Quaker Oats, Stanley Home Products, etc. Since all the patterns were hand painted, there were numerous variations. In addition when a large retailer pattern was discontinued, S.P.I. would change the pattern slightly and return it to the market. The same patterns were also produced on different shapes and with variations in edge and band coloring. It is important to remember when attempting to identify a pattern that smaller pieces, e.g., cups, saucers, and small plates, were decorated with only a portion of the main pattern.
There are a total of thirteen known shapes on which Blue Ridge patterns were manufactured including:
Clinchfield and Trellis which were carry overs from the decal pattern days.
Astor, Candlewick, and Colonial which were designed for the first hand painted patterns.
Piecrust which was introduced in 1948.
Skyline and Skyline Studioware which were introduced in 1950.
Monticello and Woodcrest which were introduced in 1951 or 1952.
Trailways which was introduced in 1953.
Palisades which was introduced sometime after 1954.
Rope Handle which was a shape variation probably introduced between 1948 - 1950.
In addition to the dinnerware shapes S.P.I. produced an assortment of Blue Ridge Pitchers, Teapots, and Jugs each with their own characteristic shape, including:
Other Blue Ridge products included:
Salt & Pepper shakers
The sculptured boxes, e.g., powder, candy, cigarette, etc., and artist signed specialty plates are among the most desirable and valuable Blue Ridge collectibles. Known S.P.I. artists whose names appear on the front of these plates include:
Nelsene Q, Calhoun
Ruby S. Hart
Blue Ridge patterns were numbered more or less consecutively with the more popular or advertised patterns also being named. Pattern numbers up to 3,000 were likely produced in the 1930's, pattern numbers 3,000 - 4,000 in the 1940's , while pattern numbers above 4000 were probably produced in the 1950's. If an advertiser was a store, they sometimes named the pattern. As a result, some patterns may have more than one accepted name.
The chief designer of Blue Ridge patterns, Lena Watts, left S.P.I. in 1946 to join the Stetson China Company in Lincoln , Illinois. The Stetson company applied patterns to dinnerware using the decal method for its entire period of operation, 1946 - 1966, except for a three year period, 1954 - 1956, when it used hand painting exclusively. It is during this period when many patterns with the "Blue Ridge" look were produced by Stetson. The most notable of the Stetson look-a-likes being the Dixie Dogwood pattern which is commonly back stamped "Joni" to identify one of Stetson's primary jobbers.
S.P.I. marketed its products through eleven different showrooms it maintained across the country. Blue Ridge was sold in major department stores, through catalog sales and via company premium offers. For example, in 1947 Stanley Home Products provided a set of Ivy decorated dinnerware as a hostess gift or premium for holding a party. The Avon cosmetic company offered a set of 8 1/2 inch decorated fruit plates to salespersons sending in a single order of $150 - $199. In 1953, the Quaker Oats company offered consumers a mail-in premium for a variety of apple patterns on boxes of it's products. In the case of Stanley Home Products not only was the pattern named "Stanhome Ivy" but the back stamp or mark on the dinnerware was "Stanhome" even though it was manufactured by S.P.I.
Since S.P.I. never issued a product catalog, only an occasional brochure type advertisement, no record of pattern numbers and/or names exists. Through the years, various persons including Betty and Bill Newbound, John and Francis Ruffin, being the most notable, have attempted to catalog and classify new patterns as they are discovered by collectors. As author of this web site I am endeavoring to match accepted pattern names with their pattern numbers and hope one day to join the ranks of the previously mentioned notables. If you encounter a numbered pattern and it is not identified in my pattern list, please let me know.
While there was glassware made in the late 1940's and early 1950's which matched a variety of Blue Ridge patterns, S.P.I. was not in the glassware business. The company which manufactured the glassware, at least 23 different patterns, did however work with S.P.I. to design the glassware patterns.
Pottery pieces produced by S.P.I. were commonly marked with variety of back stamps and/or marks, however a large percentage of the pieces produced were not marked. Besides the Clinchfield crown, there are at least seven different S.P.I. or Blue Ridge marks known to exist. There were also a variety of other back stamps, known as jobber marks, applied to S.P.I. pieces produced for smaller companies that wanted these pieces back stamped with their own mark. Some patterns were exclusive to the jobber, while other patterns were regular Blue Ridge. Some common jobber back stamps include those produced for Westfall China Company, Primrose China, UCAGO or United China and China Company, and PV or Peasant Village used by Mittledorfer Straus Inc. Not all items with these back stamps were produced by S.P.I. as these companies used a variety of manufactures to produce their products.
The early S.P.I. diamond shaped stamp was used to mark pottery produced in the 1920's and 1930's. The standard Blue Ridge script stamp was used in the late 1930's and early 1940's. The circular Blue Ridge logo stamp was used in the late 1940's. Since china production did not begin at S.P.I. until 1945, all S.P.I. products marked with the word "China" was manufactured after that date. The circular Blue Ridge logo stamp with the addition of the words "Detergent Proof" or "Oven Safe" was used in the 1950"s. In the mid 1950's S.P.I. introduced a small line of ovenware which included covered bowls, casseroles, ramekins, pie bakers, and rectangular baking dishes which were commonly marked only the words "Oven Proof".
Pieces marked "Blue Ridge" without the letters S.P.I., "Clinchfield Artware", "Erwin Pottery", "Cash Family", or "Marie" are not S.P.I. products. They are however collectibles in there own right having been produced by former Blue Ridge artists and/or employees. In fact, some of the items being produced today are made using the exact same molds used by S.P.I.
By 1953 the end of an era was signaled as imports were again booming, plastic dinnerware came onto the market, and labor costs began to rise. By 1955 S.P.I. was forced to shift from daily operations to half-time or part-time production. Finally in 1957, stockholders voted to close S.P.I. and the magic was gone.