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Nemadji Pottery: A History Lesson

May 8, 2016

by Jeni Sandberg

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

In my travels, I often come across small pottery vase with marbleized decorations in warm, earthy colors. Known as “Nemadji Indian pottery,” the bright, swirling designs of this distinctive pottery were created with a single goal in mind: to catch a tourist’s eye. These cannily marketed goods played on an implied link to Native American handicraft and served as generic “Indian pottery” sold everywhere from the Grand Canyon to the Alamo and beyond during the 20th century.

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Vintage Nemadji Pottery from Left Coast Revivals, $38

Nemadji Tile & Pottery Co. of Moose Lake, Minnesota, began producing their swirled pottery in 1929. A distinctive product and clever marketing were the roots of their success. The name “Nemadji” is an Ojibwe word meaning “left-handed,” but was easily misunderstood to be the name of a tribe. In the information sheet that accompanied their pots, Nemadji stressed that their wares were made with the same clays and shapes used by Native Americans. The connection of this marbled style of decoration with Native American production was more assumption than fact, but Nemadji was happy to encourage the idea. In reality, Eric Hellman, a Nemadji employee and Danish immigrant, came up with the idea to decorate the vases using simple house paint.

Though early pots were hand-thrown, most Nemadji pottery was molded from either a colored or white clay, fired and left in a bisque (unglazed) state. Different colored paints were floated on top of a vat of water and a small bit of vinegar was added to help separate the paints. Using a technique similar to marbling paper, the fired vase was hand-dipped into the water and swirled in the floating colors. The pieces did not have to be refired and dried quickly, creating uniquely decorated pots every time.

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Vintage Large Swirled Nemadji Pottery from Vintage Modern and More, $54

Nemadji was certainly not the first manufacturer who decorated pottery with a marbled effect. English agateware, mochaware, European ceramics in the 19th century and some Japanese ceramics as far back as the 16th century all used swirled clays or glazes to approximate the rich veining of marble. In the late 1920s, firms such as Niloak of Arkansas and Desert Sands Pottery of Nevada made vessels of colored clays swirled together to create a marbled effect.

Popular for more than 70 years, Nemadji finally ceased production in 2001.  Today their pottery is plentiful and relatively inexpensive, making it easy for collectors to make groups of earthy brown, sunset red or sky blue vases.

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3 Featured Comments

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 5 years ago Featured

    Thanks for the history on these wonderful pots. I always thought the color was fired into the clay itself, or was a special glaze, I didnt know it was paint.

  • TallTimberAntiques

    Katie from TallTimberAntiques said 5 years ago Featured

    Thank you for the interesting and very informative history lesson on Nemadji. I've always been attracted to their vases, own two and have sold many over the years and NEVER knew they were decorated with house paint! Amazing! I learned something new today, thank you.

  • craftgypsy

    craftgypsy from CharmInn said 5 years ago Featured

    Oh my! I got something like this as a wedding gift nearly 20 years ago. I don't think I looked at it more than a dozen times since, but I glanced over while I was reading this and there it was in the china buffet! Sure enough, on the bottom was the Nemadji emblem. Very cool!

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