East Liverpool Historical Society

The Pottery Industry by Joan Witt (for book).

The Pottery Industry had its beginnings in East Liverpool in 1839 when James Bennett formerly from England came to this area and determined that the local clay and water supply would be good for making pottery. There was plenty of spa e for him to start a plant; the river provided a good system for transporting goods, and there were willing work men available here. Before the potteries began there was little industry in the area. In fact there were very few families.

Bennett was able to produce his first ware in 1840. He sent for his brothers who were also potters to come and help him. Markets for table ware were expanding as people moved along the Ohio River and into the western areas of the country.

The first plant was two stories of 20 x 40 feet of hewn timbers and covered with clapboard. The roof was of oak shingles. Within a year after Bennett opened his pottery at 2nd and Jefferson Streets, Benjamin Harker also opened a plant on the River road. The Harker Company continued in business from 1840 until 1973 making it one of the oldest continuing businesses run by the same family in the country.

At this time conditions in England were not good and many men in the pottery industry were anxious to come to America. Soon after the Bennett started to work, other were invited to join them. Then as more workmen were needed, families here wrote to others in England and told them of the possibilities for work. By 1850 six potteries were in town with 153 employees. There were about 800 residents in the community at that time.

By the mid 1850's several companies had started in business. Most of the potteries were located close to the river---- some along First Street and many along the River Road. Each spring there was the possibility of floods and rebuilding and repairs were always needed.

The early potteries at first used clay from deposits along the River Road and from Bank Street. There were also deposits of clay in the East End.

The typical early pottery was a cottage industry" employing 3 or 4 workers with only one kiln. Sometimes the owner took time off to travel and sell his wares,. sometimes they were able to sell to the riverboatmen who took the ware down the river and sold it.

The industry expanded rapidly with 11 potteries and 387 workers in 1853. Jabez Vodrey, a potter from England who arrived in 1847 wrote in his diary in 1849 that hardly a week goes by that another new potter does not come to town."

The early ware that was produced was yellow ware" which is bluff in color or "rockinham" which is a dark brown shade. The ware was very heavy and thick by the standards of today. William Bloor, a potter from England was the first to produce "Whitewear" in 1861 but conditions were such that he was not able go continue that production.

By 1657 train transportation helped greatly in getting the pottery to other markets in the country, so the industry further expanded. This was from the first, a "one industry town" with most of the inhabitants originally from England. During the Civil War many of the men went off to the war and the industry changed. There were some women working in the plants as well as young boys and older men. Some of the plants closed entirely. In 1867 Harker Brothers had the largest plant with 60 workers. Also at this time the potteries were making many other items out of ceramics including door knobs, buttons, was boards and even marbles.

Support industries also began here with barrels needed for shipping ware. Clay was transported in from other localities. Bricks were needed for the new kilns being built. New home were needed for the incoming families.

IN 1873 East Liverpool raised a bonus of $5,000.00 by subscription as an inducement for a company to build a four kiln plant. The Laughlin brothers, Homer and Shakespear, began a four kiln plant in September and it was in production the next fall. With the development of so many different potteries, the companies followed the English idea of marking the ware to identify the different potteries. The first marks were similar to the English ones; but in 1877 Homer Laughlin was the first to introduce an American mark of the Eagle over the English Lion.

The period of time from 1880 through the 1890's was one of the greatest periods of expansion in the community. By now the plants had grown. bigger and more complex,; gas was used for the firings instead of wood burning fires. Since the floods had used so many problems with the plants near the river, the potters looked for land away from the river. The industry expanded to 4th, 5th, and 6th Streets and along Broadway and Walnut even beyond Sixth Street.. One plant started in California Hollow, (Outer Dresden Avenue).

Some realized that there was not much level land left for expansion. Several plants opened in the East End. The Laughlin Company bought land across the river and the town of Newell was developed to serve the plant. Some plants moved to the area of Chester West Virginia. Thus the need for the Chester and Newell bridges. In 1887 there were 21 general ware potteries with 2,558 employees Knowles, Taylor and Knowles by then was the largest pottery in the country!

Up until the 20th century the potteries enjoyed a time when there were high protective tariffs placed against ceramic products coming into the country. The city supported the Republican Presidential candidates as they were the ones who supported the high tariffs. President McKinley was a particularly good friend of many of the pottery owners. He and his wife often visited the town.

By the turn of the century 90% of the wage earners in the community worked in the potteries and related industries. Few boys ever graduated from high school as they left at the end of eighth grade to work in the potteries. Often a father would be hired and since he was paid for each piece completed he would have his family work beside him. There. were laws compelling the students to attend school but they were hard to enforce.

Until 1915 there had been no concerted effort to make the potteries clean or healthy places to work. At the U. S. Potters Convention a resolution was passed that all potteries were to wash down all walls to keep the dust down." many illnesses could be traced to the dust and other working conditions in the potteries.

By 1923 there were 17 firms with 270 kilns and about 7000 employees in the East Liverpool area. Innovative ways of distribution table ware came in being. Now the ware was available from catalogs; there were wholesale distributors and premiums and even give ways. Pottery started to show up in cereal boxes and with other household items.

In the 1930's the depression and the foreign competition placed a great hardship on the industry. Through the years many plants deteriorated and moderation had not taken place. As the potteries grew in size, the needed much more expansion and expensive equipment. many of the plants could not survive. Many plants closed and some had merged with other into co-operative ventures. In the late 1930's there were still between 7,000 and 8,000 employed in the industry. In 19939 3,99 worked for homer Laughlin Company. There was reserve of activity in the 1940's as the war effort needed equipment for the military and of course imports were not getting into the country.

Since the 1950's the few remaining plants are finding new ways of producing ware and are finding new items to make from ceramics. The plants are much larger now and are more automotive so that fewer persons are employed. Yet the total production is still very high. There are still about 1000 workers now remaining in the plants.


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