The well-to-do bride of the 1950s who lived in Cleveland was sure to get at least one modern enameled ashtray as a gift. Although enameling, especially Boston Arts and Crafts enameling, was known in the United States in the early 1900s, it was not until 1926 at the Cleveland Museum of Art's May Show that enameling was recognized as an art form. From the 1940s to the 1970s, many talented artists made enamels, including vases, boxes, trays and large plaques to be used on building walls. Enamels were so popular that hobbyists who were not artists started to make their own. Quality deteriorated, and by the late 1970s enamels lost status.
We have collected enamels for years. Some were wedding gifts. But while enamels could easily be found at house sales in Boston and Cleveland, few were found in other cities. There were no books about the history of enameling, and only a few that told how to make an enamel. We bought signed pieces we liked, then learned what we could about the artists. By the 1990s, a small number of other collectors realized the value of enamels.
Last year, finally, the first major history of enameling in the United States was published. Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980 by Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson (Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90803, 2006, 288 pages, $55 plus $5 shipping) pictures 200 pieces, includes biographies of 45 important artists and covers the history of the field. A "must" if you are interested in enamels or if you want to know about an "undiscovered" collectible. Since the book is a catalog for an exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art that will travel to Mobile, Alabama, in 2008 and to Cleveland in 2009, enamels will be well known soon. A number of our own pieces in the exhibition are pictured, including our "best buy": an ashtray by Mildred Watkins, one of a $20 stack of six enamels we found at a garage sale.