Our Museum Feature this month is a pretty amazing “Passenger Pigeon” figurine by Stangl Pottery. Standing 9 1/2 inches tall and measuring 19 1/4 inches in length, this superbly crafted piece features an exquisite color palette and wonderfully lifelike depiction of a passenger pigeon on a branch with its wings poised for flight. The initials “RV” on the bottom of the piece indicate the artist may have been Rosa Veglianetti, who worked in Stangl’s Trenton, New Jersey plant. This piece is numbered 3450, and is part of Stangl’s popular line of collectible bird figurines. It is a beautiful representation of a species whose population was once so abundant that its extinction was considered impossible.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, passenger pigeons numbered between three and five billion at the time Europeans explorers first began arriving in North America. The population was so large that passenger pigeons made up twenty-five to forty percent of the total bird population in the U.S. The pigeons migrated in gigantic flocks of several billion over a swath of land covering most of the eastern half of North America. Their massive nesting sites often covered thousands of acres of forests, where the trees would become so congested with pigeons (sometimes literally perched one on top of another) that branches broke due to their weight. One large nesting site in Wisconsin reportedly included 136 million pigeons covering an area of 850 square miles. Hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree, and the noise of these large flocks could be heard for several miles. Passenger pigeons could fly at speeds of sixty miles per hour, and as their large flocks passed overhead they filled the entire sky, sometimes darkening it for days. Famed naturalist John James Audubon reported witnessing a large flock pass as he was travelling in Kentucky in the autumn of 1813. As he described it, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.... and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.” Wow!
Recognizing that these huge flocks of birds could be used as a cheap and flavorful source of meat, commercial hunters began harvesting the pigeons in great numbers around the mid 1800s. Because the pigeons travelled and nested in such large congregations, the birds were very easy for these professional hunters to trap and kill. These hunters used several methods to harvest pigeons which were then shipped on railcars by the millions. Passenger pigeons were so plentiful and easily obtained that they sold for as little as fifty cents for a dozen. By 1860, people began to notice that the number of pigeons was decreasing, but the hunting on a massive, commercial scale continued (at the time, no laws regulated the hunting of passenger pigeons). By the 1890s, the passenger pigeon was almost extinct. The last known surviving passenger pigeon, Martha, died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden.
The history of Stangl begins in the early 1800s, when a pottery producing firm was opened under the ownership of Samuel Hill in Flemington, New Jersey. Samuel Hill had discovered rich deposits of high-quality clay ideal for pottery production in and around the Hunterdon County, New Jersey area. Using this clay, he manufactured a range of utilitarian pieces for farmers and homemakers until his death in 1858. Soon after Hill’s death, another potter named Abraham Fulper purchased the Flemington, New Jersey factory. The company changed names several times during the following years until it became “Fulper Pottery” in 1899. The Fulper family oversaw a great deal of expansion at the Flemington factory, which was also credited with producing the “Fulper Germ Proof Filter.” These stoneware jars were used in public areas, like train depots, to provide clean drinking water.
In 1910, Fulper Pottery hired a new chemist and plant superintendent named Johann Martin Stangl. Stangl was born in Hof, Germany in 1888, and had studied design and ceramic engineering at the Industrial School of Banzlau, Germany. Stangl left Fulper Pottery in 1914 to develop a line of ceramic wares for Haeger Potteries of Dundee, Illinois. In 1920, Stangl returned to Fulper as their general manager, and quickly released a line of new colors called “Fulper Fayence.” The colors for pieces in this line included “Chinese Ivory,” “Colonial Blue,” “Silver Green,” and “Persian Yellow.” When the CEO of Fulper Pottery, William Fulper, died in 1928, Stangl assumed his role in the company. In 1929, the Flemington Plant met with tragedy when a fire destroyed the factory. Stangl was undeterred by the fire, and moved production to Trenton, New Jersey. In 1930, Stangl purchased Fulper Pottery outright.
It is uncertain when the company decided to rename all of its products “Stangl.” Throughout the 1930s, the company used both “Fulper Pottery” and “Stangl Pottery.” By the beginning of World War II, Stangl was the most commonly used name. In 1940, the company introduced its line of collectible bird figurines. Today, these birds, like the “Passenger Pigeon” featured here, remain immensely popular and highly collectible. Stangl Pottery would continue to be a successful American institution for many decades. When Stangl passed away in 1972, his estate ran the factory until it was purchased by Frank Wheaton, Jr. Wheaton eventually sold Stangl Pottery to Pfaltzgraff, who used Stangl Pottery’s real estate for Pfaltzgraff manufacturing.
The Stangl “Passenger Pigeon” figurine is available for purchase in our inventory, along with an array of other
Stangl bird figurines. Replacements, Ltd. also carries a wide selection of
Stangl pieces that are available for purchase; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our retail store and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The retail store and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at
exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!