China Town

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn a cramped but tidy museum within the Homer Laughlin pottery factory, in Newell, West Virginia, I stood before a small case displaying an object that all but took my breath away. There, under a steady but flattering light, was the 500 millionth piece of Fiesta ware. Half a billion pieces! My mind scrabbled around the number like a pup on a newly waxed floor, trying to gain purchase. At the same time, another confusion overcame me: Fiesta ware, which apparently is only slightly less common than used tinfoil, remains an extremely desirable collectible. It is, in fact, the most collected type of dishware in the country.

I am not myself a collector of vintage dishware. Dishware is not displayed at our house, unless one considers a display something that involves a melted cheese sandwich and potato chips. I am, however, an inveterate user of dishware. I buy up old ironstone of the sort once found in restaurants and hotels—weighty white plates, saucers, and coffee mugs, each delicately enlivened with a thin green stripe. Our kitchen cupboard is full of the stuff. I love it because it can survive unyielding sinks and teenagers, it has simple, modern elegance, and it always brings to mind the comforts of streamlined diners and good meat loaf. That, and it can be had for a few dollars apiece at thrift shops and yard sales.

 
 

At those same sales I’ve often been afflicted with Fiesta-ware envy, but I’ve never indulged it, because of price. I’ve often held up one or another of those richly glazed plates with the subtle concentric rings, the space attenuating between them, and thought: Now this would go very nicely with yams. But at $40 or more for a plate? No, thanks.

So I was in for another bout of confusion when I wandered from the Homer Laughlin museum into the adjacent factory outlet, still thinking of my encounter with Fiesta 500 million. With no warning, I found myself amid a riot of new Fiesta ware. In a side room off the main showroom, hundreds of Fiesta dishes stood piled in perilous stacks, overflowed from wooden boxes, and lay indecorously heaped in plastic milk crates. These were factory seconds, many marred with microscopic blemishes, but the price was certainly right.

Most pieces could be had for just a few dollars—in many cases the prices were boldly markered across the faces of plates tilting on long racks—but even better deals were scrawled on torn pieces of cardboard tacked here and there. On the day I was there, small oval Fiesta plates—sized perfectly for peanut-butter-and-raspberry-preserve sandwiches—were one dollar apiece. For a moment I stood mildly dumbstruck, hearing only the buzz of fluorescent lights, the clatter of dishware, and the grunts of hunched and rooting shoppers.

But only for a moment. I swiftly joined in the rifling to take part in what seemed to be a sort of scarcely legalized looting. An hour later I loaded two heavy cartons into my car. Our cupboard at home, which once had all the color and merriment of a hospital linen closet, now looks like Oz.

The town of newell is located at the tip of that finger of West Virginia that points northward between Ohio and Pennsylvania, as if directing traffic toward Lake Erie. The point is created by a sweeping bend in the Ohio River, and just across an open-deck steel-truss bridge is the industrial town of East Liver- pool, Ohio. While dramatic, this is not a part of the country to which people travel for natural beauty. The Homer Laughlin factory, sooty with age, occupies a mile of riverfront that’s overgrown with sumac. Coal barges move slowly past. Much of the opposite bank has been blasted to accommodate a highway. It’s more Ashcan than Hudson River school.

Yet since that first, disorienting trip to the Homer Laughlin factory five years ago, I’ve come back twice. And not just for the dishware bargains. That first visit left me intrigued by the area, by its link with a past when geography was destiny, when workers versed in arcane manufacturing techniques seemed to pool and eddy in regions around the continent. Hartford meant guns. Pittsburgh meant steel. Corning meant glass. And East Liverpool meant ceramics. It was known as “America’s crockery city.”

While inexpensive imports have gradually discounted the region’s national recognition in the pottery world, it has held its own surprisingly well in an era when local heavy manufacturing is fading into anachronism. And the Ohio River Valley is increasingly rediscovering its heritage, broadening the ways in which it educates and entertains travelers. Spend a day or two roaming around here, and you’ll leave with more than a trunkful of dishware deals. You’ll also have a fresh view of your dinner table and how it got that way.

 
 

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.

 
 

In 1986, 50 years after its introduction, Fiesta was reborn, with a mix of colors both new and old, and it remains in production with 12 colors today. (Twenty colors have been rolled out since its reintroduction in 1986, 8 retired.) The classic dishes and platters and pitchers look very much as they did seven decades ago. As testimony to its enduring style, it’s the most requested casual dinnerware on bridal registries. And despite its astounding abundance, the values of older Fiesta ware have held up, while a whole new market has been born in collecting new Fiesta. “I was just at a convention of Fiesta collectors, and I’d say it’s about evenly split between those who collect the old and the new,” said Dave Conley, Homer Laughlin’s director of retail sales.

Visitors can tour the factory where Fiesta ware has always been made. (Tours are offered twice daily and are free but require advance notice.) What most struck me during the 45-minute tour was that the operations look like the historical dioramas at the Museum of Ceramics across the river. I’d half expected gleaming machines cranking out plates at dizzying speeds; instead, I saw a patient and exacting worker attaching the handle to a mug by hand. This was somehow deeply reassuring.

The factory does contain its share of modern marvels. It has one of the world’s longest continuous kilns, for instance, and the lower plant has state-of-the-art operations that include computerized kilns and high-tech forming equipment. But it’s not the future that keeps pilgrims coming through its doors. It’s the past, with travelers and collectors eager to see where all those asparagus green and sunset red and cobalt blue platters and dishes and cups were born and nurtured. That, and the promise of an uncommonly good deal.