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    A Happening in East Liverpool


    East Liverpool, Ohio has long been known as the center of American dinner-and diner-ware.  For well over a century, from the mid 19th century into the middle of the 1960s, it had been the home of some 300 potteries (partial list here), and included names like American Limoges, Homer Laughlin (across the river in W. Virginia but within shouting distance), Hall, Harker, Taylor Smith Taylor, Knowles, Pearl, Purinton, Royal, Sebring,  Sterling, and Wellsville.

    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 won't work.  It's never going to work.

    Some East Liverpool pottery from my own collection.  (Including the Eva Zeisel plate):

    Hall Casserole


    English Garden, Homer Laughlin


    Taylor Smith Taylor Wheat Coffee Carafe


    Pearl "Aladdin" teapots

    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.


    (Cross-posted at Ramona's Voices)


    Mona, those are very cool. Howard Schultz is very good at selling products that are made in America.

    Cool blog.

    Interesting, but

    what has this to do with sports

    or even haiku?


    All of life is about sports

    And even haikus.

    Ev'ry Flea Market

    has old broads who'll wrestle you

    for Fiestaware.

    I tried to fit cars in there but I just couldn't do it.  Sorry.

    This works for me.

    lol.  It even looks vintage!

    Can I see the back?

    Great story and we thank you for mentioning us.

    Thanks for the good news!

    Fiestaware makes all meals happier.

    Like a party! cheeky

    I don't collect Fiesta but I have a couple of friends who are Fiesta fanatics and I love the way the colors look on their tables.  I have a new red Fiesta spoon holder on my stove and I  love the design and the glaze. (It's about the only piece of pottery in my kitchen that's not vintage.)

    I have et off of Homer Laughlin English Garden dinnerware and didn't even know how fancy they were! My sister had a service for 8 she bought at a yard sale many years ago. She liked them because they were 'squarish'. I liked them because they had a deepness to them that caught the gravy that tried to escape from mashed potato mountain.

    I'm such a plebeian.smiley

    Don't even tell me that!  A service for eight?  At a yard sale?   Gaahhhhrrrr.

    Look it up on eBay.  You'll be shocked.


    Look it up on eBay.

    I did. And since there wasn't too much  there right now, I also checked elsewhere, like Replacements LTD and some dealer sites.

    You'll be shocked.

    I wasn't shocked, not at all. It sells for equivalent prices of most good new open-stock dinnerware that's not no-name from Asia. (Even to the point where the more complex pieces given to breaking in the kiln are the most expensive, and of course, that's repeated in resale because those pieces break in the home as well and therefore are rarer after production stops.)

    Looks like the equivalent pricing to $10 for a single coffee mug. Instead of the $1.99 (or $3.99 for the fanciest) for a coffee mug have become used to paying at Target or KMart or Walmart or the dollar store.

    Here's what I am getting at.

    First I should reveal that my experience is not just in appraising of fine art. At one time, I also did a lot of appraising of antique and collectible "smalls," including and especially ceramics. I often thought about the related conceptual issues about value a lot while I was doing that. And those markets still interest me a great deal, I try to keep up with them by reading Maine Antique Digest and the like. (Actually the markets of popular collecting interest me far more than that of fine art; speaking of wages as I'm going to do, I should also say that there's not really a decent living in appraising $250 tureens and vases,)

    I'm not going into this further to downplay flowerchild's bargain; I suspect flowerchild did get a bargain. But flowerchild got the same bargain we've been accustomed to getting for three decades for imported goods from places where labor is cheaper. I also suspect flowerchild partly got that bargain because the sellers had become accustomed to knowing that they could sell their old dinnerware that was no longer their taste and replace it easily at low cost, with lots of choices as to style that were more to their current taste. That if they knew they had to pay $10 for each new mug or cup and $10 for each new saucer, and $30 for each new soup bowl and $125 for a new serving platter, they might not have bought new dishes, they might not have put the Homer Laughlin set in the rummage sale, they might have kept using it even though they no longer liked it.

    But for the last few decades, new dishes of delightful designs (and new drapes and bedspreads and throw rugs and wastebaskets and many other home furnishings) made by foreigners have been easily available at low prices. This "consumer society" fuels the world economy. We can go back to having Americans make this stuff at decent wages. That will mean, though, that when you buy that first set of dishes, better treat that decision like you are making it for a lifetime, because you may not be afford to replace it. That without free trade on the home furnishings front, there will be no more redecorating on a whim, and not so many bargains at the rummage sales, and probably no dollar stores. And you might have to go back to waiting for those once-a-year white sales giving you 10% of on bed sheets and that 10% will also mean saving some real serious money.

    (Writing the last paragraph brings back bad memories, as kid in the late 50's, of Mom getting so upset that my brothers knocked over the lamp and broke the chimney shades again, that she really lost it and started hitting them and screaming. Because she couldn't afford to replace them again at the time, we were going to go broke replacing glass shades, and she was really tired of living in a cramped dump with four kids and not being able to have a nicely decorated house.)

    I think the Starbucks guy knows cheap labor is not or soon will not be an issue in manufacturing pottery much of which is already stamped or extruded.          Very few people are needed to mind the machines and with the growing sophistication of robotics and 3D printers (very fancy extruders) soon even fewer will be required.  What he was likely buying was the brand and raw material contacts.

    I still shake my head when buying white socks (house shoes) at discount stores.  All I have bought in the last decade were machine knitted in Pakistan, shipped all the way here and still sold for 50 cents or less a pair -- and that includes at least one other middleman.  I don't worry about buying from sweat shops because no amount of hand labor could produce that many socks for that price anywhere on earth.  My question is why are the knitting machines in Pakistan and not in some of our poorer, sparsely populated rural areas?  Not that I am against trade per se, just saying.



    Yeah the Starbucks move looks to me to definitely be large part marketing ploy to give themselves a less evil world-devouring monster corporation reputation. After all, as the Times' article points out, this is not major job creation: has kept four people employed and created eight more jobs here, and money from the sale of the mugs and other Indivisible merchandise will go to support Starbucks’s Create Jobs for USA Fund, which helps small businesses. “You have to start somewhere,” Mr. Honighausen said, Matter of fact, the fact that the Times article came out the same time as the NPR piece suggests the work of a PR agent.

    I don't want to be too cynical about it, it's a happy story for American Mug, and I take the comment on this thread from someone presenting as related to them as being sincerely and honestly just looking for more lucky buzz, and not a PR person from Starbucks...

    On the machine pottery,I'd like to bring up that enough people around will always pay premium for hand craftsmanship or high quality for certain items, it's just that everyone has gotten to expect they should be able to chose where to apply that premium and not be forced to apply it to everything they buy or use. (I'm pretty damn happy with the discount store drapes and IKEA type furniture with nice design, others may want to blow a substantial part of their income on custom hand-sewn Scalamandre silk drapes, or an Amish Hills hand-crafted oak dining table.)

    The issue brought up is: do people really really want a big part of our next generation to go back to assembly-line work making tires and white tube socks? Wouldn't you prefer your children, if they are working with their hands, be  a carpenter, plumber, or glazer of custom handmade pottery?

    The collectibility of Homer Laughlin and Fiesta Ware and the like is interesting and ironic precisely because originally they were the most inexpensive and the most "factory made" rather than having a lot of craftsmanship involved, with as much automation as possible for the time   It is not craft we are talking about here, it was the "cheap stuff" of "fun design" for the time period, it's about the design, not the craftsmanship. It stood out then for the unusual design, not the craftsmanship, and those designs are still appealing. It had the same appeal that the cheap Asian stuff does now, use and discard when you get tired of it if you had enough money to do that at American-made prices.

    The issue brought up is: do people really really want a big part of our next generation to go back to assembly-line work making tires and white tube socks? 

    That is exactly the impression I get whenever a labor issue comes up around here, at least for those of our next generation who fail to indebt themselves buying a soon-to-be-useless credential from soon-to-be-defunct college/university.

    Wouldn't you prefer your children, if they are working with their hands, be  a carpenter, plumber, or glazer of custom handmade pottery?

    While these are socially-valuable skills that I think everyone should acquire to a certain degree, I really would prefer that they not become areas of acute economic competition.  That would just give rise to more as well as more powerful trade unions (guilds) which have historically impeded the spread of knowledge and skills to the general population.

    My suggestion to bring manufacturing back is motivated more by the idea that to maintain our economic independence as a country, we should at least be able to make things ourselves, whether by hand or by machine.  

    I remember reading after 911 and pre-Iraq that there were essential parts used by our electric utilities as well as by our military that we did not have the capability to make ourselves at that point in time.  This struck me as extremely unwise.

    Now I know socks and dinnerware are not what most would think of as essential goods but they do make life more pleasant and that should count for something when deciding whether or not to let go of both the knowledge and the supply line of raw materials needed to make them.

    Thanks for the opportunity to articulate some of my economic thoughts.  Usually they just spin around in my head going nowhere. :-D


    AA, that American-made "cheap stuff" might have been about the design at the time, but the craftsmanship is what keeps it popular among vintage buyers.  Many of those early Ohio factories had patents on processes that made their wares more durable for every day use.  I have vitreous pieces that are more than 50 years old that don't have a scratch on them, even after years of use.

    Most of American production pottery wasn't cheap.  Cheap goods came from the dime store and were made in Japan.  Department store china was usually made here and commanded prices that took a chunk out of most paychecks.  Top ceramic designers like Rockwell Kent and Richard Wright had their names on quality pottery and it sold in high end stores, along with English and German china.

    We've lost any claim to fame when it comes to design and manufacturing, and it has hurt us all.  Nothing wrong with shopping at Ikea or Target or even Walmart if you choose, but I think it's reason to celebrate when any sign of a return to American-made goods comes along.

    It would be wonderful if millions of workers could get jobs as skilled craftsmen, but that won't happen.  On the other hand, there are millions of people who would be happy to be working at assembling goods made here, as long as working conditions were acceptable and wages were  adequate. 

    It's pathetic that we're reduced to celebrating such a small victory as happened in East Liverpool, but there it is.  I'm going to celebrate it and hope for many, many more.

    The relationships between craftsmanship, patents, concept, design, original cost and so forth are always a mystery to me. Somehow, most of them have to hit all at the same time to gain my interest, especially if I'm outside my field, which is books. A couple of years ago I bought a white enamel top, with black enamel trim, kitchen table and four chairs. It simply reeked of the thirties and early forties. I researched the company and found out that the company, in Pennsylvania, had patents and sold millions of these. But I've only seen one in this mint condition. I'm not sure of the original cost, but the thing is that they were not durable. If I leaned back on one of these chairs, it would crumble beneath me. So the result is that a set of tables and chairs is scarce. But mostly I like the lines, the utter simplicity of them, with an art deco motif.  I found out the company's plant had become a super fund site---it seems the company's process was also highly toxic. So I hope environmental concerns will play a role in re-starts.  

    Oxy, this is weird, but I think I had that same art deco enamel-top set!  The retractable leaves came out at both ends instead of the sides and the chairs were white wood, rather plain except for a black geometric line design on the backs, with solid wood seats.  They were damaged in a basement flood that involved sewage and had to be thrown out.  Sad.

    AA, interesting take on this, and I do appreciate your expertise.   I agree that the cost and availability of products from China and elsewhere have done much to turn us into a throw away society, and that's a shame.   But in the case of the Starbucks mugs, when they're charging $10 and up per mug they're making a profit, no matter where the product comes from.

      Buying from China doesn't guarantee low prices.  Every high end store in the country buys foreign goods low to sell high to Americans.  You can buy $200 a place-setting china that came from the same Chinese factory as a $20 place-setting.  There's no real advantage to the consumer to buy Chinese high end products, and every moral reason not to.

    Just FYI, the NYT covered the East Liverpool/American Mug/Starbucks story a month back, same date as the NPR story; I remember it because they put it on the front page of the business section with a big photo; there is slideshow with the online version:


    AA, thanks for the NYT piece.  Didn't see it earlier, so I'll add it to my blog post with a H/T.  Interesting reading.


    Hand thrown pottery was a major big deal in the 1970s and 80s but the demand for it just collapsed. Nobody wanted it any more. The fad had run it's course.

    I know, my brother used to do it and some family friends did it. End a psychology prof at the local university had a business for a while.

    Yes, it was, and some of it was beautiful, but most of it was heavy and awkward to use as dinner services.  They took up a lot of room in cupboards, too.  But the decorative pieces were and are wonderful, so once the parents' kids have grown they'll be buying up that stuff because they grew up with it and it reminds them of a time gone by. 

    Nostalgia rules.

    Oh yes a lot of it was big and heavy but quite was functional as well as beautiful.

    Fortunately a lot of the big heavy pieces did not make it past the kiln and a lot of kilns did not make it past the pottery, smiley

    What wonderful treasures, Ramona, thanks for the exhibition. I see we have the collecting gene in common.

    Oxy, nothing I collect is expensive, mainly because I've never been able to afford expensive, but I love digging around in dusty shops for treasures.  I've been a vintage dealer for more than 20 years and while my tastes have changed over time, they still tend to lean toward folk and factory art rather than fine art. 

    Some of what I've collected (and sold) over the years has increased in value, and that's always fun, but I really just love antique and vintage anything much more than contemporary anything.

    Glad to know there's another one like me here!

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