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Abingdon Pottery

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Pity poor Charles Dodgson. He hoped to be remembered for his mathematical treatises, but instead achieved fame for a harmless piece of fluff called Alice in Wonderland. The folks in Abingdon, Illinois, south of Galesburg, know just how he felt. They had hoped to become world famous for their toilets but ended up associated with cookie jars.

The Abingdon Sanitary Manufacturing Co was founded in 1908 to make china plumbing fixtures such as basins and toilets. In 1934, however, as the market for plumbing slowed in the Great Depression, the company changed its name to Abingdon Pottery and began to make inexpensive artware sold through five and dime and department stores. By 1950, the pottery had produced some 1,000 individual designs of bowls, vases, ashtrays, candy dishes, candle holders, and cookie jars. One of its designs was a miniature copy of an Abingdon toilet for use as an ash tray or planter.

In 1950, the company returned to its first love: plumbing fixtures. Abingdon might be known for them today had not collectors discovered the cookie jars and other items in the mid-1970s. An Abingdon Pottery Club was formed in 1977, and now had 425 members, who scour area garage sales for Abingdon vases and jars, and meet to swap, buy and sell their collections. They are especially on the lookout for pieces designed by sculptress Frances Moody, wife of one of the plant managers. Her four cookie jars and her five sculpted pieces, especially her reclining colt, are much in demand. In 1997, one of the collectors published a book, Abingdon Pottery Artware: Stepchild of the Great Depression, which has made Abingdon's name even more famous.

Against all this, the plumbing fixtures just don't have a chance. A toilet is a toilet, but Abingdon produces 23 different cookie jars. And what plumbing fixture can compete with cookie jar names, names such as Humpty Dumpty, Wigwam, Money Bag, Choo Choo, Hobby Horse, Windmill, Little Ol' Lady, and Fat Boy?

Besides, I suspect that cookie jar collectors are a more friendly and gregarious bunch, eager to show off their collections. Toilet collectors seem to keep pretty much to themselves.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.