Together, the big potteries, using the fine clay they found on the banks of the Ohio River, churned out hundreds if not thousands of different lines to be sold to department stores and restaurant supply companies. East Liverpool claimed the title, "Pottery Capital of the Nation", and so far no one has disputed it.
Until the 1960s, when the move to foreign goods caused a rapid decline in their numbers, in this little corner of the country, where Ohio, W. Virginia and Pennsylvania meet, these potteries were responsible for more than half of the United States ceramics output. Today, there are only two of those major companies left: Hall, and Homer Laughlin (still producing Fiesta Ware, their top line).
Designers like Eva Zeisel (she died last year at the age of 105, still designing almost to the end), Ben Seibel and Don Schreckengost came up with new shapes and brought dinnerware into the modern age.
|Eva Zeisel for Hall|
I collect vintage American production pottery, so I sat up and took notice when, during an interview, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, mentioned East Liverpool. Starbucks has signed a contract with American Mug and Stein, a small pottery in East Liverpool, and they've been producing a few thousand logo mugs a month for their stores.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says the contract with American Mug and Stein is only the beginning.
"There are hundreds of East Liverpools around the country today," he says. "These towns have been left for dead. And even though it's more expensive to manufacture this mug in the U.S. than it would be in China or Korea or Mexico, this is what we need to do."
But McClellan says towns like his can't live only in the past. That's why he and a couple of partners just bought a shuttered pottery factory across town to outfit it with the newest equipment. Meanwhile, the original factory will continue to make mugs the old-fashioned way — by hand.
East Liverpool lives! And, by the way, the mugs sell for $10 at Starbucks--about the same as a similar mug made in china might cost in a similar coffee shop. So it can be done, just not as profitably. And there's the crux of it: Can companies calling themselves "American" ever give up their obsession with hiring cheap foreign labor to produce cheap foreign goods to sell in America to Americans? Could this be the start of something big? I don't know. But if it isn't, it should be. And this small step by Starbucks is proof that it could be. Take the shutters off of those empty factories. Start up those machines again. That ridiculous theory that this huge country can thrive without producing goods has been disproved. It didn't work. It couldn't work. It never was going to work.
Some East Liverpool pottery from my own collection. (Including the Eva Zeisel plate):
|English Garden, Homer Laughlin|
|Taylor Smith Taylor Wheat Coffee Carafe|
|Pearl "Aladdin" tea pots|
So here's a story: I have a habit of turning over plates to see who made them. I do it in thrift stores, flea markets, and antique shops, but I also do it in restaurants and in peoples' homes. I'm pretty shameless about it. So I was in a restaurant not long ago, trying to see the bottom of a plate, which, unfortunately, was full of food. I was sure it was made by an American company--there's a subtle difference in the feel and in the glaze--but I couldn't just lift it over my head, so I was trying to tip it far enough to see the mark, when the waiter--a young man probably still in college--leaned over and whispered, "Homer Laughlin."
Totally made my day.