Rare pottery, used during heyday of French House at LSU, rediscovered on campus
The long-standing mystery of the whereabouts of a collection of French Quimper dinnerware from LSU’s French House has at last been solved.
Boxes of the colorful pottery were brought out of storage recently at the LSU School of Human Ecology, just one block from the collection’s original home.
The French House was built on the LSU campus in the 1930s as an educational experiment for the intensive study of the language, literature and culture of France. The program was conceived by the late James Francis Broussard, dean of administration and head of the Department of Romance Languages.
The building, patterned after the exterior of a manor house Broussard photographed in Normandy, cost $120,000 and was designed by the New Orleans architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, the same firm that designed the State Capitol and several other LSU buildings.
About 50 students, both men and women, lived in the French House, which was decorated with fine French furniture when it opened in September 1935. Residents pledged to speak only French and occasionally some Italian and Spanish in the building. Elaborate French meals were served in the dining room, which was paneled with wood halfway up the walls with a tapestry wallpaper above.
Anita Olivier Morrison, a member of one of Louisiana’s most prominent old French families and the mother of former New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison, served as hostess, or chatelaine, at the French House. She selected the Quimper dinnerware on a trip to France in the summer of 1936.
Quimper is a faience, or a tin-glazed pottery named for Quimper, the city in Brittany where most of the pottery is made.
“It is not a porcelain product. It is an earthenware faience,” said Millicent Mali, of East Greenwich, R.I., an expert and collector of Quimper.
She describes it as mostly a folk pottery with many of the pieces containing figures of Breton peasants in costume.
The State-Times of Feb. 25, 1937, reported on the arrival of the pottery in New Orleans aboard the steamer Florida.
“Bright, picturesque china, it is decorated with figures of Briton (Breton) peasants in their native dress, gay with flowers which grow in the province or with native Briton (Breton) scenes,” the article reported. “Orange and blue are the colors most used in its designs, often with a cream or tan background.”
According to the article, Morrison spent a whole day selecting the dinnerware, which “includes almost every type of dish, and fills three sets of shelves in La Maison Francaise’s dining room.”
Morrison, who was fluent in French, applied for the job as chatelaine with a ré sum é written in French.
“Everything about the French House was planned to be special,” she said in an Advocate interview in 1975. “Every Wednesday brought formal dinner night, and an evening of French conversation would be followed the next week by one in Spanish and then by an Italian evening. It was a glittering way to learn and appreciate the languages, but it was the culture of France which was always stressed, for that is the Louisiana heritage.”
In 1958, LSU officials decided that the French House was too expensive to maintain and abandoned the French immersion program. The building was converted to a graduate student dormitory and eventually closed in 1968. For the next 10 years, it was neglected and vandalized until it was restored in the late 1970s and rededicated in 1981. It now houses the LSU Honors College.
After the French program was discontinued, the French furniture was either sold or distributed to other buildings, and the Quimper dinnerware was moved. Until her death in February 2009, James Francis Broussard’s daughter-in-law, Vida Broussard, and others in the community grieved over the missing items from the French House.
“I have looked all over wondering what happened to the French House Quimper ware,” said Shirley Newsham, an antiques dealer at Highland Road Antiques and a longtime collector of Quimper.
She learned about the French House collection from Mali, who had seen a 1990 Advocate article about the LSU collection.
Newsham inquired about the collection to anyone she knew who might have had a connection to the French House. “I had almost given up hope,” she said.
Finally, about two weeks ago, the mystery was solved when Pam Vinci, curator of the LSU Textile & Costume Museum and a member of the faculty of the LSU School of Human Ecology, walked into Highland Road Antiques and saw some of Newsham’s Quimper.
“I’ve always known we had this Quimper ware and guessed it was from the French House,” Vinci said. “It was just a happenstance meeting with Shirley Newsham, admiring in her shop her Quimper ware.”
Vinci contacted Dorothy Howell, retired professor of food nutrition and later assistant director of the LSU School of Home Economics, now Human Ecology. Howell knew exactly where the Quimper had been all these years. She is the one who packed it away.
“When I came to teach in 1962, it was in the cabinets in the food and nutrition section of the building,” said Howell, who had been told that the pottery was from the French House. “I thought it was plain old china.”
There was also a complete set of Haviland china as well as other sets, which were used for the teaching of family meal management.
“It was part of the training to have good table manners,” Howell said. “I used to tell my students that you never know where they will end up, maybe in the White House.”
On a trip to Europe, Howell learned how valuable the Quimper was. “My friend Peggy Perkins paid $300 for a platter in 1980,” Howell said.
When Howell retired in 1983, she carefully packed the Quimper, and the director of the school put it in the attic in a museum storage area. When the building was renovated, it was moved to a storage area of a new alumni room. All these years, it has been kept under lock and key.
Finally on Sept. 5, the boxes of Quimper were unpacked. A.B. Clark, former director of the School of Home Economics, Howell and Newsham were special guests as the pieces were removed.
There were platters, dinner plates, butter pats, teacups and all sorts of serving pieces — two long tables filled with pieces of the pottery, which are being inventoried and photographed.
Newsham is a member of the Quimper Club International, which is hosting its annual meeting in Baton Rouge Oct. 20-24. The LSU collection will be on view for the members who are coming from all over the world.
Members are interested in seeing the collection. As for the value, “it’s hard to say now,” Mali said. “Prices have plummeted in recent years, but a collection that is lost and found, who knows?”