China Town

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The ceramics industry took root in the Valley for two simple reasons: Abundant natural clay could be found nearby, and the finished products could easily be shipped to markets up and down the river. By the early 1840s East Liverpool had become known for its yellowware, a sort of rustic pottery that when fired in a kiln produced a hue somewhere between honey and mustard. The success of this first pottery business was swiftly emulated.

Yellowware fell out of fashion as the nation prospered; consumers demanded the more refined (and more hygienic-appearing) whiteware. East Liverpool adapted to the change, even though the region lacked the right clay for whiteware. By the 1870s the railroad had come through the river valley, allowing potters to ship in better clay, and continuing improvements in technology made the bowls and the dishes easier to mass-produce—and factories less dependent on skilled artisans. Between 1870 and 1910 East Liverpool’s population swelled from 2,000 to 20,000, and 9 out of every 10 workers were employed in the booming ceramics industry.

 

This history is well told at the Museum of Ceramics in downtown East Liverpool. Part of the Ohio Historical Society and located in an imposing 1909 former post office, the museum is bursting with displays on two floors, which imaginatively highlight some key stops on the region’s road to tabletop prominence. Detailed, life-sized dioramas illustrate the labor-intensive process of creating and firing ceramics. Other displays are equally informative. Among the things I learned was that the exact mix of clays and other ingredients was a fiercely guarded trade secret, such that factories used preset “blind scales”- ones that did not reveal the weight they were registering—which prevented workers from filching formulas if they changed employers.

East Liverpool’s ceramic hegemony ended in the early twentieth century with the rise of inexpensive foreign dishware and a growing consumer preference for cheap tin containers and glass dishes. Then came the Depression, and hope died that the industry would bounce back. Today just two companies remain of the dozens of East Liverpool pottery manufacturers that once set America’s tables.

After leaving the museum, I sought out one of the survivors a short drive away. The Hall China Company’s facade has a pleasing 1940s modernity, but the factory isn’t open for tours. In the showroom I spent some time admiring the wares, most of which are designed in the clean, inoffensive style favored by institutional buyers. I liked the graceful, small teapots, and my wallet leaped to hand when I saw the special sale price. It wasn’t until I returned to my car with two teapots that I remembered I don’t drink tea.

Perhaps the most prominent name during the late-nineteenth-century ceramics boom was Homer Laughlin. With his brother, Shakespeare (they had literate parents, evidently), Laughlin launched a pottery company in East Liverpool in 1871. Shakespeare left six years later, but Homer persisted, constantly improving manufacturing methods and efficiencies, and retiring a very rich man in 1897. Under new ownership, the factory continued to grow, eventually expanding to 32 kilns. Seeking more space and frustrated by high real estate prices in East Liverpool, the firm acquired a sprawling farm across the river from a man named Newell and between 1907 and 1928 built five new plants. By 1929 Homer Laughlin was the largest pottery in the world, and a whole new town had sprouted up around it.

 

Homer laughlin’s styles shrewdly changed with the fashions of the time, gradually becoming less formal and more clean and stylized. That trend reached its apex in 1936, thanks to the art director Frederick Rhead. After experimenting with various shapes and glazes, Rhead combined the streamlined style of Art Deco with the look of handmade pottery and glazed his new designs with solid, vibrant colors. (Advertisements claimed that the hues were inspired by “the colorful festivals of Mexico.”) Most of all, the new dishware seemed relaxed and fun. “The layman,” Rhead said, “likes to mix his colors.”

The style was radical in its simplicity and proved ideal for a society that was eating less at the dining-room table and more in the kitchen. Priced for a mass market (a 72-piece service cost $32), Fiesta took off as the middle class embraced it as an affordable luxury. The design proved to have tremendous staying power. It remained in production in close to its original form until January 1, 1973, when it was retired.