The Homer Laughlin China Company in the early 1900's
The Homer Laughlin China Company History
by Jack Welch
Stretching for more than a mile along Hancock County’s Ohio River at Newell is the Homer Laughlin China Company, one of the world’s largest manufacturer of dinnerware. Laughlin’s claims to have manufactured about one-third of all dinnerware that has ever been sold in the United States.
The Homer Laughlin China Company might
never have come into existence had not the City Council in East Liverpool,
across the river in Ohio, decided in 1872 that the production of yellow ware in
the city’s dozen or more potteries was doomed.
The future in ceramics seemed to them not to be in the continued
manufacture of dishes from local clay which produced, when fired in a kiln, a
bright yellow, but in ware which fired to a stark white.
The white ware looked sanitary and bright, and it harmonized with all
colors of decoration. The Council
offered $5,000, a huge sum at the time, to anyone who would start a four-kiln
factory for the manufacture of white ware.
The winners of this competition were
two brothers, Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin.
They were born on Little Beaver Creek, a few miles from East Liverpool
and the Ohio River. Homer, the
elder, had served in the Civil War and emerged, with the rest of the North,
ready to go into business in a big way. He
tried “jobbing” yellow ware, marketing the pottery which had been made in
East Liverpool to shops and department stores around the country.
He invested some money in oil wells; with his brother he tried selling
china imported from Europe; and he even tried operating a small pottery in East
Liverpool with a partner. Thus the
Laughlin brothers learned something about the ceramics business, something about
its markets, and something about the European competition.
They accepted the Council’s offer on September 1, 1873, broke ground on
October 1, and opened their factory on September 1, 1874.
Adversity confronted the business at
first. The little factory on the
shore of the Ohio had only two kilns (despite the contest stipulations) and a
few dozen workers, and it lacked the technical know-how to make flawless dishes.
The first batches of cups from the tall bottle kilns were said to have
handles which dropped off when exposed to cool air.
The Laughlin brothers persevered, though, calling their factory “The
Ohio Valley Pottery” as well as “Laughlin Brothers Pottery.”
By 1876 their persistence paid off, when a medal and certificate were
awarded them for the best white ware at the Centennial Exhibition in
Philadelphia. This honor certified
their reputation for quality white ware.
Shakespeare Laughlin was bought out of
the business in 1877 and went on to pursue other goals in the industry, until
his death in 1881 in Philadelphia. Homer
remained in East Liverpool to develop the company.
One of this first problems was foreign competition. The American public preferred European wares, especially
those manufactured in England. Some
American pottery manufacturers went so far as to disguise their product by
calling it “royal” or by using the English royal lion on their company’s
stamp. Laughlin, after much
discussion with local artists, created a logo which showed the American eagle
subduing the British lion. The
eagle is on top, and the lion struggles weakly on his back.
This logo symbolizes the fight which Homer Laughlin intended to wage
against the cheaper and sometimes superior wares from abroad.
He intended to prevail in both price and quality.
During the decade of the 1880’s, Homer Laughlin
produced a variety of tableware. His
basic stock was an inexpensive line of white dishes which could be used in
hotels and other public places. He
also produced one-of-a-kind art wares. Some
of his surviving vases show hand-painted flowers, reflecting the work of
important artisans. A porcelain
basket and flowers showed highly skilled clay modeling.
Other items included large planters which were decorated with decals,
sprayed-on colors, and fanciful gold highlights.
Laughlin’s workers were paid wages that exceeded those
in Europe and Asia, but they seem grossly underpaid by today’s standards.
In 1877 a skilled pottery worker earned $2.33 per day, an unskilled male
$1.29. Boys earned 82¢ per day,
and both women and girls earned 75¢. Little
was known about industrial safety, and the workers were exposed to the hazards
of a dusty environment, but overall Homer Laughlin was known as a beneficent
employer. In 1880 he took 300 employees and their families in a
chartered train to Pittsburgh to see an exposition in the afternoon and an opera
in the evening. Laughlin was also
known everywhere as an innovator, and he hired the first female secretary in the
area in 1888.
One of Laughlin’s major ceramic
achievements occurred in 1886 with the development of genuine American china. In his office Laughlin demonstrated his accomplishment to
Jere Simms, editor of the East Liverpool Tribune. He showed Simms one of his vases and asked him to hold it to
the light. The editor was amazed
that shadows of light filtered through the sides of the vase, demonstrating
translucency, an important characteristic of true china.
Laughlin then ordered his bookkeeper to break the vase with a poker from
a nearby stove. The bookkeeper smeared soot from the stove onto the edges of
the pieces. China is by definition
vitreous, meaning that it will not absorb water or dirt.
If the vase had been anything less, the soot would have permanently
stained the broken edges. But the bookkeeper next washed the pieces with soap and
water, and every trace of soot was rinsed away.
It was clear that Laughlin’s company had created genuine china of the
highest caliber. Simms, amazed and
exuberant, expressed his delight the next day in his newspaper.
“It is no longer a question of doubt that the finest, thinnest, and
most translucent of china can be produced here in America,” he reported.
The dinnerware which Laughlin’s
company manufactured was elaborate, formal, elegant.
His most extreme design was American Beauty, and it may well be the most
ornate ware ever produced for mass markets.
The shape had a total of 95 different pieces for sale. The covered vegetable dish would have seemed quite at home on
the table of Louis XIV, but it was available for purchase by ordinary,
middle-class Americans. Homer
Laughlin had lofty ideas for his own life, and he encouraged his customers to be
At the end of the 1880’s, Laughlin hired a new bookkeeper named W. E. Wells, the man destined to become the general manager of the company. Wells was born in Brooke County, but graduated from high school in Steubenville, Ohio. He had worked as a bookkeeper in a Steubenville bank and in a wholesale drug business. When he came to work for Laughlin he knew nothing about the pottery business, but during the following decade, while following instructions to care for the factory during Laughlin’s long travel absences, he mastered every detail.
By 1897 Homer Laughlin was ready to remove himself from
the business which had made him a wealthy man.
He had invested in real estate in Los Angeles and wanted to spend his
last years developing that great city. W.
E. Wells purchased an interest in the Homer Laughlin China Company, and another
interest was secured by Louis I. Aaron and his two sons, Marcus and Charles I.
Aaron. This executive team decided
to expand their company, but even these venturesome businessmen probably did not
realize how successful their operation would become.
In 1899, two years after purchasing
the company, the new management built a second factory a few thousand feet east
of the original plant in the area called East End.
Two years later they built another manufacturing unit beside the new
plant. Still not satisfied, the
company traded the original Laughlin factory by the river for another pottery in
East End. These three plants were
then known as Plant 1 (the original plant and its later replacement), Plant 2
(the first expansion in East End), and Plant 3 (the second expansion in East
End). The company, which had grown
from the original two kilns in 1874 to four kilns at the time of the sale in
1897, increased to 32 kilns after the expansions and trading.
This growth, remarkable as it was, did
not satisfy the management. Customers
wanted the Laughlin wares, and if the company could expand further it could do
an even greater business. Land in
East Liverpool and East End was unavailable, and the company chose to build
Plant 4 across the Ohio River in what is now Newell, West Virginia.
The proposed site was farm land, owned
by the Newell family. The Newells
were in the mood to sell and had commissioned a Pittsburgh agent to deal for
them. The company purchased a tract
of land about three miles in length, lying about 50 to 100 feet above the Ohio
River. The location had access to a
railroad, abundant fuel, and improving river navigation.
In order to develop the land into a usable industrial site, the Laughlin
company created the North American Manufacturing Company to undertake such tasks
as building a water system, laying out streets, and selling lots.
In 1901 the only way to cross from East Liverpool to Newell was by ferry,
but in June 1904 work began on a new metal suspension bridge.
On July 4, 1905, the first traffic used the bridge, and to this day the
company’s toll bridge serves the people on both sides of the river.
The population of Newell grew rapidly.
In 1906 there were only a few houses there, but 130 houses had been built
by December 1907.
On the Newell site was built
Laughlin’s Plant 4, “the largest pottery plant ever constructed,” in the
words of the company’s 1907 catalogue. The
plant covered 10 acres of ground and extended for 700 feet along the Ohio River.
The building had five stories and a total floor space of 15 acres.
It was an unprecedented pottery, but it was not the last record the
company was to set.
Connected with Plant 4 was a 100-acre recreational park. It was situated in the valley just south of the plant and included a springfed brook, a lake, a zoo, a formal garden, and an outdoor theater where vaudeville players appeared and silent movies were shown. This park was the conception of George Washington Clarke, perhaps the greatest salesman in the history of dinnerware. His work in the Middle West was largely responsible for the expansion of the company, and he devoted much of his income to beautifying the company’s park. Tragically, he did not live long after the park was built, succumbing to an apparent heart attack in 1911. Although the park is now grown over and nearly forgotten, the nearby Wells School has an athletic field named after the great salesman.
In 1908 the catalogue of the Homer
Laughlin Company almost crowed over its own expansion, boasting that it was now
“twice over the largest producer of pottery in the world.”
Since the addition on January 1, 1907, of Plant 4, the company operated
62 kilns and 48 decorating kilns, which were capable of producing 300,000 pieces
of finished pottery each day. This
was a total of 10 percent of the dishes purchased in the United States, and more
was to come.
In spite of the death of George
Washington Clarke, the company’s sales continued to grow and in 1914
management again decided to expand. That
year Plant 5 was built just north of Plant 4, adding 16 more kilns.
But within five years, the company was again unable to meet the demand
for its wares. Another expansion
was planned, but the pottery industry was on the verge of great change.
By the 1920’s, modern technology was
affecting the age-old ways that pottery was produced, and management saw the
necessity of bringing trained scientists into the company on a full-time basis.
The scientist who brought the latest technology to the Laughlin factory
was Albert Victor Bleininger. Born
in Polling, Bavaria, Dr. Bleininger had had a distinguished career in ceramics
at Ohio State University, the University of Illinois, the U.S. Geological
Survey, and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. By
the time he came to the Homer Laughlin China Company in 1920, he had written a
book on hydraulic cement, translated the works of the distinguished German
ceramist H. A. Seger, helped to found the American Ceramic Society, and was a
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He remained at the company until his death in 1946, and throughout these
years this gentle person had extraordinary influence over the technology of the
company. His first task was the
construction of Plant 6.
This new West Virginia plant, located
just across the valley south of Plant 4, was not only the largest pottery plant
ever constructed but was also to steer the worldwide manufacture of ceramics in
an entirely new direction. A major
innovation was the construction of tunnel kilns.
Up to this time, pottery had generally been fired in brick, bottle-shaped
kilns. These kilns, 40 or more feet
tall, had openings in the bottom which allowed workers to carry the unfired clay
pieces (protected by ceramic containers called saggers) inside.
The opening was then bricked up and coal or wood used to heat the kiln.
After the proper time, the kiln was allowed to cool slowly, and the
bricked entrances were knocked open to allow workers to remove the saggers
containing the ware. The kiln was
then ready to be loaded for the next firing.
The disadvantages of the bottle kiln
were that it had long periods during which it was not in use while being loaded
or cooled and that much of the heat escaped with the smoke out the top. In contrast, the new tunnel kiln was continuously used.
It was a long, low brick tunnel with openings at each end.
The first car was loaded, pushed by hand into the kiln, and then attached
to a hydraulic metal pusher which moved the car along its metal tracks at about
14 inches per hour. At a certain
point, the pusher retracted and another car could be added behind the first.
The pusher then moved both cars forward.
In the kiln, the ware passed through progressively hotter sections until
it reached its hottest level (about 2,000 degrees Farenheit), then on through
cooler sections until it reached the exit at the far end.
The firing process in the tunnel kiln lasted about 55 hours.
In addition, the heat efficiency of the new kiln was 500% greater than
that of the bottle kiln. The fuel
in the new tunnel kilns was natural gas, but they were constructed so that
heating oil could be substituted. Each
tunnel kiln in Plant 6 could accommodate 52 carloads for a total production
capacity of 84,000 pieces of ware daily.
Plant 6 had other scientific and
technical advantages. In the
basement the powdery clay, flint, and feldspar in proper proportions were dumped
into a large tank called a “blunger,” where electric paddles mixed the
composition with water until it was
a thick, flowing liquid called “slip.”
The slip passed through vibrating frames covered with silk which strained
out all foreign matter. A chute
then took the slip into contact with powerful electromagnets which drew away
even minute particles of metal. The
slip was next forced under high pressure into iron filter presses which left the
clay in large discs weighing about 40 pounds each.
This refined clay was then ready to go to craftsmen who used machines of
various sorts for the actual manufacture of the dishes.
The statistics for Plant 6 are
staggering, even today. It was 290
feet wide by 800 feet long, with a basement 80 feet by 800 feet.
Into this building went 6,000 cubic yards of concrete, 600,000 bricks for
the walls, and 1,000,000 board feet of lumber.
Technical innovation at Laughlin’s
continued at a rapid rate. In 1927,
Plant 7 was constructed beside Plant 6. Simultaneously,
tunnel kilns were constructed to replace the bottle kilns in Plants 4 and 5,
thus dooming the three older plants in East End to obsolescence.
By 1929 the three oldest plants were abandoned.
To replace them the last of Laughlin’s great potteries, Plant 8, had
been built the preceding year just south of Plant 6, stretching out even farther
along the Ohio River. This new
plant was 1,200 feet by 300 feet, employed 900 people, and had a production
equal to the combined output of Plant 6 and 7.
Of course it was the largest pottery plant in the world, and its addition
to the Homer Laughlin China Company multiplied its lead over all other
potteries. Peak employment in the history of the company was recorded at
this time, with 3,500 people working in the five Newell plants.
Laughlin’s became an exclusively West Virginia firm with the
abandonment of the three early plants, and its impact in the upper Panhandle was
As expansion progressed,
management’s attention turned to artistic development.
An early indicator of this concern was the sumptuous new display room,
opened in 1921 on the third floor adjoining the main office in Plant 4. Newspapers visiting the vast room called it a “bower of
delights,” and their praise even now seems an apt description of the Rococo
room. The metal and plaster ceiling
is festooned with flowers, the walls lined with wood panels, and the floor
constructed of narrow hardwood boards. Heavy
leather chairs and couches remind one of an exclusive gentlemen’s club.
Homer Laughlin dishes are arranged on broad walnut shelves around the
room. A company monogram has been worked into a coat of arms for
each end of the room. The main
purpose of the display room was to provide an elegant background for the
company’s wares so that visiting buyers would see the product in the most
favorable setting. In effect, this
room was to replace the salesmen’s trunk, as more and more department stores
and chain stores were sending out their own buyers rather than waiting for the
pottery salesman to call on them.
In 1927 the company hired one of the
world’s most distinguished ceramists, Frederick Hurten Rhead. At age 47 Rhead had spent his life in the field of ceramics.
He had trained at various government art schools in Staffordshire,
England, where his father and grandfather had designed and decorated porcelain.
In 1902 Rhead left a position as art director in a pottery in
Stoke-on-rent to further his career in the United States.
He worked with the most distinguished American ceramists, including those
at the University City Pottery in St. Louis. He and others in this group won the Grand Prize at the
International Exposition of 1911 in Turin, Italy, thus proclaiming the St. Louis
school as the leading artistic ceramics group in the world.
Rhead opened his own studio in Santa Barbara, California, wrote a book
entitled Studio Pottery, and worked for various commercial potteries
before coming to Laughlin’s. Here,
though, his wanderings ceased, because he found at the company a commitment to
artistic excellence, an outstanding ceramic studio, a brilliant scientific
laboratory, and a management that wanted quality as well as quantity.
Rhead’s first job was to improve the
ware in the company’s catalogue. Most
of the current shapes, such as Republic and Hudson, had been in production for
decades, although Yellowstone, the newest, was introduced in 1926. Yellowstone had, ironically, a cream, light-yellow body,
which the company’s catalogue bragged about:
“Even without decoration it possesses a warmth of tone that appeals to
many persons of good taste more strongly than the dead white body that had ruled
the market for so many years.” How
amazed Homer Laughlin would have been to see the disparagement of the color that
had originally launched Laughlin’s in the 1872 East Liverpool competition.
Rhead began conservatively to develop
the artistic quality of the company’s wares.
The first dinnerware shape for which he was responsible was called
Newell, later slightly modified as Liberty.
The leading feature of this new ware was its “gadroon edge,” a kind
of fluting around the perimeter of all pieces.
Newell was not a spectacular success although it sold modestly for more
than a decade.
In contract, a new ware entitled
Virginia Rose (named after W. E. Wells’ granddaughter) was a phenomenal
success. It was basically an oval
shape with an ivory body, and featured a rose worked into the edge of the ware.
When decorated with flowered decals, the favored decorating device of the
period, Virginia Rose produced a homey, cheerful ceramic object.
It was the main line produced in Plant 8, and sold especially to
Woolworth’s. It sold well for
decades, with 625,701 dozen pieces produced in 1933 and 643,056 dozen in 1951.
The culmination of Rhead’s
experiments in shapes and glazes was the creation in 1935 of Fiesta, the most
famous and most collected line of ware in the history of the Homer Laughlin
China Company. Basically the ware
is in the tradition now known as Art Deco, a term originating at the Paris
Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Art Deco objects are streamlined and show a particularly high
level of craftsmanship. Art Deco
may also be found in architecture of the period, as well as in electrical
appliances, furniture, elevators, hotel lobbies, balconies, carpets, and
ceramics. The Empire State Building
was built in Art Deco style, as were some West Virginia landmarks, including the
courthouse in Clarksburg.
The most striking characteristic of Fiesta is its color.
Originally the ware appeared with brilliant red, bright yellow, dark
blue, and medium green glaze on a white talc body.
The dishes received a matte finish so that they lacked flashing
highlights, but the colors themselves were enough to capture any buyer’s
attention. The red color was
revolutionary in part because it was made from uranium and the resulting glaze
was harmlessly radioactive. When the government started the atomic bomb project during
World War II, Homer Laughlin’s uranium was no longer available, thus ending
the production of the red color for the time being.
Almost as striking as the color was
the molding of Fiesta’s shape. Frederick
Rhead was an experienced studio potter, and he decided that this line of ware
should look handcrafted as well as streamlined in the tradition of Art Deco.
The cups have concentric circles inside and out, as though they had been
handthrown on the potter’s wheel. Similarly,
the bowls and plates have concentric circles on the inside and out, as though
someone had etched them while they were spinning on the wheel.
The ware invites the viewer to touch it, to feel the quality of the
ridges, and the ridges themselves gather and hold varying amounts of the colored
glaze so that color is delicately shaded at the contours.
Unusual accessories were developed
with Fiesta. Two sizes of compotes
were available, Tom and Jerry mugs (to serve a drink which was popular in the
1930’s), tumblers, flower vases in three sizes, two shapes of candleholders
and a fruit juice disc jug with five-ounce tumblers.
About 1939 a set of wares in Fiesta colors was developed to be used for
the preparation of meals. This line
was called Fiesta Kitchen Kraft and included a cake server, cake plates, pie
plates, covered jars, covered casseroles, serving spoons and forks, mixing
bowls, refrigerator sets, as well as two sizes of plates.
In 1959 the original Fiesta was modified into Fiesta Ironstone.
The new colors were mango red (A nonradioactive reproduction of the
original red), turf green, and antique gold.
Fiesta Ironstone was discontinued on
January 1, 1973, and no authorized production of the ware has taken place since
then. In an autobiographical note
written three years before his death in 1939, designer Frederick Rhead called
Fiesta “the most successful table ware line ever made in any factory anywhere
. . .” This is a bold description
of a product which had been in production for only three years at the time of
the writing, but time has proven Rhead correct.
Fiesta sold by the millions of pieces annually for 37 years, and its
popularity among collectors has increased steadily since then.
It was the company’s biggest hit.
As important as Fiesta was, it was not
Rhead’s only new product for the company.
Harlequin was an angular ware which also featured bright glazes. It turned out to be the all-time best seller for the
Woolworth Company and was reissued in 1979 to celebrate the centennial of the
company. A square plate with
rounded edges and circular interior was developed for the Century shape.
Many different decorations were used on this ware, including Mexican
motifs, cartoon characters, and floral decals.
A colored glaze version of Century was marketed as Riviera.
During World War II, the Homer Laughlin China Company developed a line of fine dinnerware called Eggshell. It came in decorations known as Georgian, Nautilus, Swing, and Theme and sold very well as a replacement for the fine European china that could not be transported across the Atlantic under wartime conditions.
The peak production year for the
company was 1948, when 10,129,449 dozen dishes were manufactured.
Don Schreckengost was then art director, and his wares have a sculptural
quality about them. Jubilee was one
shape which he designed, and its main characteristic is its severe simplicity
which is capped off with gracefully looped handles. Schreckengost helped to develop a line of fine china, too.
The name of the line was Triumph, and it also had a streamlined, modern
shape with no roundness at all. The
basic shape for Triumph was the V. Even
the salt and pepper shakers were truncated, inverted cones.
Several shapes of restaurant ware were
introduced for manufacture in 1959. Plant
6 was adapted for this production of heavy, vitreous ware. Hundreds of restaurants across the nation now use Laughlin
ware, including those at Marriott hotels.
Since 1960, several art directors have
served the company. Vincent
Broomhall is remembered for his abstract yet organic designs and Dennis Newbury
for developing International, which has sold successfully in numerous
decorations and glazes. Jonathan
Parry, the company’s art director, has a background in jewelry design which
shows in the elegance of his ideas.
The special achievement of Homer Laughlin China Company has been its ability for over a century to mass-produce wares not only inexpensive enough for almost every family in the nation, but often with outstanding artistic value as well. For the workers, managers, artists and scientists laboring together in the huge Hancock County plants have brought art and production together in a spectacular way. Moreover, they’ve made the combination a profitable one, building in the process a company unparalleled in the worldwide history of the industry. Homer Laughlin, who left two bottle kilns on the banks of the Ohio, would never recognize the place today, but it’s unlikely he would be anything but proud.