State of Labor and Condition of White Ware Porcelain Industry in Ohio

[Trade Journal]

Publication: Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Columbus, OH, United States
p. 25-35; 38-41, col. 1



While the general principles governing the manufacture of pottery are well known, and the ingredients entering into all grades of ware are much the same, every operator has his own peculiar processes and trade secrets, which have been learned through long, and often costly, series of experiments. These he guards jealously, as it is through their agency that be hopes to give distinctiveness and special value to his product. A fixed state is seldom reached as regards the character of output. The possibilities which lie in some new discovery that will add beauty or cheapen the cost of production stimulate to constant experimenting. The susceptibility of pottery to the slightest departure from proved processes and the oftentimes surprising results, either for good or ill, that follow any innovation, make it an exacting and fascinating industry.

A modern pottery plant is an affair of considerable proportions. The chief feature is a large brick building of from two to four stories in height, through the roof of which protrudes massive, conical-shaped chimneys. These are in reality the tops of the great kilns within, and proclaim to the eye the character as well as the magnitude of the business carried on, as the size of a pottery is always designated by the number of kilns. In the construction of buildings regard must be paid to light, as much of the work is of a delicate nature. A pottery is divided into many rooms or compartments, most of which are veritable hives of industry. The operatives are composed of men, women and children, who perform their duties with the swift and dexterous movements which are developed by the "piece" paid system. In the absence of whirring and clanking machinery, characteristic of most large factories, there is a continuous clatter, as the work of handling the ware through all the various stages of making, goes on. Instead of soot and grime, the interior of a pottery bears a white, cheerful appearance, by reason of the fine white clay which drifts over everything.

A description of the workings of a pottery begins with the clay bins, which occupy a portion of the ground floor or basement, and which are filled with many tons of different kinds of materials. The clay is shoveled from the bins into what is known as the charging scales, a combination of truck and weighing apparatus, which is set so that when the required amount of each ingredient has been placed in it the scales will balance. Thus the workmen, if it is so desired, may be kept in ignorance of the quantities of the various materials composing the formula. The dry clay is then mixed with water in a machine called a plunger. Reduced to a thin consistency, the clay flows from the latter and passes through a fine silk sieve, which removes all grit and sand. It is brought to a solid state again by being pumped into a hydrostatic press, which forces the clay through canvas cloth and drains the water from it. The mass, which is removed from the press in great damp cakes, next goes through a pug mill, which thoroughly unifies the different elements and reduces the whole to a plastic state ready for the hands of the potter. Clay may be stored away in vaults and kept ready for use for an indefinite period, if a proper condition of moisture is maintained. In fact, it is better for being kept in this way, as age gives it temper. It is stated that the Chinese, who for centuries held the secret of porcelain manufacture, bury the clay after it has been prepared and allow it to remain in the earth for years, one generation using the clay mixed by that which preceded it, and in return providing for the one which is to follow. The present process of preparing clay is of comparatively recent origin. That used by the early potters is described as follows : The crude material was simply thrown into a tank or pit and manipulated with a spade or paddle, then taken out in large lumps and cut through and through with a fine wire stretched between the two hands of the workman, the pebbles and other foreign substances being picked out as the work progressed."

Among the oldest mechanical contrivances in existence, if not itself the most ancient, is the potter's wheel. Its use dates back to the earliest times of which there is record. With doubtless but slight modifications from the original, the same appliance is still used. The process known a throwing" is a very familiar one. The workman takes a lump of clay and places it upon a rapidly revolving disk, where by pressure of the hands he causes it to assume any form desired. This process, however, is employed now only in a limited degree, others having largely taken its place.

Ware of a uniform roundness is made by a machine called a jigger. The required quantity of clay for making a vessel is thrown into a revolving mould, and a perpendicular tool, known as a former, is brought by the operator down into the mould, which uniformly distributes the clay about the walls of the same, thus fashioning the utensil. Flat ware such as plates and saucers, is made on a machine known as a jolly, a contrivance somewhat similar to the one above described. A flattened piece of clay is thrown on top of a plaster paris mould which has the form of an inverted plate, or whatever the article may be. The mould is placed upon a revolving disk and the back of the dish is fashioned by pressure with a email tool in the hands of the workman. In this process, which is called pressing, a separate mould is required for each dish. In making pitchers and other irregularly shaped articles, the clay is pressed into half-moulds which are then placed together to form the perfect utensil. Handles, knobs and spouts are made separately and by the aid of liquid clay are fastened onto the ware while it is still in a green state. Articles of a very complex shape are sometimes made in a number of pieces and put together in the manner described. Delicate ware, such as thin china, is made after a process described as follows: "The process of casting consists in filling a hollow mould, which is divided into two parts and held together by a strap, with liquid clay or slip, which is allowed to stand the proper length of time and then emptied out. The porous plaster, having absorbed a portion of the moisture from the slip which is in direct contact retains a thin shell the exact shape of the mould, which in a short time can be readily removed. By the method of casting, mould seams are partially avoided and a greater uniformity of thickness and evenness of surface obtained."

Ware made by all of the processes described is subjected to a drying process, being bourne off from the workmen by boys as rapidly as fashioned, and placed on shelves where it will have the action of the heat and air. In a short time it may be safely taken from the moulds. Any rough edges are removed and the ware is then ready for the first firing. Cups are usually first placed upon a machine and shaved to a certain standard of form. This work, called turning, forms a distinct occupation among pottery employes.

A pottery is equipped with three sets of kilns, known respectively as biscuit, gloss and decorating. There is no essential difference between the first two, both being conical in shape, built of common brick and lined with fire brick, the construction being such as to insure a good draft and an equal distribution of heat. The floor of a kiln is several feet from the ground, to allow room for the fires underneath. The space available for ware, from the floor to the neck of the kiln, where the walls begin to taper, is sixteen feet in height and an equal number in diameter. Ware in the green state, after it is sufficiently dry, passes to the hands of a set of operatives called kilnmen. Boxes or cases made of fire-clay, oval or round in shape, are filled with the various articles, the bottoms of the cases being sprinkled with white sand. These cases, which are known as saggers, are not unlike hat boxes in size and shape. They are borne into the kilns, and one placed on top of each other, until the column or bung reaches the top of the kiln. The bottom of one sagger serves as a cover for the next, and strips of soft clay placed between, seal up the ware from direct contact with smoke or fire during the process of burning. The number of saggers composing a bung averages twenty-two, and the ordinary kiln will hold about seventy-nine bung, making in all 1,738 saggers. The workmen attain great skill at their duties. A sagger, with its fragile contents is placed upon the head and in this fashion carried into the kiln and up a ladder to the top of the bung, without being steadied by the hands. When a kiln is full the opening is bricked up. The fires are then lighted and maintained at a white heat for from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. When a sufficient time for cooling has elapsed the kiln is drawn.

The ware next goes to the "dippers," who immerse each piece separately in a huge tub of glaze. This solution, which is of the consistency of cream, is composed of clay, spahr, flint and various chemicals. The glaze adhering to the ware as it comes from the tub rapidly congeals, and is carried off on boards to an apartment adjoining the gloss kilns. Here it is taken in hand by another set of kilnmen, who again place it in saggers. Greater care here has to be taken than in the first instance. The pieces must not touch each other, and to prevent this, small pieces of fire clay, called stilts and pins, brought to a sharp edge or point to make the contact with the ware as small as possible, separate the different articles. The process of firing is practically the same as in the case of the biscuit ware. The fusing of the glaze gives the beautiful white, porcelain effect which is common to the product of all potteries of the class under consideration. If intended to be sold as plain goods it is ready for the packing room, when taken from the gloss kilns, after being sorted and stamped with the manufacturers' mark.

The next important feature of a pottery is the decorating department. A new style of ornamentation originates with the designer, who executes his work in the form of a drawing, after which it is engraved upon copper plates, a delicate and painstaking task. A specially prepared, thick mineral ink is applied to the plate, the lace of which is afterward cleaned, leaving the lines of the design still filled with the color. A sheet of tough tissue paper, dampened with a clay solution is placed upon the plate and an impression taken on a press. The paper with the design thus printed upon it is cut up into pieces, and the different figures composing the decoration applied to the ware, being rubbed on firmly with a piece of soaped flannel. After being allowed to stand for a short time, the paper is removed, leaving the design transferred to the ware. The figures may be afterward touched up with different colors, by means of a small hair brush. The latter process is very simple and adds greatly to the appearance of the decoration. This is likewise true ol gold ornamenting. A brush is dipped into the liquid metal and held against the dish, which site upon a movable wooden disk. By a turn of the latter a golden band or line is in a twinkling made to encircle the article. A small sponge dipped in the liquid and then touched against the ware gives the peculiar mottled effect which is so widely used. The colors are set by the ware being placed upon iron shelves in large ovens or kilns and subjected to a moderate degree of heat. The process described is the ordinary method of decorating. Some grades of ware, usually the finest, are ornamented under the glaze, the colors being applied to the biscuit. Decorations, either under or overglaze, are often applied by hand, instead of being printed, alter the manner just described. The body of ware may be given color or tint by applying dry oxides to the surface, either in the biscuit or glazed state, or by mixing coloring matter with the glaze. In some lines of art goods the clays are tinted before being made up into ware.

Incident to the manufacture of pottery, but not directly a part of the process of making, are several other departments. Before a piece of ware can be cast or pressed, there must be a pattern or mould, and back of this must be the original object itself, a material expression of some one's imagination. The start is, therefore, made with the modeller, who with infinite pains fashions and refashions the plastic clay into preconceived forms of beauty and utility. Very few potteries originate enough new designs to employ a modeller continuously, but in a potting community a small number of men of this profession may realize a lucrative income. A modeller is necessarily a true artist, and he stands at the head of the pottery occupations. The placing upon the market by a manufacturer of a new style of dinner set, or a twelve-piece toilet set involves a large outlay, as each article represents the skill of the sculptor. The mold- maker is an indispensable workman to every pottery. He takes from the model a plaster paris cast, called a block, and a replica in plaster, known as a case, is made from the block. Working models as many as desired are then taken from the case.

Owing to breakage, the supply of saggers, or clay boxes into which the ware is placed for burning, has to be continually replenished. All large potteries make their own saggers from a composition of fire clay and broken saggers which have been coarsely ground. Sagger-making forma a distinct branch of the pottery occupations. Added to those already mentioned are warehousemen, odd men and others, which may be found enumerated elsewhere in the tables.




A standard scale governing the various groups of operatives in white ware potteries is in force throughout the United States. This is generally lived up to by both manufacturers and employes. The first regular scale was adopted in 1809, and was made to include both white and yellow ware, the latter being at the time the only class of ware made in the present Ohio potting district. The schedule remained in force until 1877 when a new one was adopted. No further change except a decrease in the wages of kilnmen, took place until 1886, when a general reduction of 8 per cent. was asked by the employers and accepted by the operatives. The scale now in force, adopted in July, 1884, is a 12 per cent. reduction from that of 1886. The circumstances surrounding its enforcement have been previously explained. These various schedules, which cover a large number of articles, with variations of sizes, would not be intelligible to the reader, and are therefore not reproduced. Nearly all work is performed by the piece, the scale specifying price per dozen and per single article. This nte is net to the journeyman, minus the pay of his assistant and the throwing out of imperfect pieces. An apprentice receives the same scale, less 10 or 26, or perhaps even a greater per cent., according to the arrangements under which he may be working. The latter are supposed to be governed by the length of time he has been at the business, but according to the statements of the operatives there are many abuses of this apprentice system. It is claimed that some are never advanced beyond this stage, although they may become good workmen. Instances were also cited where regular journeymen in slack times were induced to go to work under an agreement to have a per cent. taken off their earnings. This complaint which is really an assertion that employers do not keep good faith with their operatives in living up to the scale, is undoubtedly justly made, as regards some manufacturers.

While an attempt is made to regulate the hours of labor, on the part of the operatives' organization, great freedom of action exists in this respect. Some of the men go to work as early as 4 o'clock in the morning, doing a vast amount of work for a certain season and then recuperating by a period of idleness. In making plates, saucers and similar ware, a man will make upwards of 200 dozen pieces in a good day's work. Workmen who have assistants employ the same and pay them a portion of their own earnings. The figures given in the tables which follow, showing daily and yearly earnings are net to the workmen, and do not include the assistant's wages. The recent depression in business, together with the labor troubles, stimulated organization among both employers and employes. Those of the former have been heretofore referred to, and cover every branch of the business. As regards the latter, the head quarters of the National Potters' Union are located at East Liverpool, Mr. Albert Hughes, the President of the organization, who resides there, demoting hie entire time to the furtherance of the onion's influence and growth.




East Liverpool is the only community in the United States whose energies are wholly given up to the manufacture of pottery. Even anti- dating the beginning of the industry which has since made it so well known, it appears to have been an English settlement. From the opening of the Bennett pottery, in 1839, to the beginning of white ware manufacture, in 1872, it had become a town of 2,600 inhabitants, nearly all of whom were pottery operatives who had emigrated from England. The present population is placed at 16,000. The potteries still remain the one fact in the existence of the whole community. A large majority of the population are English, either by birth, or by direct descent, although in recent years the ranks of operatives have received considerable addition* from Americans.

In many respects East Liverpool is an unique city. It is located in the extreme eastern part of the state, in Columbiana county, on a narrow slope, that lies between the Ohio river and the bordering hills. Although an important shipping point it has but one railroad. The singleness of pursuit, taken in connection with the rather isolated position of the place, gives a simplicity to life which it would be difficult to find elsewhere. In some respects the social conditions are ideal. There are no extremes of poverty and wealth, such as exist in most communities. Employment is furnished by the potteries to both sexes of almost every age, all the year round. This, of course, applies to the normal condition of things. Sometimes husband and wife and their offspring are all wage-earners, and in nearly every case families have more than one of its members contributing to the common livelihood.

The manufacturers, though almost, universally prosperous, are not wealthy in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Perhaps from $200,000 to $300,000 would mark the limit of any individual possession. Even each wealth as exists is singularly unostentatious. The business is mostly in the hands of the original founders or their sons, all of whom are hard working men, having reached success through close application to their interests. All money invested in the industry is home capital, and the great plants represent accumulations that have grown out of humble beginnings. A very successful pottery owes its start to the late strike, when some thirty-five skilled workmen were able to produce as savings from their earnings an average of $1,000 each, with which to establish a co-operative concern. All the stock is still in the hands of the founders.

The general morality of the community is exceptionally good. In church-going and Sunday observance it is almost puritanical. The association of the sexes in the potteries is amicable and morally healthy. Social conditions are not warped by an unequal proportion of young men and women, as is the case with some great factory towns. Early marriages are the rule, and every girl has a reasonable prospect, if she so desires, of substituting a domestic career for that of the wage-earner, or even of combining the two. The appearance and deportment of the pottery employee, male and female, whether at work or in their leisure hours, are that of a prosperous, contented and intelligent class of people. It would be difficult to find better dressed, more polite or more prepossessing wage-earners anywhere. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this rule, but the average is so high as to be striking.

One feature of the system of operating which is open to criticism is the employment of very young girls and boys. This abuse exists chiefly in the two insulator and door knob potteries. In one department, where various articles are shaped up on lathes, numbers of mere children work in rooms filled with dust which comes from the machines. Added to evils of child labor under the most favorable circumstances, the constant inhaling of the powdered clay cannot fail to be injurious. The dust, which sifts over the hair and features of the youthful operatives, gives a suggestive ghastliness to the face, and intensifies the natural repugnance against seeing children so early turned to mercenary account. It is believed, too, that the forced association of boys and girls of such a tender age in the workshop is not conducive to the best of moral development. Some of the work performed by young women in the regular potteries, such as helpers to jiggermen and dippers, seems more suited to male labor, but in other departments the duties are pleasant and comparatively light. This is particularly true of the work assigned to girls in the decorating department, where taste and deftness form the chief qualifications.

The fact that East Liverpool ie a generally healthy city, proves that potting is ordinarily not injurious to the system. Operatives are in little danger from machinery, as the equipment of a pottery in that respect is meager. Two diseases are peculiar to the industry, the most common of which is known as the potters' asthma, sometimes called the potters' rot." This is caused by a constant inhaling of the dry clay, which gets into the blood, producing a clogged and unhealthy condition, and eventually causing death. This malady was more prevalent years ago in the English potting districts, where the sanitary conditions were poor. At that period the men worked in small, poorly ventilated apartments, and often slept in the potteries. The regulations in England now are more strict than in this country, with respect to caring for the health of operatives. The disease in question is said to be often caused by the carelessness of the workman, in allowing clay to accumulate about his place of working. It becomes dry and powdered, and the action of the feet upon it causes a constant dust to arise, which is taken into the lungs. A second disease is confined to dippers, and is called potters' paralysis. The glaze into which the ware is dipped contains certain chemicals, which have such an effect upon the workman, who is obliged to keep his hands in the solution, as to cause partial paralysis. It is, however, of only temporary duration, should the dipping be discontinued. Work in the flint mills, where small glass-like particles are inhaled, is said to cause consumption.

The English potter, as found at East Liverpool, is the victim of certain traditions of his craft, which seem peculiar. A bad system formerly prevailed across the water of working as many hours a day as nature would permit. After a period the workman would be compelled through sheer exhaustion, to lay off for some days, thus alternating extreme hard labor with complete idleness, instead of performing a reasonable amount of work each day. Although the hours in the potteries at East Liverpool are supposed to conform to the standard recognized in other occupations, many work after the manner just described. Some will go to the pottery as early as four o'clock in the morning, working several hours before breakfast, which they carry with them, should they live at any distance away. The day is made to count for as much as possible, only a few moments being spared for the customary lunch times, which, with the English workman, occurs, in addition to the regular meal hours, both in the middle of the forenoon and again in the afternoon. These customs are gradually dying out, however, as the workmen become Americanized. A manufacturer is authority for the statement that the American, when he learns the business, makes the best workman. He has no prejudices and utilizes the best ideas with which he comes in contact. According to the operator in question heredity is in some respects a positive drawback, as it tends to make a man unprogressive.

The native potter comes from Eastern Ohio, and usually belongs to a farming family, the older members of which have moved to East Liverpool to obtain unskilled positions in the potteries. Some few years ago there was quite an emigration from the poor agricultural regions along the river in Southeastern Ohio. It is estimated that about 2,000 in all settled in East Liverpool and found employment. At that time business was good and all were given work. A large per cent. of the operatives in the knob and insulator potteries are of this class, as very little skilled help is required in this line. For the purpose of a complete understanding of the peculiar phases of life in the great pottery center of Ohio, it has been necessary to make distinctions in nationality. It is not intended, however, to convey the impression that the workmen from across the water is not a good American citizen, for that would be an injustice. If any offensive clanishness exists it is not apparent upon the surface, nor does there appear to be any friction between the two classes named.

East Liverpool has twenty white ware potteries, which, when running full time, distribute weekly about $20,000 in wages to between 3,000 and 4,000 employes. With the industry again on a firm foundation, there seems to be no limit to which these figures might not grow, as in the judgment of many this is but the beginning of the great pottery interest which is to flourish here in the Ohio valley. As is stated elsewhere, no materials which enter into the manufacture of white ware are found in Ohio. The apparent disadvantage of this fact is lessened when it is known there is no locality in the country where all the necessary deposit could be obtained at hand, and that the district in question stands, with respect to location, as a sort of compromise. All this, however, is a secondary consideration. The chief element entering into a development of this character is not convenience to materials, but to what may be termed the stability of labor. This fact was tersely stated by a well- known authority on the subject in the remark that it was easier to bring the clay to the potter than to take the potter to the clay. Circumstances apparently trivial led to the planting of the industry in Eastern Ohio, but the soil proved fruitful, and within a very small area has become concentrated hereditary skill and conservatism, which free from contact with other manufacturing pursuits, has taken on a peculiar potency and fixedness. After giving life to a large per cent. of pottery interest throughout the country its vitality still remains the most intense of that of any locality in which the industry exists.



The advent of the electric light opened up a new field for the clay worker. The making of porcelain insulators began some twelve years ago, and is now a staple line of manufacture. It was found that a vitrified clay substance answered the purpose of insulation better than any other, and proved the greatest protection against fire from electric wires. This is now so widely recognized that insurance companies, granting permission to policy-holders to wire their buildings, specify that this class of goods shall be used. A large proportion of insulators consumed by electric companies is made at East Liverpool. The R. Thomas & Sons Company, of that city, were the first to engage in this line and have continued to hold the lead over all competitors.

The process which this company uses was originated by itself and is quite different from that employed in other branches of white goods. Steel dies are used in place of moulds, and the making of the same constitutes a regular department of the business, in which skilled machinists are utilized. The great variety of shapes, and the intricate character of many of the insulators make this a very expensive item. In the fire proof vaults of the company are stored away dies to the value of $10,000. The dies are placed in screw presses, operated by hand, and damp clay forced into them. The working of the press is a very simple operation and does not require skilled labor. The workman, however, attains great proficiency and turns out a large number of pieces for a day's work. As an illustration, one style of small insulators, by means of a plate of quadruplicate dies, is turned out by a single workman at the rate of 10,000 a day. The various articles as they come from the presses are ranged on boards and carried away to go through a drying process. When they reach a proper stage of hardness they are dressed up by means of lathes, the operatives in this department being quite young boys and girls, who work crowded together in an atmosphere filled with dust. The insulators are then dipped in glaze, and after being placed in saggers are burned in kilns, after the manner of table ware. The other insulator pottery at East Liverpool is operated by Brunt & Co., where about the same processes are used, but the concern is much smaller than the Thomas establishment. The goods are shipped to every leading country in the world. Insulators are made both in England and Germany, but neither the quality or the appearance is as good as the American. China clay is used for this line of goods. In addition to East Liverpool, porcelain insulators are made in Trenton, N. J., and also in Indiana. Some experiments in this line, as well as in every other branch of the potting business, have proved a failure. One of the largest electrical companies in the country went into the business for the purpose of furnishing their own supply. Alter losing 800,000 on the venture in a short space of time, it closed out to one of the companies at East Liverpool.

The two insulator potteries of Ohio had their beginning in another line of manufacture, which still forms an important feature of their business. All but a small per cent. of the doorknobs used in the United States are made at East Liverpool. The manufacture of these useful articles date back to an early period in the potting history. Formerly they were made of plastic clay in moulds, but now the same process as that utilized in the production of insulators is in vogue, both white and native clays being employed. In the case of the latter a dark brown or black knob is the result. The business is said to have originated with William Bloor, mentioned elsewhere as having attempted to start a china industry at East Liverpool in an early day. The scene of his operation is the present Brunt pottery, the Thomas Company not coming into the field until 1873. The combined capacity of the two potteries for this class of manufacture is something like 60,000 doorknobs per day. The knobs are dipped and fired, 76,000 going in a single kiln. Porcelain castors and other specialties are also made, but in more limited numbers. Doorknobs are exported only to Canada. The two potteries in question were not much affected by the panic or the strike. The majority of the work is performed by the day, kilnmen being an exception. A concern similar to the insulator department of the potteries just described has been started at Mogadore, near Akron, for the making of porcelain electrical specialties.

Akron has a marble pottery, given over exclusively to the manufacture of ordinary playing marbles, a large per cent. of which is made of white clay. J. F. Brown, the owner, claims to have the only institution of this character in America. Brown is a practical potter and a native of Akron. He conceived the idea of going into this line of business and invented some simple machinery admirably adapted for his purpose. He became member of a stock company incorporated at $100,000, for the manufacture of marbles and other clay toys. Through bad management the venture proved a failure. Brown withdrew from it some two years ago and started his present establishment. With a small force of girls and boys he turns out an average of 100,000 marbles a day. They are burned in a kiln which will hold 600,000, each sagger holding 2,000. The product goes to every portion of the country from New York to San Francisco. The marbles are made in every size, from 1-64 of an inch to four inches in diameter. They have other uses than that of furnishing amusement to children. Manufacturers of wire door-mats utilize great quantities for spelling firm names in the steel meshes. Cigar mats made on much smaller scale, utilize for the same purpose, a very tiny marble made in various colors. Marbles are also used in pump valves and in puzzles of various kinds. The output of the firm includes many varieties, from the common brown ally to fancy agates. One order was received from a puzzle manufacturer for 1,000,000 marbles and another customer bought seventy barrels. Owing to the cheapness of the foreign article attempts at making marbles in this country have not been heretofore attended with success, but the Akron potter claims to have solved the problem.


Keywords:Labor Relations : Child Labor : Female Labor : Porcelain : R. Thomas & Sons Company : William Brunt Pottery Company : East Liverpool
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:September 1, 2009 by: Elton Gish;