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 similarly inclined.

    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 tremendous.

    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.