Any history of Cybis porcelain would be incomplete without delving, at least somewhat, into its predecessor – the Cordey China Company. This post is the first in a series that will look at Cordey through vintage retail advertisements combined with photos of the actual pieces found for sale today. Cordey production can be divided into two time periods: Cybis-owned and Post-Cybis.
The Cybis Era
Cordey China was incorporated on October 6, 1942 as a Pennsylvania manufacturing company located at 226 West Columbia Avenue in Philadelphia with three owners shown: Boleslaw Cybis, Harry Greenberg, and Harry Wilson. An entry in the Nov. 14, 1942 issue of The Billboard trade magazine mentions that
Three new wholesale merchandise firms were established in Philadelphia during October. Each company was incorporated.
Application for a charter was made by the Cordey China Corporation, organized to manufacture and deal in all kinds of pottery, terra-cotta and fire-clay products, as well as all kinds of china, glassware, crockery, metalware, leather goods, cutlery, gold and silverware, wooden items and all kinds of decorative and art objects.
Quite the ambitious undertaking, but there is no evidence that the company ever produced anything in the glassware, leather goods, cutlery, gold/silver ware or wooden items genres.
So how did Boleslaw Cybis know Greenberg and Wilson, and what was the rationale for locating the new company in Philadelphia rather than in Trenton? These are two of the things we don’t know, because every piece of ‘official’ Cybis Studio literature is utterly silent on the subject of Cordey. The 1971 museum exhibit catalog Cybis in Retrospect begins with a five-page single-spaced timeline of events relating to Boleslaw Cybis and the studio … yet Cordey is never mentioned. There is an entry for 1942 which says “Establishes art studio in Trenton, New Jersey” but that’s it.
What we do know is that when the three men decided to form a manufacturing company named Cordey (pronounced cor-DAY), Greenberg and Wilson had already been in business together for at least four years. US Patent Office records show that the two men purchased and recorded two lamp base patents in 1938, using the company name “Arton Studios.” This was probably a partnership, because Pennsylvania records don’t show the incorporation of Arton Studios until June 1946.
Given the fact that Cordey China was launched in 1942, we’d expect to find some retail advertising from that year or the next, but the earliest Cordey ad I was able to find (so far) is from June 1944.
This ad, appearing in the NY Times during prime ‘wedding gift shopping’ season that year, includes two pieces of Cordey: a cornucopia vase and a small bust of a bonnet-wearing lady.
The cornucopia vase sold for $9.34 each; the small lady bust was $6.55. I had to smile at the categorizing of “for the bride you know slightly”! One wonders what the other gift-price/relationship categories were, LOL
This small ad from a retailer in Arizona shows that by the following year Cordey’s dealer network had expanded significantly wider than just the East Coast.
However, this ad from B. Altman in NY City says only “by the artist Cybis” even though both items illustrated are quintessentially Cordey. Were some retailers given Cordey-marked pieces while others sold pieces marked “M.B. Cybis”? (See Signatures and Marks for further discussion on this topic.) And if so, why?
This section is taken from a full-page ad in the NY Times by the John Wanamaker department store in mid-1946. It cites “35 Cordey china figurines, boxes, candle sticks and vases” originally priced from $10 to $25, on sale for 50% off ($5 to $12.50)
Although these ads mention only giftware, the Cordey China Company was equally involved in producing lamps which is why the seemingly-odd Philadelphia plant location is relevant. Greenberg and Wilson obviously wanted to have multiple retail lamp brands. An article in a 1946 lighting industry magazine, commenting on the seasonal Philadelphia trade show, reported that:
Touraine and other floor lamps to retail from $15 to $20 was introduced by Arton Studios, Philadelphia. Arton also showed for the first time tall hand-painted flower studies on china lamps, with matching homespun shades.
Cordey China Company, of Philadelphia, presented figurines and ornamental vases which were fine copies of European originals. All pieces were individually crafted and hand-decorated, with custom made matching shades. Cordey also showed the Touraine floor models mentioned above.
At first, I thought that “Touraine” was the name of a specific lamp model, but three separate newspaper accounts from 1947 and 1948 show that it was indeed a manufacturing company name, i.e., the Touraine Metal Lamp Company. One of the snippets describes both Touraine and Cordey as ‘subsidiaries’ of Arton Studios; another (1948) is the first mention I could find of Cordey having a location in Trenton as well as in Philadelphia. It’s unfortunate that there are no Trenton newspapers accessible online except on a paid-subscription basis, because I would very much like to be able to search those for 1940s and 1950s advertising for or from Cordey and/or Cybis!
So, who was making all these Cordey items? A search of the Help Wanted classified ad section of the Philadelphia Inquirer during the 1940s provides some insight.
The earliest ad is from 1943; in those days the Help Wanted ads were often separated into Male and Female sections and it was perfectly legal to specify which gender was wanted. The mention of it being a daylight studio is a reminder that many factory conditions were pretty dismal; but the Cordey workspace had windows. Notice that the employer is shown as “Arton-Cordey.”
This 1944 ad reminds us of the changing face of the employment scene after the end of WWII.
This 1945 ad heading illustrates one of the restrictions put on women in the workforce after the war ended. In this ad the employer name is shown as just “Cordey.”
Trainees were also welcome. Was this because of high turnover, or due to high production demand?
Two of these three Cordey help wanted ads mention gold detail application work specifically; understandable because almost every Cordey figure’s base had gold accents.
Yet another 1945 ad, interesting because it is for a repair/retouch person. One wonders whether the breakage and/or errors were occurring during the production process, or whether retailers were sending back items that had been damaged in transit which would them be repaired and re-distributed.
By 1948 we see the Cordey help wanted ads begin to mention aspects of lamp production. These are seeking people experienced in making and sewing lampshades.
This ad is from 1951. As will be shown in an upcoming post focusing on Cordey lamps, although the company had been making lamps as early as 1946 this is the first year that they began placing repeated ads for lamp-production workers specifically.
I had to giggle at the wording of this 1955 ad for a clerk-typist. Were alertness and common sense in relatively short supply at the time? Although the salary of $55/week seems paltry to us today, my first job as a young suburban file clerk twelve years later (1967) paid me the same amount. So, even for a major city such as Philadelphia, $55/week wasn’t exactly chicken feed in 1955.
This similar 1957 ad had me laughing out loud, given the one from two years prior!! But I’m sure the situation wasn’t a funny one for the person in charge of hiring office personnel.
The 1950s is a tricky decade for Cordey research. Although it had been a Pennsylvania corporation for a decade, the first official indication that Cordey China Company was later also set up as a New Jersey business entity doesn’t come until 1953.
A lawsuit filed in 1953 clearly identifies the Cordey China Company as a New Jersey corporation. The entire decision is searchable online but the gist of it can be summarized as follows: In February 1953 representatives of the UMWA District 50 visited the Cordey plant (we must assume this was the Trenton location although the decision does not give the address) and convinced 50 of the 85 employees there to sign a petition to be represented by that union. It turned out that this particular union had never filed the required paperwork to qualify as valid under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. As a result, the Cordey management refused the request and the employees went on strike, at the request of the union, on March 26th.
Complicating matters was another union, the National Brotherhood of Operative Potters, who claimed that THEY already had “a number of” existing union members working at Cordey and threatened to throw their union’s picket lines around the Cordey plant if Cordey agreed to let the District 50 Union represent their workers. (In other words, the two unions were engaged in what’s often referred to as “a pissing contest”!) So Cordey sued the District 50 Union for calling an illegal strike (on the grounds that the union itself had no “standing”), the Superior Court in NJ agreed, and a court order was issued to halt the strike.
The Court’s order is interesting for two reasons: (1) It probably explains why the Cybis studio, even after it had passed into the hands of the Chorltons, never allowed itself to become a ‘union shop’; and (2) it also mentions the corporate positions of two individuals as of 1953. These are the relevant passages:
A Mr. Cybis was president of the plaintiff corporation but was incapacitated by reason of illness to attend to the duties of his office or to be present at the plaintiff’s plant during the most of the negotiations between the union representatives and management.
A Mr. Harry Greenberg had been brought in as comptroller of the plaintiff’s plant about the middle of December of 1952, had acted in that capacity and also in charge of personnel after January 1, 1953; and Greenberg carried on negotiations with representatives of the defendant union until President Cybis was able to return to the plaintiff’s plant and take charge about April 1, 1953. However, Greenberg had been given full authority to carry on negotiations on or about February 16, 1953. Before that date he was compelled to consult with President Cybis at the latter’s home and had no authority to arrive at any agreement with the defendant union.
These excerpts show that although Greenberg, Wilson, and Cybis had shared ownership of the Pennsylvania-corporation Cordey business, it seems that Greenberg did not hold an ownership position in the subsequent New Jersey company; he was merely “brought in as comptroller” of the Trenton facility the year before. It shows that Boleslaw was suffering from at least some degree of ill health as early as the first few years of the 1950s. It also indicates that the New Jersey (Cordey) corporation was formed sometime before 1953. Coincidentally, NJ records show that the Cybis studio was first incorporated in November 1953….about six months after the union lawsuit debacle was over.
I wish I could access the full text of this 1955 article in Ceramic Age magazine but Google Books is uncooperative in this regard. Because the text is rather blurry, here’s a transcription:
…of block and [??] molds in the shop contains over 2000 items that have been produced since 1942, when Cordey was founded. …. Mold drying is accomplished in a humidity controlled steam room within the shop, enabling the mold makers to observe and control the drying process…
….flowers used in each figurine. Another group of skilled decorators hand-form flowers and buds for decorating vases, ashtrays and lamps in the Old World styling of Cordey. Designers in the Cordey shop are constantly experimenting with different materials such as lamp cordage and new curtain materials for forming new frills and laces in decoration. A battery of finishers work on the complicated shapes…
….depending on the type of pigments and gold used. Upon completion of firing, the bulk of the ware, which is to be used as lamp bases, moves to mounting tables. Here metal mountings, which may be stampings, spinnings, hand cast, or hand made, are fastened to the china bases. The lamps are then wired and tagged. An important step is the packaging and cartoning of the lamps and figurines. Because of the elaborate floral…
It would be interesting to know whether the author was describing the Philadelphia or the Trenton plant! I suspect it is probably the Philadelphia one because my Cybis alumni never mentioned any lamp production at the Church Street studio.
Speaking of the Trenton location, Cordey appears on a 1955 Sanborn Fire Underwriters Map on Enterprise Avenue:
Some of the rooms are labeled as to use, e.g., Kiln, Finishing, Storage, etc. I wish I could find editions of Sanborn/Trenton from the 1940s but none are available.
Oddly enough, the US Patent & Trademark Office records show that the trademark signature name Cordey that was used for their paint stamp, paper stickers, and hangtags, was not registered until January 10, 1956. The location of the company is listed as Trenton and so it was the New Jersey corporation that filed it.
Signatures, Trademarks, and Marketing
Before wrapping up the Cybis/Cordey era, let’s take a look at some marketing and production elements. This is touched on somewhat in Decoding Cordey and Cybis Design Numbers but there are related aspects as well.
Cordey items can have one of two different style paint-stamp signatures. My guess is that the one with the slightly more upright script style (at top above) came before the other but there is no way to be positive.
Here’s the Cordey mold impression in block letters.
The script mold impression is the one far more often seen, however.
Cordey items received a gummed sticker (this is the trademark registered in 1956) and sometimes also a hangtag. The hangtag was probably used only on the lamp shades.
Two slightly different versions of a Cordey retailer display sign: one has the name in relief but on the other it’s hand painted “on the flat.” Of course it is decorated with the ubiquitous Cordey rose(s) which were inherited by the first-generation Cybis items during the 1950s.
No overview of Cordey would be complete without mention of the salesman’s catalog which has occasionally appeared for sale online. Unfortunately there is no year on it, so we don’t know whether it dates from the 1940s or the 1950s. We can make a guess (and I will, in my upcoming posts) based on when some of the items shown in it were being advertised by retailers but that will be a rough estimate at best.
The catalog is approximately 8” x 12” and has 49 pages including the facing page shown above. Photo pages are on glossy stock with the actual image areas (not including decorative borders) being approximately 7.5” x 9”. One seller described the binding as being “blue cloth” although the third example appears to be brown. The seller of the uppermost example described the contents as beginning with “images of porcelain figurines including the Prom Group, Chantillon, Raleigh Group, and continue with the Chinese Coquette, Chinese Mandarin Lady, Chinese Goddess, Chinese Mandarin, and other mid-century Oriental motif figurines.”
Some of the pieces were given specific names but others were not. The central figure in the upper photo is titled “Bambi” but it always looked more like a baby lamb to me! (other views of this piece are in my first Unusual Cordeys post) The cupid motif items are shown with a collective name: “Cupid L’Amour”. The vase is the same Cornucopia Vase shown in the 1944 Macy’s ad but with the cupid added to it.
The hand-decorated nature of Cordey items often meant that very few were 100% identical – other than, perhaps, items meant to be sold as a pair such as candlesticks. Sometimes the difference was in the position of applied decorations such as flowers, hats, etc., and sometimes the main difference was color.
Here are two ladies with relatively minor differences, but differences nonetheless: One has a slightly fuller basket of flowers, slightly longer hair, and her left arm appears to be extended somewhat more to the side. The lady on the right wears a red shoe instead of pink and her dipped-fabric headscarf is somewhat wider.
These two Asian ladies differ markedly in color, and the one on the right has an entirely different type of lower-sleeve lace as well. According to the sales catalog, this item was the ‘Chinese Coquette’ and is mold/design #5072.
An upcoming post will explore the similarities (transition period?) between some 1950s Cordey items and those from the same era but marked Cybis.
The involvement of Boleslaw Cybis with Cordey China Company ended, of course, with his death in 1957 followed by that of his wife in 1958 (although I doubt that Marja Cybis had much, if anything at all, to do with the Cordey operation.) It may well be that Boleslaw had stepped away from Cordey before that time, other than in the legal sense of his being President of the company ‘on paper.’ Whether his death had anything to do with the late-1950s downward spiral of the company is open to conjecture but my hunch is that Greenberg and Wilson probably had little interest in the non-lamp side of Cordey production anyhow. They may well have phased that part of the business out shortly after 1957, or it may simply be that consumer tastes were changing away from the fussy Old-World look of most Cordey items.
This notice of bankruptcy sale appeared in April 1959 in the Philadelphia Inquirer and also in the NY Times. Notice that the bankruptcy was filed for both Cordey AND Arton Studios; it’s likely that the Touraine Lamp Company had folded previously. The address of 358 Enterprise Avenue in Trenton was clearly the Cordey plant (either after or in addition to the Church Street location that also housed the Cybis operation during the 1950s) whereas the Arton stock was sold from its longtime location in Philadelphia. With this May 7, 1959 sale the era of Cybis-owned Cordey China came to an official end (if it had not done so a year or two before.)
The purchaser of the Cordey business and inventory was Norman Schiller who had founded a lighting company, Schiller Brothers, in Jersey City in 1946 along with his brother Harold. On June 24, 1959 a new merged corporation was registered in NJ as Schiller-Cordey Inc. Because he had also purchased the assets of the Arton Studios operation and wanted to keep that plant running as well, he also registered the name Cordey China Company Inc. in Pennsylvania in July 1960. It was listed as a “foreign corporation”, meaning that that the corporate offices were in a different state (in this case New Jersey) but they had a manufacturing presence in PA, at the Columbia Avenue location.
The post-1959 Cordey operation seemingly no longer produced anything except lamps. One wonders what Schiller did with all those molds in Trenton (I suppose they went into the nearest dumpster) although for a few years one can still see some influence of the original Cordey style. This will be shown more clearly in my upcoming Cordey Lamps post. The two styles of Cordey lighted ceramic Christmas trees shown in this post probably date from this period, although it’s possible that the smaller one was a late-1950s item.
These two help wanted ads appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1960. No doubt something similar was placed in one or more local Trenton newspapers for the Enterprise Avenue plant. By this time quite a few original ‘Trenton Cordey’ employees had already switched to working at the Cybis location, first at Church Street and later at the new building constructed at Norman Avenue.
It’s interesting that this 1961 want ad mentions “art objects” because I have been unable to find any retailer ads that show any Cordey items other than lamps after 1960. If there were any non-lamp items produced by Cordey during the 1960s I would be interested to know what they were!
This one appeared in 1963.
This is where Google Maps says that 356-358 Enterprise Avenue is located in Trenton. The land in this area is currently owned by the City of Trenton and is designated as a “brownfield” due to former industrial pollution.
Norman Schiller sold Schiller-Cordey to Instrument Systems Corp in August 1968. Instrument Systems then merged Schiller-Cordey with another of its subsidiaries, Lightron Corp., in 1969. Instrument Systems eventually changed its name to Griffon Corporation which still exists today although the operations of Schiller/Cordey/Lightron appear to have been phased out during the 1980s. The offshore company currently named Lightron has no connection to or history with Cordey.
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