Friday, July 24, 2009

The Fulper Phenom

Sixteen years ago after a decade of research I ventured in an article, on rather flimsy evidence, that a line of frequently seen decorated whiskey jugs were the product of a New Jersey pottery prominently known for its high quality and expensive art pottery. It was the Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, located about 23 miles north of Trenton, New Jersey.

Fulper and its successor firm, doing business from 1814 until 1980, had an international reputation for colorful glazes and innovative shapes. Its vases, lamps, figurines and other objects regularly command high prices in the antiques trade. Linking Fulper to so crude an item as a whiskey jug might seem ludicrous.

My 1993 article made the connection because of a 1905 advertisement that the Fulper company ran in a national trade publication for liquor manufacturers and distributors. Shown here, the ad featured two jugs. The one pictured on the left is shaped approximately like the whiskey ceramics in question. Moreover, the ad described the Fulper jugs as “fancy,” “handsomely made,” and “fancifully marked.” From that slim evidence and with some trepidation my published conclusion was that Fulper was the manufacturer.

For years I sought further evidence -- either to refute or confirm my identification. Calls to experts and collectors of American pottery yielded no solid information. As time passed, my frustration grew. Then in 2002 I learned that a Fulper museum had been established in Flemington by pottery historian Rob Runge and his wife. I contacted him. He answered that it was quite possible that Fulper had been the potter, and asked me to send him some photos of the jugs, which I did. His response came quickly and had me whooping with glee: “Yes, they were indeed produced by Fulper Pottery.” he wrote.

The find explained the purpose of a small kiln at the Fulper complex, shown here, whose uses had posed a mystery for Runge. After the blank jugs had been formed in the main factory, this kiln, capable of temperatures of only 1200-1300 degrees, was used to fire the gold lettering and characteristic painted flowers. The Meadville Rye jug shown here demonstrates the decoration in its pristine condition.

I subsequently sold the bulk of my Fulper whiskeys to the Runges for their museum, where they put them on display, graciously giving me credit for making the connection. I also wrote a follow-up piece about the link having been confirmed. That article has been widely circulated via the Internet and today many offerings of these jugs identify them as Fulper made. Nonetheless, these whiskey ceramics seldom command more than $100. One problem is that during the century or more they have been around, the gold decoration often has deteriorated, particularly on the dark bottom half of the jug.

For the past twenty years, I have kept an eye out for these jugs on Internet auctions and elsewhere and have compiled a list of them which now has reached 88 varieties. The list is available from me for $2.00 and a self-addressed stamped envelope. In spite of my years looking, previously unknown to me Fulper whiskeys still come along from time to time. One surfaced only last month. It is a Klein & Hyman jug from Cincinnati that is labeled “Our Champion.” It can dated from the decade 1887-1897 when that firm existed. Also notice the poor condition of the gold letttering.

As a final note, the Fulper Museum was forced to shut down several years ago because of the deteriorated condition of the building it occupied. Efforts to establish the collection at another Flemington location unfortunately have not been successful.

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