Department stores advertising new shipments experienced near riots. The public could not get enough of these strange sculptural forms. Housewives were enamoured with the sleek, modern lines and the glossy lustre of glazes such as Seafoam Blue and Black Chutney. American Modern sold incredibly well for 20 years, and made its designer, Russel Wright, famous.
But from the beginning, there was always one nagging complaint—its production quality. The glazes, although beautiful, tended to craze, and the earthenware body itself chipped and cracked easily. Russel Wright responded to these complaints with a new line of dinnerware, which would continue his "campaign" against the old over-decorated, extravagant styles.
In 1946, the Iroquois China Company of Syracuse, New York, began producing Iroquois Casual China. Fired at 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, Iroquois was true china, strong and practical. The shapes of this pattern were not as free-flowing as the fragile American Modern: The glazes did not have the glossy, glass-like depth. What Iroquois had was durability, and there were still some incredibly interesting forms.
Rivaling restaurant ware in strength, it was guaranteed not to break with normal use. A promotional ashtray read "Warrantied Against Breakage," and depicted a man juggling pieces of Iroquois Casual China.
I realized just how strong Iroquois was with one of my first purchases. An antique dealer was showing me a divided vegetable bowl. She held it over a table full of various other brands of creamers, saucers, etc. It slipped from her hands and just smashed everything underneath it. The bowl itself remained unscathed. I felt bad for the dealer, but was glad to take that bowl home with me.
Beginning collectors will notice that Iroquois pieces are not quite as available as American Modern; however, they tend to be in better condition unless seriously abused. Iroquois was designed to go from the oven to the table to the refrigerator. Today, almost 30 years after production has ceased, Iroquois is still usable. It is perfect for those who want more than just a display of great American design.
Ann Kerr's book, The Collector's Encyclopedia of Russel Wright Designs (Paducah, Kentucky: Collector Books, 1990), is absolutely essential to anyone trying to assemble a set of Iroquois (or any other Russel Wright pattern). Iroquois is a very big, complicated and confusing line at times. Sorting out shapes and colors can be very confusing for beginners.
Ann Kerr lists a total of 65 different items in her book, including lids which were sold separately. Why so many pieces? One reason is that Iroquois has many unusual pieces (e.g., a flat gumbo soup, a party plate, a wine carafe) as well as cookware items like a six-qt. casserole and covered sauce pan. Even among ordinary pieces, there are quite a few sizes and styles: six different plates, four different cups, and three different platter sizes.
Variations of the same item are the rule, not the exception. Russel Wright redesigned so many pieces. Take the gravy boat, for instance. One gravy is a 12-oz. bowl that sits on a round stand (resembling a "giant saucer"). Another gravy boat has an attached stand. Both are covered by a flat lid with a slot for the ladle. The redesigned gravy, an especially impressive item, is a totally different piece. Its tapered bowl has an almost Oriental style, and its cover is a rounded dome that acts as a stand for the bowl when placed upside down.
Other notable pieces include a stacking cream and sugar, available in two sizes. The creamer serves as a lid for the sugar bowl beneath it, saving storage space. Wright later redesigned this into a separate, more traditional creamer and sugar bowl.
In fact, very few items were exempt from redesigning. The original smaller water pitcher became a two-qt. vessel. The coffee pot was restyled into a teapot; the half-pound butter dish was restyled into a quarter-pound butter. Casserole lids that once had "pinch" handles on top were replaced by prominent knobs around 1951. Other redesigns included the mug and all bowls, many taking on a more Oriental appearance with tapered bases.
New designs were not the only changes Iroquois Casual China saw during almost 20 years of production. New colors were being introduced as well. All in all, 14 different colors can be found. There are four "warm" colors: 1) Nutmeg, a dark brown; 2) Ripe Apricot, an orangish-brown with darker flecks; 3) Cantaloupe; and 4) Brick Red, which happens to be more brown than red. Three pastels, 5) Ice Blue, 6) Lemon Yellow and 7) Pink Sherbet, along with 8) Sugar White form the light end of the palette.
The two gray ahades, 9) Charcoal and 10) Oyster—a light, warm, almost tannish gray—are very different. There are three very different greens as well: 11) Avocado (basically chartreuse), 12) Lettuce (a light shade) and 13) Parsley (or Forest) Green (a very dark green). And then there's 14) Aqua, a deep shade of turquoise.
Aqua and Brick Red are by far the rarest colors, being produced late and for a short time only. They usually increase the value of a piece by 300% or more. I have heard some negative remarks about Brick Red from collectors who feel it is too brown. Aqua, on the other hand, seems to be highly prized by anyone who looks for Iroquois. Collectors will fight over it (so I've been told by several dealers). A single cup and saucer, which would run around $10 in most other colors, commands around $75 in this beautiful shade.
One disturbing thing I have seen is Ice Blue mistaken for Aqua. Some dealers are unfamiliar with Wright's works and mislabel particular items. One time I picked up an 8" Ice Blue bowl with a $280 price tag on it. It really shouldn't have been more than $30. I guess the baffled look on my face prompted an explanation.
The dealer said, "That bowl is Aqua, the rarest color." I put it down, very gently, and replied, "Yes, Aqua is the rarest, most desirable color, but this bowl is Ice Blue. Iroquois Aqua is a much darker blue-green color."
The dealer looked rather shaken, so I suspect any deception was unintentional. Perhaps he had paid far too much for the piece himself.
Aqua and Brick Red aside, some colors are not terribly difficult to find at all. Ripe Apricot, Nutmeg, Pink Sherbet, Avocado and Ice Blue can readily be found at flea markets and antique malls. Other colors tend to bring higher prices as they are not as available.
My first goal in learning about Iroquois was to purchase at least one piece of each color, even if it was only a saucer. I did notice some variations in glaze color (especially Nutmeg), and early pieces (these will be thicker, more like restaurant ware) have mottled "foam glazes." From here, it is much easier to decide on color preferences and combinations. Russel Wright intended for these colors to be mixed. Many collectors pick a color scheme and go from there to assemble sets with two, three or more different colors that complement each other wonderfully.
With all the other variations in this line, it is no surprise that marks also vary. Pieces should have "Russel Wright" written in signature form. In printed form on some and cursive on others is the word "IROQUOIS." Some marks contain the word "CHINA," while others say "CASUAL CHINA." Some also say "U.S.A.," and some have a manufacturer's code.
A few pieces like salts and peppers are unmarked. My redesigned gravy is unmarked, and I have found a couple of plates in a set that were unmarked. Keep in mind also that marks are sometimes not discernible on dark glazes.
I am hesitant to say much about prices. They can vary wildly from the "book values." Iroquois is really very affordable for the most part. Many common items are in the $10-$20 range. Many pieces turn up at flea markets and thrift shops as well.
Like anything that has become collectible, the more outstanding pieces have been snapped up by enthusiasts. Pieces like the restyled butter dish, redesigned gravy, and wine carafe are difficult to find. They easily sell for over $100 each.
But there are always lucky finds. The bottom half of my redesigned gravy came from a thrift shop. I located a redesigned butter for $9, and an original water pitcher for $21 at an antique mall. Their "book values" would be around $115 and $70. I have also seen casseroles for $35 to $45 as well.
True Iroquois lovers don't rely on finding bargains for unusual items, though. I have been thrilled to find certain rarities at half-again their "book prices," and have often ordered hard-to-find items from out-of-state dealers. Some items are simply remarkable. I think of the wine carafe in particular. It has both an ancient and modern—really timeless—quality about its design.
In the end, I believe it is both great design and durabilty that account for the popularity of this line. The Iroquois China Company closed its door long ago, and Russel Wright died in 1976, but their efforts created something that deserves great respect even today. I love sipping coffee from a Sugar White cup or pouring milk from a Parsley Green creamer. As for my wine carafe, I display it like a piece of fine sculpture.