Dear Helaine and Joe: I have had this flower vase for many years. No one seems to know anything about it. On the bottom is stamped "Designed by Walt Disney 1940" and "Vernon Kilns No. 127." I would appreciate any information on the vase. — K.P.H., Chicago
Dear K.P.H.: Faye Bennison was an Iowa retailer until hard times hit the state in 1921, when he moved his wife and family to California.
There, Bennison invested in a glass company that specialized in making bottles and jars, and he subsequently sold this firm for a substantial profit to Owens-Illinois Glass.
In 1931, Bennison bought the Poxon China Co. of Vernon, Calif., and he immediately changed the name to "Vernon Potteries," which later became "Vernon Kilns." These were the years of the Great Depression, but Bennison actually hired workers and kept the pottery going during hard times. It was said that he promised his employees that they would probably not be eating steak, but that they would be eating.
Somehow, the pottery managed to stay afloat and prosper, and in 1940 Walt Disney signed a contract with the company to design items taken from his animated films "Fantasia," "Dumbo" and "The Reluctant Dragon." Most of the items Disney designed for Vernon Kilns to make were figures of characters such as the satyrs and sprites from "Fantasia"; Dumbo, Timothy Mouse and Mr. Stork from "Dumbo" and Baby Weems from "The Reluctant Dragon."
Several patterns of dinnerware inspired by "Fantasia" were also made, as were "Fantasia" vases and bowls. The particular vase belonging to K.P.H. is the No. 127 "Winged Pegasus."
Other Disney-inspired vases and bowls include the No. 126 "Goddess" vase, the No. 121 "Goldfish" bowl and the No. 120 "Mushroom" bowl.
Even though critics loved "Fantasia," and it is now considered a classic, this animated feature was not a huge box office success at first — and neither were the "Fantasia" items made by Vernon Kilns. These items were made only in 1940 and 1941, and then Disney's contract was acquired by the American Pottery Co. This company continued to make some of the Disney designs formerly made at Vernon Kilns, but they were signed with a paper label that generally came off and left the piece completely unmarked. Unsigned specimens without a style number impressed in the base are usually considered to be a product of the American Pottery Co. Unsigned pieces with an impressed style number are thought to be Vernon Kilns.
Vernon Kiln's Disney pieces are all very rare, and some of them are quite valuable. The ostrich ballerinas (Nos. 28 and 29), for example, sell in excess of $2,000 each, and among the bowls and vases, the "Winged Pegasus" is one of the most desired. It should be approximately 7 1/2 inches tall by 12 inches wide and its current insurance replacement value is between $700 and $800.
Helaine Fendelman is feature editor at Country Living magazine and Joe Rosson writes about antiques at The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee. Questions can by mailed to them at P.O. Box 12208, Knoxville, TN 37912-0208.