In 1872 the East Liverpool, Ohio City Council, foreseeing the demise in popularity of yellow ware offered $5,000 to anyone that would agree to build a four kiln pottery producing white ware.
Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin won that competition and proceeded to build a pottery in East Liverpool. They were natives of the area being born on Beaver Creek near East Liverpool and the Ohio River. After the Civil War Homer and his brothers had worked in the pottery industry in production and sales but were not expert in technical aspects of making ware.
They accepted the Council's offer on September 1, 1873, broke ground for the plant on October 1 and opened for production one year later on September 1, 1874. The plant with only two kilns struggled due to a lack of capital and lack of experience. White ware had not been produced in the area before this time. It is said that the first batch of ware out of the kilns was cups and that when the ware cooled all the handles fell off. Undaunted they persevered, calling themselves, "The Ohio Valley Pottery" and "Laughlin Bros. Pottery". By 1874 they had 100 employees. Their work finally paid off when in 1876 they were awarded a medal for best white ware at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were now established as a quality producer in the market.
In 1877 Homer bought his brothers share of the company and renamed the business "Homer Laughlin". In 1896 it was renamed "The Homer Laughlin China Company".
At this time there was stiff competition with European and especially English China. The public perceived that the American ware, which was more expensive, was of lesser quality. Many potteries disguised their ware with marks reminiscent of English marks or named their ware "Royal" to give the connotation of English ware. Homer Laughlin however, designed a mark that showed the American Eagle on top of the British Lion. He wanted to show his confidence in the American ware.
Homer Laughlin was aware of the conditions of his employees but safety standards were non-existent in industry at this time. The hazards of the job were many, mostly from the inhalation of the dusts associated with the production of the ware. In 1877 he was paying his employees more than their European or Asian counterparts. A skilled worker earned $2.33/day, an unskilled man $1.29/day, boys 0.82c/day and women and girls 0.75c/day. In 1880 he took 300 of his workers and their families by chartered train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for an exposition in the afternoon and the opera in the evening. Laughlin was mindful of his workers and saw quality in them. In 1880 Homer hired W.E. Wells as bookkeeper. He would eventually become the general manager and today his descendants are still managing the company. He hired the first female secretary in 1888. Later in the companies history the plant would include a recreational park.
Throughout the 1880's Homer Laughlin produced a variety of ware, mostly of a basic white which could be used in hotels and other public institutions. Today many former Homer Laughlin workers can still recognize the ware by style and quality wherever they may be in a hotel or restaurant throughout the country and even the world. In 1886 he had truly made what could be termed genuine American china. After a demonstration of its translucence and vitreous qualities Jere Simms editor of the local newspaper said, "It is no longer a question of doubt that the finest, thinnest and most translucent of china can be produced in America."
In 1897 Homer retired from the business to pursue business interests in California. Wells, Louis, Marcus and Charles Aaron purchased interests in the company with Louis Aaron as president and Wells as secretary and general manager. They decided that they needed to expand. In 1899 they built a new plant east of the original pottery (plant # 2). Two years later they built plant # 3 beside plant # 2. They also traded the original plant for another in the East End. After this expansion there were 32 kilns. Still unsatisfied and prompted by the extreme growth in the demand for their wares they wanted to expand again. However, there was no available suitable land in the East End of East Liverpool; therefore they pursued the purchase of a 3 mile tract of land in a small community that would become known as Newell across the Ohio River in West Virginia. The location had access to fuel, railroad and river transportation. Forming the North American Manufacturing Company to develop the property into a usable industrial site, the Homer Laughlin Company set about developing what until this time was a relatively inaccessible area of the West Virginia panhandle. The only way to get to the property from Ohio was by ferry. By 1904 they had begun construction of a metal suspension bridge. Now called the Newell Bridge it is still in operation as a toll bridge across the river. The first traffic moved across on July 4, 1905. Newell grew rapidly from a small community of but a few homes to a prospering community with 130 additional homes by December 1907.
The plant, at that time the largest in the World, covered 10 acres, extended 700 feet along the riverbank. Standing five stories high it had a total floor space of 15 acres. Connected with the plant to the south was a 100 acre park with a spring-fed stream, lack, zoo, formal garden and outdoor theater. The park was the idea of George Washington Clarke, a great innovative salesman for the company. He spent much of his time and money on the park. He died in 1911 not long after the park was built. With the addition of the new plant, in January 1907, there were 62 kilns and 48 decorating kilns capable of producing 300,000 pieces of ware per day.
In 1914 they added plant # 5, with 16 kilns, just to the north of plant # 4, the Newell plant. By 1919-1920 they were ready to expand again. The industry was changing greatly at this time. New technologies for better and more efficient production required the introduction of science and scientists into the business. The Homer Laughlin Company hired Albert Victor Bleininger, a scientist in ceramics. Bleininger would remain with the company until his death in 1946. His first task was to build plant # 6. This plant was built across the valley to the south of plants # 4 and was the largest pottery ever constructed in the world. It was to be a leader in the worldwide manufacturing of ceramics. The plant was state-of-the-art. A major innovation was the construction of tunnel kilns. The tunnel kilns unlike the bottle kilns were of continuous operation. The plant also had other technological advantages, streamlining the process of making the ware. The plant was 290 feet wide, 800 feet long with a basement 80 feet by 800 feet where the clay, flint and feldspar were mixed.
In 1927 they built plant # 7 and replaced the bottle kilns in plants # 4 and # 5 with tunnel kilns. The three older plants in East Liverpool were soon obsolete and were abandoned in 1929. To replace them, in 1928, Laughlin's built plant # 8 just south of plant # 6. This new plant was 1,200 feet long and 300 feet wide and employed 900 people, equal to the combined numbers at plants # 6 and # 7. At peak employment The Homer Laughlin China Company employed 3,500 people.
In 1927 they hired one of the world’s foremost ceramists, Frederick Hurten Rhead. Rhead would stay with the company until his death in 1942. Rhead's first job was to update the catalog, most of which had been in production for decades. The newest ware was called Yellowstone and was a cream, light-yellow. Introduced in 1926 it was advertised as, "possessing a warmth of tone that appeals to many persons of good taste more strongly than the dead white body that has ruled the market for so many years". He slowly changed the product over a space of several years. In 1935 he created Fiesta ware which would become the companies most popular and most collected line of Homer Laughlin China. Fiesta was discontinued in 1959, replaced with Fiesta Ironstone which was discontinued in 1973. Fiesta ware with new colors was reintroduced in 1986 to celebrate to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Rhea also created Harlequin which was the Woolworth Companies biggest seller. It was reintroduced into the line in 1979 to celebrate Homer Laughlin's Centennial.
Peak production for the company was in 1948 when they produced 10,129,449 dishes.
In 1959 plant # 6 was adapted to produce heavy vitreous ware for restaurants. Hundreds of restaurants across the country now use Laughlin restaurant ware, including the Marriott Hotel chain.
In 1930 W.E. Wells retired from the company. His son, Joseph Wells succeeded him. In 1960 his son Joseph Wells Jr. became general manager and his son Joseph Wells III executive vice-president. In 1986 Joseph Wells III would become general manager. In 1911 Marcus Aaron took over as president of the board from his father, Louis Aaron. In 1940 Marcus Lester Aaron becomes president retiring in 1989 after 65 years of service. His son Marcus Aaron II would succeed him.
The Homer Laughlin China Company is still, today, the U.S.A.'s largest producer of china. Some of the plants have been abandoned and closed but the company still operates at the Newell, West Virginia site.
Homer Laughlin Production Timeline
1872 White ware
1896 Golden Gate & Shakespeare
1899 American Beauty
1901 Colonial, Seneca, Niagara
1903 King Charles
1907 Angelus, Empress
1912 Hudson, Genesee
1920 Republic, Kwaker
1930-1933 Wells, Century, Jade, Ravenna, Virginia Rose, Marigold, Nautilus (Regular) and Georgian/Craftsman
1935 Fiesta, Coronet
1936 Brittany, Harlequin
1937 Eggshell Nautilus, Eggshell Georgian
1938 Swing, Carnival, Riviera, Tango
1939 Theme, Kitchen Kraft, Serenade
1948 Jubilee, Skytone, Suntone and Debutante, Kraft Blue, Kraft Pink
1949-1959 Rhythm, Cavalier, Triumph, Kenilworth, Epicure
1959 Hotel and Restaurant china introduced
1986 Fiesta reintroduced as a lead-free china product