Almost, thirty years ago, a package arrived postmarked from the Homer Laughlin Company, Newell, West Virginia quite unexpectedly. A few days before, we were at the International Housewares Exhibition in Chicago. It was a big deal, a really big deal. Now, as then, it was the biggest trade show in the country at one of the biggest exhibition halls in the world under one roof. McCormick Place, a modernist structure designed by Gene Simmons, a student of Mies van der Rohe, is located on Lake Michigan. Sited as it was, the rebuilt McCormick place celebrated space perched on the coast with an unending vista of water and sky – the building occupies acres of land yet does not obstruct the view like a skyscraper while the interior remains open. Stepping into that place was a tad intimidating for a fledgling very small business owner but, how else to know what is happening?
One of the hundreds of exhibitors was The Homer Laughlin Company represented by a Mr. Wells. He was very generous with his time; he welcomed us into the booth heartily. As we spoke, the conversation turned to patterns. The new line of colorful Fiesta Ware was popular, but I gravitated toward a pure white plate with a deep rim, scalloped edge and classic ornamentation. It was very modern looking – but not. The plate was a part of the Best China Line i.e.. Restaurant Ware.
He asked, “Why would you want this plate?” Later informing me that he could not sell this plate to a retail outlet unless we could order large quantities. His warmth and kindliness made the bad news sound not so bad. Three days later, the plate arrived.
For many years, this plate was part of the lore of our family. . . the story was, “a manager from Homer Laughlin sent this plate.” The plate packed a powerful message; generosity and kindness. This story remains one of the most important business lessons that I have learned. Over the years, the pleasant memory inspired a collection of white restaurant ware. It has been a sentimental journey from that memorable beginning.
Years later, I learned that the history of the Homer Laughlin Company was integral to understanding the history of Ohio River Pottery. As it turned out, Mr. Wells was not merely a manager or salesperson. His family owned and operated the Homer Laughlin Company. The Wells family led an expansion of the pottery. By the end of the nineteenth century, five kilns produced white ware instead of the much maligned yellow ware produced throughout the nineteenth century.
Laced thought out early accounts of the Pottery Industry, there are comments made by workers, observers and reporters. Most commentators noticed the mutual respect that owners shared with workers – mutual respect become one of the core values for the Homer Laughlin Company and the other potteries in East Liverpool. So, it was no accident that Mr. Wells sent the plate that he could sell.