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Ali Baba Vase

Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847-1939), The Cincinnati Pottery Club (1879-1890), Frederick Dallas Hamilton Road Pottery (1865-1882)
United States (Cincinnati)
"Ali Baba" Vase, 1880
Gift of the Women's Art Museum Association, 1881.239
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Aladdin Vase

Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849-1932), The Rookwood Pottery Company (1880-1967)
Aladdin Vase, 1882
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James J. Gardner, 2002.94
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Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847-1939), The Cincinnati Pottery Club (1879-1890), Frederick Dallas Hamilton Road Pottery (1865-1882)
Ali Baba Vase , 1880
Gift of the Women’s Art Museum Association, 1881.239

In August 1879, Louise McLaughlin imagined creating the largest underglaze decorated vase in America. Perhaps the reasoning behind her desire to create such a vase was to meet the popular concept of the time that bigger was better; however, her strong competition with Maria Longworth Nichols was probably the larger impetus for her creation.

McLaughlin was aware that Nichols had recently created two vases, decorated under the glaze, that were between 25 and 30 inches in height. While McLaughlin had a vase similar in size, nothing was larger. When McLaughlin learned that Nichols would be showing these vases at the Cincinnati Seventh Industrial Exposition, which was set to run from September 10 to October 11, 1879, she felt the rush of competition and soon began work on an even larger vase to be finished in time for the Exposition.

With the help of potters at the Dallas Pottery, molds for the vase were produced, and casting soon began. After several trials and errors, McLaughlin soon realized that a vase of this size would not be finished in time for the September Exposition. Determined to stick with the project, McLaughlin continued on her goal, and finally in February 1880, she was successful.

McLaughlin’s successful unglazed vase reached a height of 37 inches, a width of 16½ inches and a volume of 22 gallons. The artist decorated the piece in a Japanese style with a background glaze of a sage green color upon which she pained Chinese hibiscus flowers in dark red and yellow with green stems and leaves.

The name for the vase came from McLaughlin’s long time friend Clara Chipman Newton:

I remember going one day to the [Pottery Club] rooms [at Dallas’s], and as I opened the door, I saw Miss McLaughlin standing on a table, applying clay with a huge brush, to the largest vase I had ever seen. I was still young enough to have an intimate touch with The Arabian Nights, so exclaimed,“Why, Louise, that’s an Ali Baba Vase.” Ali Baba it became, and today is still Ali Baba to the initiated.

Upon its successful completion, the Ali Baba Vase was displayed in the window of Isbell & Co, on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati and later that spring, on Wednesday May 5, at the Cincinnati Pottery Club’s first public showing and reception of their work.


Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849-1932) (The Rookwood Pottery Company)
Aladdin Vase, 1882
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James J. Gardner, 2002.94

The Aladdin Vase of 1882 was one in a series of Aladdin Vases first created in 1880 by Storer in response to another work of art. She had learned that her artistic rival in the city, M. Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939), had successfully created the largest ceramic vase decorated under the glaze in America. McLaughlin, the first person in America to discover and master the technique of decorating pottery under the glaze, called her large vessel the Ali Baba Vase after the jar that held the forty thieves in the book Arabian Nights. Storer, who was extremely strong willed and never happy in second place, was determined to outdo McLaughlin’s creation. Her response was the Aladdin Vase. Although this vessel is not quite as tall as the Ali Baba Vase, it is wider, and thus technically more difficult to produce.

The Aladdin Vase is cylindrical and tapers toward the base. Around the shoulder of the vase is a modeled dragon that is raised from the surface of the vessel. The dragon, complete with snarling face and sharp fangs, holds itself up with a thin craggy arm that grasps the neck of the vase. The work also has two catfish in relief with bulging eyes and areas of raised white swirls of clay. In addition to the decoration under the glaze, Storer also applied gold over the glaze, particularly around the lower portion of the vase.

The dragon and catfish are motifs found in Japanese folklore. After a visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Storer was fascinated with Japanese art and culture. The Aladdin Vase is a wonderful example of her interest in Japanese art and culture, as well as her desire to push the limits of ceramic art.


M. Louise McLaughlin (1847-1939) and Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849-1932)

Women in Cincinnati had a significant impact on the artistic and cultural identity of the Queen City. In the late nineteenth century, women were responsible for the beautification of their homes. Cincinnati women did so by becoming leaders in the fields of china painting, art pottery, porcelain, woodcarving and metalworking. Two leaders of this art movement in Cincinnati were M. Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, also known as the dueling divas of art pottery. Through their advancements in art pottery, they both became seminal figures in the history of American ceramics.

The first of the Museum’s Dueling Divas, M. Louise McLaughlin, was born on September 29, 1847. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her father, William, a prominent and wealthy dry goods merchant, supported his daughter’s artistic endeavors as she showed great talent from a very early age. It was not until she finished her primary education that she began art courses at Miss Appleton’s Private School for Girls (1871-1872).

Louise’s future competitor, Maria Longworth, was born two years later in 1849. Like Louise, she was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Maria grew up in an extremely comfortable household; her father was Joseph Longworth, one of the city’s leading art patrons and collectors, and her grandfather was Nicholas Longworth, a great philanthropist and patron of the arts, as well as the city’s first millionaire, and the nation’s second richest citizen. As a child she was surrounded by her family’s art collection, and she had her early education in art and music in a schoolroom at Rookwood, her family estate. Later, she also attended Miss Appleton’s Private School for Girls (1862-1865).

Maria was tutored privately at home. Louise studied at the University of Cincinnati School of Design, later the Art Academy of Cincinnati. While at the School of Design she most likely took courses in drawing, painting, sculpture, woodcarving, china painting, etching and fresco. The most important of these classes for Louise was probably Benn Pitman’s china painting class, which he started in the summer of 1874. The need for this class came out of an interest in the china painting of Maria’s (now Mrs. George Nichols). In an exhibition at the School of Design in 1874, Maria displayed examples of china painting, an art form learned with her neighbor Karl Langenbeck. Seeing these pieces, other students, including Louise, expressed their desire to china paint, and Pitman began a class for interested students. Maria did not participate in this course. No doubt, she thought it unnecessary since she had already produced china-painted porcelain.

From the fall of 1874 to the spring of 1875, Louise and her classmates, as well as Maria, worked diligently as evidenced in 1875 by The Centennial Tea Party and two exhibitions, the Seventh Annual Exhibition of the School of Design and Cincinnati’s Sixth Industrial Exposition, which brought praise to the china painters and put Cincinnati in the forefront of American china painting.

The first and perhaps most important event that showcased the china painting work of the divas and their colleagues was The Centennial Tea Party, held from May 20 to 22, 1875. The mission of the Tea Party was to raise funds for the Cincinnati display at the American Centennial Exhibition that was to be mounted in Philadelphia for the 1876 centennial celebration.

The Centennial Tea Party was a grand affair, spanning three days in May at Exposition Hall. Guests enjoyed dancing, fine food and artistic displays on three floors. During the Party, teacups and saucers painted by Cincinnati women were auctioned to the highest bidders. In all, Louise McLaughlin contributed nine teacups and saucers, which brought in a total of $137.50. The next-largest total amount earned by an individual contributor was Maria, whose work earned $67.00. Both ladies sold a teacup and saucer for $25.00 and it was this event that perhaps marked the beginning of their rivalry. The Tea Party with its sale of the china-painted porcelain was a great triumph for the ladies of Cincinnati, and it is often seen as the beginning of the women’s china painting movement in America.

The success of The Centennial Tea Party put Cincinnati on the china-painting map, and the ladies soon began to prepare for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, for which they raised numerous funds. Many of the pieces sold at the Tea Party, together with additional examples, were placed in the Women’s Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Both Louise and Maria visited the exhibition and it was during their visits that Louise was first introduced to ceramic decoration under the glaze and Maria to the Japanese ceramic aesthetic.

While at the exhibition, Louise viewed and became especially interested in the ceramics of Haviland & Company of Limoges, France. At this time, Haviland was the only pottery company using the underglaze, the glaze technique in which the decoration was painted under the glaze as opposed to the china painting technique in which the design was painted over the glaze. Louise was very anxious to learn Haviland’s secret of underglaze decoration. Undaunted, she ordered a set of underglaze colors from Paris as soon as she returned to Cincinnati. The colors would take over a year to arrive, and in the meantime she continued her china-painting work.

During her time at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Maria came into contact with the art and design of Japan. She was so captivated by the Japanese exhibits that she wanted to imitate their pottery in a studio of her own. Her enthusiasm reached such a fever pitch in 1880 that she asked her father to import an entire Japanese pottery to Cincinnati, including all the workmen and supplies. He refused, instead offering her an old schoolhouse he had purchased that she could convert to a pottery, which she would open by the end of the year.

In late September 1877, Louise published her book on china painting titled China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain. This was the first manual on the subject in the United States written by a woman for women. Her manual discussed simply and thoroughly all the basic information needed for china painting. The manual was so popular among women that it was published in at least ten editions and sold over twenty thousand copies. Published shortly after in 1878 was George Nichols’s (Maria’s husband) book on pottery in which Maria did all the illustrations in the Japanese style. As each woman contributed to the field, the other followed with a trump, cementing their rivalry.

The same month, September 1877, that China Painting was published, Louise received her underglaze colors from Paris and soon began her experiments in underglaze decoration. As she was completely unaware of the process, Louise had several trials and errors before she finally had a successful firing at the P.L. Coultry & Co. pottery in January of 1878. Upon her success, Louise took on the distinction of being the first American to discover the underglaze technique.

By late autumn 1878 early 1879, Louise was well known for her underglaze technique and working at a feverish pace. Unfortunately, her popularity also brought with it individuals interested in learning her process. Her secret was stolen by one Thomas Wheatly. Having met Patrick Coultry, the owner of the pottery that fired Louise’s work, the two became partners with the lone mission of making money from pottery decorated under the glaze. The secret was out, and while Louise would always be considered the first American to discover underglaze technique, many in the country were beginning to work in this style.

To promote women’s work in ceramics, in 1879 Louise created the Cincinnati Pottery Club that held its first meeting on April 1. Not only was this the first meeting of the Cincinnati Pottery Club, it was also the first meeting of a women’s ceramic club in the United States. Thirteen ladies were invited to join the club, however, one individual, Maria, did not respond. While Louise did in fact invite her to join, Maria claimed she did not receive the invitation, reacted with indignation and refused to join. Maria’s refusal to join the Cincinnati Pottery Club was a severe snub. However, Maria would take a back seat to no one, and joining the Club would mean that she would become a follower to Louise, the club’s president. Her refusal to join ultimately led her to begin her own company, which she called Rookwood Pottery.

The Cincinnati Pottery Club first held their meetings in a rented room at the Women’s Art Museum Association (WAMA) rooms on West Fourth Street. The ladies met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and all of their wares were fired at the Frederick Dallas Hamilton Road Pottery. When the WAMA relocated to Music Hall, the club moved to a rented room at the Dallas Pottery, where Maria was also renting studio space and working in underglaze decoration.

The year 1880 proved to be a great year in ceramics for Cincinnati. This was the year that the Cincinnati Pottery Club reached its greatest success, Louise published her book on underglaze decoration and Maria founded the Rookwood Pottery Company.

Due to the popularity of ceramics and the Cincinnati Pottery Club in particular, the Pottery Club began hosting receptions to showcase their work. The first reception of the Pottery Club was held on May 5, 1880, at the Frederick Dallas Hamilton Road Pottery. This would be the first of many such receptions hosted by the Pottery Club. These receptions highlighted Louise’s and her colleagues’ work and allowed interested parties the opportunity to see the newest decorating styles of the Pottery Club. The receptions were not only very well attended, they were also a financial success for the club, as many of its wares were sold.

One event occurred in 1880 that would change the ceramic world and Louise’s place in it: the opening of Rookwood Pottery, named by Maria for her childhood home. There are many reasons why she may have decided to open her own pottery, one being that she felt crowded at the Dallas Pottery and another, and perhaps the more pressing, was the compulsion to outshine the current stars of ceramics--Louise McLaughlin and the Cincinnati Pottery Club. Maria hired most of the skilled labor from the Dallas Pottery, and this proved to be an immediate blow to the Pottery Club. Not only was Maria striving to be the head of the field, her actions severely hindered the work of her competition.

From the beginning, Rookwood faced several obstacles. Located on the river, in her father’s schoolhouse, the pottery was victim to annual flooding. Also, in the first years, the Pottery made very little money and Maria pulled from her own purse and that of her father’s to support her interest. In late 1883, Maria’s father helped her select a reliable, experienced manager for Rookwood. William Watts Taylor would be the saving grace for the struggling pottery. By 1889, Rookwood was a national and international success and truly considered the center of art pottery in Cincinnati.

Louise published her book Pottery Decoration under the Glaze in August of 1880. This manual discusses all steps of the underglaze technique. Since her discovery, underglaze decoration had become so popular that she felt she needed to create a manual in her own words that detailed the process.

Louise’s ceramic career and that of the Cincinnati Pottery Club took a huge blow one year later in 1881. Shortly after their second reception, Mr. Dallas of the Dallas Pottery passed away. The closing of the pottery brought an end to the Pottery Club’s work there. In 1882 the Pottery Club moved to Rookwood Pottery and rented a room from Maria. This situation served Maria well; she could support her fledgling pottery with the Club’s rent and could keep an eye on the Pottery Club’s work.

By the time of the Pottery Club’s third reception in 1882, it was evident from the works displayed that Louise and the Pottery Club were moving away from underglaze decoration and working again in the realm of china painting. This was due in part to popular style, but also because the atmosphere at Rookwood was not conducive to creating new works in underglaze decoration. The Pottery Club provided competition to the art pottery produced by Rookwood, and this conflict of interest came to the fore at the end of 1883 when the Pottery Club was evicted from Rookwood. This eviction caused almost a complete end to the Pottery Club’s decoration under the glaze. Only Louise continued to send blanks to Rookwood to be fired. By 1885, Louise and the Pottery Club were no longer creating anything in the underglaze technique and moved back to china painting almost completely. That same year, George Nichols, Maria’s husband, passed away from tuberculosis.

The opening of Rookwood Pottery marked the beginning of the end for the Cincinnati Pottery Club. While they continued to exhibit yearly for over eleven years, they did not maintain the glory they established during the early part of the 1880s. The club finally came to an end shortly after their tenth reception, held on May 27, 1890. Their final exhibition together was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Pottery Club was the first women’s pottery club in America and it was only correct to have this history-making group represented in an exhibition on female art.

Between 1888 and 1889, Rookwood won several awards in competition, including two first prizes at the Pottery and Porcelain Exhibition in Philadelphia and a gold medal at the Paris Exposition. Worldwide acclaim brought financial success, and Maria transferred ownership of Rookwood to William Watts Taylor. That same year, Maria moved to Washington, D.C. with her new husband, Bellamy Storer, who was in public office. Rookwood’s growth created the need for a new location. In 1892, the Pottery moved from its expanded schoolhouse location on Eastern Avenue to a new location in Mount Adams. The pottery remained open another 75 years.

The period between 1890 and the turn of the century was a time of great change for Maria and tragedy for Louise. During this period, Maria completely transferred all her creative energies to her new life as a politician’s wife. She had moved to Washington and was living the life of hostess to such figures as William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. It proved to be a new chapter in her life, one that she embraced wholeheartedly. For the rest of her life, she and her husband would be in the forefront of the political realm, even moving to several locations in Europe in an ambassadorial role. For Maria, the chapter of her life that included her rivalry with Louise and her creative ventures in art pottery had come to a close. From 1897 to her death in 1932 Maria lived almost exclusively in Europe.

For her rival, Louise, this was also a time of great change and tragedy. The change came in the creative realm, for it was at this time that she put down her china-painting brushes and resumed her interest in portrait painting on canvas. In November of 1890 she enrolled in Frank Duveneck’s first painting course. This class invigorated her artistic spirit and encouraged her to create works in oil, watercolor, woodcarving, etching, dry point and etched metal. While thriving in the artistic realm, Louise also experienced great tragedy in September of 1893 with the death of her brother George.

His death came during a period of great turmoil for Louise in that it was during the months leading up to his death that she was called to defend her status as the American founder of underglaze decoration. This conflict arose from an entry in the catalog for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in which Clara Chipman Newton stated that Louise discovered the method of underglaze decoration in America. Responding negatively to this statement, the current president of Rookwood, William Taylor, under the direction of Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, along with the Conference Committee of the Women’s Colombian Exposition Association of Cincinnati, voted to have the statement removed if Taylor would pay for the reprinting of the catalogs. While in the end he did not pay to have the catalogs reprinted, the flurry of heated correspondence that was exchanged between Louise and Maria over this incident proved to be the last stand in their intense relationship.

From 1898 to 1906, Maria continued her adventures in politics and Louise started a new adventure in ceramics, this time in the creation of studio porcelain. Louise decided to have a kiln built in her backyard. After much trial and error, Louise became a master of porcelain, just as she had become a master of china painting and underglaze decoration. By 1902, she had mastered every step of the porcelain production process, and she saw several years of success in the field. By 1904, Louise’s porcelain career began to subside and it was at the St. Louis Exposition that she exhibited her wares for the last time.

After giving up porcelain completely in 1906, Louise again took up pen and paper to write and would endeavor at this until her death in 1939. M. Louise McLaughlin passed away on Monday, January 19, 1939, at the age of ninety-one, just seven years after her rival Maria Longworth Nichols Storer.


Ellis, Anita J. The Ceramic Career of M. Louise McLaughlin. Athens , OH : Ohio University Press, 2003. p. 76.

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