Seventy Five Years of Artistry in Metal
Influenced in part by the effects of the Great Depression, mid-20th Century metalworkers capitalized on the use of affordable metals such as aluminum. Foremost among those developing ornamental applications of the first modern metal was the Wendell August Forge, which pioneered the hand forged aluminum industry. The repossé embellishments that the Forge introduced in the early 1930s swept the United States, dominating a market for decorative aluminum wares that prevailed for more than 20 years.
Among the major producers of hand crafted aluminum objects, only the Wendell August Forge survives, continuing to make unique hand crafted wares in a wide range of metals. From architectural ornamentation to modest tableware, the body of work created by the Wendell August Forge since it began operation in 1923 has gained the attention of collectors and museums alike. Artifacts that in earlier years were discarded now find their way into an active secondary market in which some of them exchange hands at hundreds and occasionally thousands of dollars.
Wendell August Forge: Seventy Five Years of Artistry in Metal is enriched with more than 150 full-color and black-and-white photographs and illustrations, including 68 archival images, featuring hundreds of items. Extensively documented, it is the first authoritative publication pertaining to a topic of growing interest to collectors, museums, decorative art historians, and American Culture researchers. Selected aluminum artisans who were associated with Wendell August Forge are also profiled. Detailed appendixes present the only guidelines that have been researched and developed for dating Wendell August Forge artifacts.
In recent years, Bonita Campbell has been researching the history of mid-20th Century decorative art aluminum production, and has made presentations on the topic at collector conferences and on television. She curated, and authored the catalogue for, the gallery and museum exhibition, Depression Silver: Machine Age Craft and Design in Aluminum. A published author for over two decades, her recent work includes several articles and research monographs regarding the work of aluminum artisans in the 1930s through the 1950s. In the course of her research, she and her husband have assembled an extensive collection of decorative art aluminum, which includes many items created by the Wendell August Forge.
Chapter One - Founding an Industry
Chapter Two - The Golden Era: 1931-1938
Chapter Three - The War Years: 1939-1948
Chapter Four - A Struggle to Survive: 1949-1977
Chapter Five - The Knecht Transformation: 1978-1994
Chapter Six - Building the Future
Appendix A - The People of the Wendell August Forge
Appendix B - United States Patent: Method of Forming Ornamental Relief Figures
Appendix C - Wendell August Forge Trademark Handstamps
Appendix D - Die Engraver and Craftsman Identification
Appendix E - Limited Edition and Collector Series
Appendix F - Wendell August Forge Dating Clues
Summers in the 1940s meant visiting my grandparents in Illinois and treasure hunting in their basement. Secreted away in boxes and hidden under protective covers were the remnants of various activities of my father and grandparents, and other family and friends of generations past. As a young child I whiled away hours, and even days, creating from my treasure hunts my own fantasies of the future.
About 50 years later, no longer a child, my treasure hunting expeditions now took place in the basement of my parents' home in Colorado. My mother, her youth scarred by the Great Depression, had matured into an accumulator of some note, particularly if the artifacts involved had sentimental value. I was now old enough to be able to connect many of the objects with my own past. Thus the fantasies of the future that my treasure hunts had once engendered were replaced by memories of the past.
On one such expedition, intending to look at glassware, I encountered a metal serving tray wrapped carefully in tissue paper. With hazy recollections of its use on special occasions, I asked my mother about it. The tray, made of aluminum, had been a wedding gift, but she had no knowledge of its genesis. I was sufficiently taken by the hand craftsmanship evidenced by the piece that I thought it would be interesting, and probably not too difficult, to find out more about it.
Thus began a very different type of hunt, one in which information was the treasure to be had. It soon became apparent that there was little information to be found. Quite unlike my experiences in seeking information about certain types of glassware, with its richly documented history, research and published work pertaining to decorative art aluminum was sparse. An entire era of fine hand craftsmanship and consumer infatuation seemed to have vanished with little historical trace.
Curiosity yielded to obsession. Artifacts were more accessible than information, and so the house began to fill with decorative art aluminum wares, perhaps with the fanciful notion that if I surrounded myself with them and looked at them long enough, the pieces would divulge their life stories. The search for data continued, but much more slowly and painfully, with many library trips to search blindly through magazines, newspapers, microfilm, trademark registrations, and old city directories. Blind telephone calls were made, and letters written, to people who might know something or perhaps know someone else who might know something. People who had been connected with the industry, however remote the association, were interviewed.
When the opportunity serendipitously arose to research the history and metal wares of the Wendell August Forge, I jumped at the chance to embark on a significant treasure hunt. The Wendell August Forge had founded the mid-20th Century hand forged aluminum industry in the early 1930s, but its heritage remained murky. What emerged from this treasure hunt was a rich story, during an historically important era, of the development of a uniquely American decorative art form, encompassing such modest items as small coasters and such magnificent ones as a statue of St. John the Baptist.
Objects, particularly hand crafted ones of unique design, tend to gain value from information about their origins. Who made an object and how? Who designed it and why? When was it produced? How many were produced? The answers to these questions allow us to more fully appreciate an object and its place in our lives and our history. Thus it is rewarding to know that the Wendell August Forge aluminum creamer that you hold in your hands was designed by James McCausland (who was trained as an architect) and was embellished using a die engraved by Louis Donato (who studied painting and sculpture). It is rewarding to know that the motif on your creamer was named Grecian and that a repoussé process was used to render it in relief. It is rewarding to know that your creamer was made circa 1935-1937, and that not many of them were created. It is rewarding to know that your creamer, picked up for less than a dollar at a yard sale a few years ago, now brings many multiples of that amount. And, it is rewarding to know that your small creamer is part of a larger tradition of families of craftsmen and artisans who survived the Great Depression while ornamenting grand cathedrals. Yes, your creamer is now a real treasure.
The Wendell August Forge was a primary influence in creating different uses for the first modern metal, aluminum, and for establishing a new industry based on the hand forging methods that it pioneered. While the rest of the industry has long since faded away, the Wendell August Forge has adapted to the changing times, surviving the lean years and returning to healthy ones. Through it all, it has remained devoted to its tradition of families and hand craftsmanship. The story of the Forge is a story of its people, and its role in American culture. As such, this history should prove of interest to collectors, museums, decorative art historians, students of American Culture, and the people of the Wendell August Forge.
An effort has been made to make this book as useful and readable as possible to a wide range of people having different levels of interest in the topic. The text has been arranged as a time-sequenced narrative. Some pertinent topics not in the mainstream of the narrative have been set apart as separate entities; for example, profiles of former Wendell August Forge craftsmen who initiated their own decorative art aluminum lines. Chapter end notes have been used for both source citations and content, the latter convention allowing for the provision of additional details without cluttering the narrative. Because the research has been principally dependent on primary sources, references that would normally be considered for bibliographic citation are so few that a formal bibliography has been omitted. Of the six appendixes, the first two pertain to Wendell August Forge personnel and the Wendell August Forge utility patent. The remaining four appendixes are devoted to the presentation of information pertinent to dating Wendell August Forge metal wares of the past.
Although every effort has been made to be as complete and accurate as possible, no publication is ever perfect, and there is no reason to believe that this one will be the exception. For any errors there may be, I remain responsible. Corrections and additional information will always be welcome.
Bonita J. Campbell
"An extraordinary resource for dealers, and collectors. Will expand the knowledge of curators."
"Destined to become an essential resource to anyone interested in decorative, architectural or hand hammered aluminum."
Decorative aluminum collector and researcher
"... a phenomenal job!"
James V. DePonceau
Metal artisan since the 1920s and one of the original aluminum craftsmen at Wendell August Forge
"Exhaustive research and articulate presentation. Is a beautiful and informative contribution for collectors and admirers of a unique artistic and creative metallurgical format."
Midwest Book Review
"An excellent history of the commercial decorative arts covering the 30s to the 90s on several levels' artistic, the evolution from architectural decoration to collectors."
"The first fully researched history of the company that introduced this uniquely American art form."