The ink was barely dry on his master’s thesis when John Gilkes accepted the position of Lead Designer for the Taylor, Smith Taylor Pottery. Gilkes, under the tutelage of Arthur E. Baggs, the renown potter and professor of ceramics at Ohio State University, researched production techniques for new dinnerware shapes. Innovation was paramount to the potteries that had enjoyed success along the banks of the Ohio River. Especially in light of the heightened competition from the Asian marketplaces and the new attraction of plastics to homemakers.
Warwick China Company enjoyed a long history – over sixty years producing decorative pieces, fine dinnerware and finally, vitrified china. According to their catalog ca. 1940s, they produced “Vitrified China for Hotels, Clubs, Restaurants, Institutions, Steamships, Railroads, and Hospitals.” No doubt, their entry into china production for commercial accounts was one way in which the Warwick China Company hoped to keep the kilns firing and so many residents of Wheeling employed. After all, Wheeling was one of the great manufacturing centers in the nineteenth century. Sadly, this manufacturer closed in doors in 1951.
Warwick had produced some of the most beautiful china – highly decorated and complex pieces. They were one of the few American potteries to attempt the manufacture of flow blue. Their expertise was well known in the pottery world. Wheeling of course possessed all of the natural assets necessary to produce, market and ship wares. The chamber of commerce of Wheeling announced that Wheeling was at the crossroads for manufacturing and shipping. Most American pottery was manufactured in the Ohio Valley along the mighty Ohio River. And as a consequence, Wheeling certainly played an important part in the history of Ohio River Pottery.
The dinnerware designed by Russel Wright is included in the rather broad [and vague] category, Mid Century Modern. Russel Wright designed the new line of American Modern Dinnerware in the 1930s. His designs were, in part, a reaction to the formality of the late Victorian dinner table. Many courses served with service changes that required “help” in the kitchen. A way of living, that was certainly at odds in the 1930s when many could no longer afford imported fancy serve ware or a household staff to serve. His stated intent was to bring design to everyone – American Modern would become the best selling dinnerware in American history.
His design took another turn; the post modernist turn. He looked to the form and function of each piece, first, and then applied glazes that reflected the natural world. You might even say, he used organic shapes and colors that soothed a generation in an era of unsettling news – economic downturns, political unease and total war on a global scale. As much as his design fascinates, his later avocation to restore land that included abandoned quarries near the Hudson River inspires me. I plan to visit . .
The first piece of Russel Wright that I found was in a box in an abandoned trailer. Although I didn’t know who made the piece, I was captivated by the color and shape. I soon discovered the pitcher was manufactured by Iroquois China and designed by Russel Wright. The pitcher is definitive of Wright’s design – curves that do not end. There are no hard edges. Truly wonderful to hold and behold. And the color . . . drawn from the forest at sunset.
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.
I am not sure how it happened. It all started in Missouri almost forty years ago . . . going to auctions and finding beautiful linens . . . looking for linens that were not polyester . . . finding vintage linens so soft, so detailed . . . handmade by women who cared about the little things in life. It is not that they were not busy – wash dishes, wash clothing, make dinner without machines. Taking tatting thread and a hook and weaving lace trim for a hand towel; taking a needle and embroidering a name. Small details. Setting a table with a tablecloth or setting the table for lunch in the field or at the table with a luncheon cloth made with colorful mid-century prints. Those were different times and days. . .
I would cringe at the idea of paper napkins or even paper towels at the table. Not because of any reasons other than, my admiration for the women that took the time to set a table, iron linen and even sew and embellish table linens and bed linens; and my preference for soft linen around a child’s shoulders at dinner time or in my hand. This apron was found in a trunk that was filled with the presents presented to a teacher over many years in our small rural community. The fabric is elegant, much like the cotton used for shirt making when shirts were made by shirt makers!
My preference for linen napkins is to use them without ironing – they are so soft and luxurious! Vintage fabric is durable if cared for properly. In my opinion, it is best to wash but not starch especially when stored; lightly starch for use if you choose; never store unless washed since the tiniest bit of an edible will attract nasty little critters (bugs/mice). If storing for a long time, it is best to wrap them. Recently, I found a few old nightgowns but one of them was covered with dust from an attic. I very carefully hand-washed the gown. The fabric was so deteriorated that it shredded in my hand. So sad. The lace used however is stable and so beautiful – it is perfect for a project! Just as they did so long ago, we have now adopted the habit of recycling, reusing and up cycling these fragments of the past . . . not only as patchwork quilts but in so many ways.
I carried my new finds home. For many years, there were boxes of linens and no one seemed to want them not even my children! The collection soon outgrew the linen closet, chests of drawers and the dining room. Now, I have the pleasure of passing my finds on! And now, my children, older and wiser, appreciate my collection! Thankfully, many collectors now realize their value especially as those days become a more distant past.
Hopefully, they will once again be well loved and passed on . . .