by Ron Bernthal
In eastern Ohio, where the Ohio River separates the state from West Virginia, the area surrounding the city of East Liverpool used to be known as the Pottery Capital of America.
It started when an English potter named James Bennett established the first single-kiln pottery on the bank of the river in 1839 and inadvertently began over a century of industrialized ceramic production in the East Liverpool area that would grow to include over 200 companies and employ thousands of workers, utilizing the abundance of water and excellent clay, as well as coal and natural gas to light the kilns.
When I was a child in the 1950’s I would often travel with my father to East Liverpool, where we would visit several potteries that sold him white ceramic dinnerware products which would be shipped to New York City, for hand-decorating and kiln-firing at my father’s company called Atlas China. We stayed at the best place in town, the six-story Travelers Hotel, where the dining room was always a noisy and busy place, filled with visiting buyers like my father, and numerous ceramic company executives, everyone sitting at tables smoking, laughing, and conducting business deals over a good meal, a handshake and a pat on the back.
Today, however, the red brick Travelers Hotel is closed, the dining room eerily empty. A few businesses have attempted to set-up shop within the lobby, but none have been successful. Surprisingly, the front desk remains, a few room keys still left hanging on small hooks behind it. Of the hundreds of pottery companies that once called East Liverpool home, only three remain. Overseas competition, mostly from Asia, killed East Liverpool’s largest industry beginning in the 1960’s, when the huge kilns used to supply most of the ceramic dinnerware for America’s kitchen and restaurant tables, started to shut down, one by one.
Although few reminders of the boom times are evident downtown, the Museum of Ceramics (www.themuseumofceramics.org), located in the city’s former 1909 limestone and granite post office, just a few blocks from the Travelers Hotel building, provides a fascinating look at the thousands of products once manufactured by the companies that ruled the town.
“In terms of what you will find here, we basically feature most of the ceramic products that were made by the pottery firms here, including those from Corn’s China, East Liverpool China, French-Saxon, Harker Pottery, Goodwin Pottery, Taylor, Smith & Taylor, and C.C. Thompson Pottery. If something was made in this area, we probably have a sample of it displayed, or in storage,” said Sarah Webster Vodrey, the museum’s director.
Ms. Vodrey said that almost every resident of East Liverpool was connected in some way to the pottery industry. A descendant of the founders of Vodrey Pottery, part of the city’s fabric from the late 1800’s to 1928, Ms. Vodrey said that East Liverpool was a booming town during that period. “We had several department stores, restaurants, and a large streetcar system. In 1912 we had the then current president, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, a candidate for president, here on the same day, giving speeches to thousands of people downtown, and both were here within four hours of each other,” said Ms. Vodrey.
The story of East Liverpool’s industrial decline was being played out all over America, and few small towns have managed to come back economically after losing their largest and most important industry. Several months ago, however, the American Mug and Stein Company, one of few remaining potteries in town, started manufacturing coffee mugs that are on sale in Starbucks’ stores across the country, leading American Mug, which was about to go out of business, to hire several dozen local residents to help with orders. The two other potteries still operating here, Hall China, established in 1903, and Homer Laughlin China, started in 1873, are also increasing sales and hiring additional workers.
While many of East Liverpool’s 11,000 residents now work at the casino properties across the river in West Virginia, or commute to Pittsburgh, about an hour away, there is some hope that as more American companies realize the public relations benefits of keeping manufacturing in the country. more potteries will open here and fire up their kilns, heating up this former Pottery Capital with more jobs.