Ohio River Pottery: Black and White Restaurant China

Call it what you will . . . Retro Diner, Restaurant China or Restaurant Ware. To my eye, these plates look fresh and modern. Black is back but did it ever fade away?

The scalloped edge brings a cottage in the country feel. The bold black thick border looks clean and contemporary. Add to a collection or start a collection with these pieces. They will be with you a long, long time.

Adding a few photographs so that you can see them all together and on their own.

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Hard to choose a favorite when I favor them all . . .

 

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Shenango China Plate, Black Arrows and Circles on White

The Gift: The Story of The Homer Laughlin Plate

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?

Deep Rim and Classic Detailing of The Homer Laughlin Plate
Deep Rim and Classic Detailing of The Homer Laughlin Plate

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.

Best China by Homer Laughlin is Restaurant Ware
Best China by Homer Laughlin is 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.

The Gift: The Plate from The Homer Laughlin Company (ca. 1985)
The Gift: The Plate from The Homer Laughlin Company (ca. 1985)

 

Pottery made in the Ohio Valley

I like restaurant china because it is built to last and tough to break in everyday use. Hitting it with a hammer will break it. But it is tough and durable. But I did not know anything about the history much less the economy of the along the broad swath of the Ohio River. For example, East Liverpool, Ohio was crowned as the Center of Pottery. I did not even know there was a place called East Liverpool!

The first pottery in Ohio was established in the mid-eighteenth century according to The Museum of Ceramics in East Liverpool, Ohio. Fifty years later there were thousands of potteries – large and small supplying the country with wares for their homes. You have certainly used Ohio River Pottery in a restaurant – eg. Hall, Laughlin, Syracuse – many believe that the best restaurant dinnerware is still made along the Ohio River!

Locally, it was bricks. In 1920, the Brick and Clay Record informed their readers that production at the two plants in Nelsonville and the one plant in Logan were busy fulfilling orders placed from the previous year. Bricks made in Nelsonville won accolades at the World’s Fair and what is more, are highly regarded to this day.  But still   many believed that the best ceramics were produced in Europe.

Local potteries fought to win the American market. This backstamp from Homer Laughlin illustrated their business plan – the American Eagle has launched an attack on the English Lion.

Homer Laughlin Backstamp
Homer Laughlin Backstamp

Patterns from all of these potteries abound. The colors and images reflect the taste and style of previous generations – and sometimes politics. The durability of “restaurant china” is truly amazing – you can almost throw it. And it all looks great no matter the pattern or the mix.