With World War II a memory, America prospered in the late 1940s and 50s. Japan was no longer the enemy; instead, with its lower labor costs as well as the favorable dollar/yen exchange rate, the island nation increasingly became the source of many low-cost imports to the United States. Small ceramics were among the most popular—including head vases, which today have become extremely collectible.
Back then, few would have anticipated the current popularity of this commodity which, for decades, florists used as inexpensive enhancements for their bouquets. Indeed, what today we usually refer to as "ceramic planters" or "head vases," was often then generically called "florist ware." Neighborhood "five and dimes" were popular sources for the more affordable pieces.
But Japan wasn't the only country to produce such items; America made its share as well. Stateside companies such as Betty Lou Nichols Ceramics, Ceramic Arts Studio, Florence Ceramics, Josef Originals, Roseville, Royal Copley, Royal Haeger, Shawnee Pottery, Stanford Pottery, and Weller were prolific producers. But as U.S. labor costs increased in the 50s, so did competition, making the production of such novelty items less and less profitable. Copyright, especially abroad, was not enforced; in many cases, firms would mimic each other's designs, with only a change in paint color, size, or other subtle detail to differentiate the manufacturers' products. For these reasons, the majority of U.S.-made head vases found today were produced prior to 1950, while Japanese imports continued strongly into the 60s.
Head vases were made in a variety of designs. But it was the elegant, fashion-model look that quickly became among the most popular. Flourishes such as faux-pearl necklaces and earrings, hair bows, eyelashes, and applied textiles became the norm. Glamorous movie stars and beautifully coiffed fashion models inspired many of the designs both here and abroad. One novel approach, which quickly became commonplace, was the addition of a well-manicured hand. Positioned so as to be stroking the face, this gave a touch of feminine elegance to the piece. Another common embellishment was the attachment of separate items to the planters. Examples include buckets hung with string around a laborer's neck or a textile or ceramic parasol held by a sweet little girl.
The market for such ceramic pieces peaked in the mid-60s. By this time, designs had become simpler, often smaller, in order to reduce costs and increase profitability. Whereas many early head vases topped 8" in height, newer ones were often only 3-4" tall.
Today, head vases of all types have become very collectible. Those which originally sold for only a couple dollars each now command many times that. Pieces depicting well-known personalities, such as the popular Jacqueline Kennedy by Inarco or the Disney character series by Enesco, are often most highly prized. While many head vases can be identified by their hallmarks (which may be part of the mould itself, painted directly onto the item, or applied as a sticker), others have no identifying marks whatsoever. Often only the style of the subject's hair or clothing attest to the item's age, if not its manufacturer. Because they could not predict today's collectibility of ceramic head vases, manufacturers typically did not save their records; most historical documentation therefore has been lost forever.
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