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Rookwood: An Early Milestone in Women’s Equality

In late November 1880, Maria Longworth Nichols (later Storer) and several helpers pulled the first pieces from the kiln in the little pottery factory she set up on the eastern edge of Cincinnati. There were some friends on hand, but the occasion wasn’t marked by a grand celebration or ribbon-cutting ceremony.

When word spread among Queen City merchants and business owners, the male leaders painted a picture of doom and gloom. They warned her that no female could possibly run a business on her own. They were flabbergasted by her sheer audacity and certain that the pottery would quickly wither into oblivion.

While it may seem odd today to label a female-owned business “revolutionary,” this was at a time when few women worked outside the home. It would be another 40 years until women won the right to vote.

What we recognize now is that Maria’s first kiln marks a significant date in the history of art pottery. In 1880, it took a fierce and strong-minded woman to overcome the boundaries that the male business world erected to keep females locked out. Maria had to defy societal norms to force her way in. Certainly, small-mindedness would not stop her. Rookwood’s very existence as a female-owned manufacturer employing other women broke that era’s delicate societal norms. For a company so steeped in history, there’s reason to recognize a greater milestone —the creation of the first business founded and run by a woman in the United States.

Thirty-one years after the start of Rookwood, International Women’s Day began. That initial recognition had more than 1 million participants. Then, like now, the struggle for equality moved far beyond trailblazers like Maria, to the collective efforts of people all across the globe.

When she started Rookwood, Maria was determined that the potter’s wheel would be turned by “woman power.” She hired both men and women as decorators, giving trained women additional opportunities other than the traditional route of becoming teachers or nurses.

According to sculptor Bill Glass, the last artist at Rookwood when it left Cincinnati in early 1960, “Maria’s influence can be seen in all the potteries across the US that started after she pointed the way. Most of them began because of what she was able to do with Rookwood. It gave women many opportunities to become artists.”

Today, Rookwood is a leader in female empowerment under the guidance of owner Marilyn Scripps, who employs a workforce that is 70 percent women – unusual in the manufacturing industry. Rookwood is also proud to include female small business owners within its Brands We Love product line.

Each day, through its craftsmanship and artistry, Rookwood demonstrates that women and men can play an equal role in bringing art into everyday surroundings. The world is vastly different now than in 1880, but providing female artisans with a creative mission is still at the heart of Rookwood’s commitment to both the arts and the business community alike.