Our History & Our Heritage By Bill Kiefer

Back to Newell and potteries. As I previously stated the Homer Laughlin Pottery Company (which I may abbreviate here as “HLC”) started out in East Liverpool, Ohio. I have read somewhere that at one time there may have been as many as 300 potteries in the East Liverpool area. These started with “yellow ware” like the type produced by Hugh Newell, but by the late 1800’s there was demand to produce “white ware” which had become a popular English import. In an early attempt at aiding in industrial development the East Liverpool City Council offered $5,000 to any company which could come to the city and successfully produce commercial quantities of white ware. Enter the brothers, Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin who submitted a plan to do so, which was accepted by the city fathers in 1871. They purchased from Benjamin Harker a tract next to his pottery broke ground in1873 and they were in production before the end of 1874. By 1875 the company had 100 employees. At first they went by the names “The Ohio Valley Pottery” and “Laughlin Bros. Pottery”. So successful were they that their white ware received an award for excellence in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia. Regardless, in 1877, Shakespeare Laughlin decided to move on and for the next period it continued as a sole proprietorship operated by Homer, and that was when the name “Homer Laughlin” came into use. This was changed to “The Homer Laughlin China Company.”
According to a work of the Carnegie Library available on-line at: www.carnegie.lib.oh.us/homer working conditions were not the best. Safety standards were non-existent in the 1870’s. The most serious problem was the inhalation of the dust involved in the manufacturing process. Still the company paid the workers comparatively well: a skilled worker $2.33 a day; an unskilled worker $1.29 a day; boys $.82 a day, girls and women $.75 a day. Those daily figures equate to $60.08, $33.26, $20.63 and $19.34 in 2021 dollars for each group respectively. Allegedly he cared for his employees and saw quality in them, for example the Carnegie reports that in 1880 he took 300 of them to Pittsburgh by train for a daily exposition and evening at the opera. He hired the first female secretary in 1888. AND of extreme importance to our story he hired W. E. Wells as a book keeper in 1880.
While the product was originally an institutional white ware such as would be used in Hotels and restaurants, by 1886 he was producing genuine American china, such that Jere Simms publisher of The Morning Tribune stated: “It is no longer a question of doubt that the finest thinnest and most translucent of china can be produced in America.” Symbolic of this was the HLC makers mark which showed an American eagle poised over a British Lion. In any event, presumably having accomplished what he set out to do, in 1897 Homer Laughlin retired from the business to pursue other opportunities in California (sound familiar?). He sold the business to the group headed by the Aarons and W. E. Wells. It was Mr. Wells who operated the business on a daily basis.
Actually, the name Homer Laughlin is pretty famous in California. He built the Homer Laughlin Building in Los Angeles. When built it was the city’s first fire proof, steel reinforced structure and was six stories tall. It is located at 317 South Broadway in the Downtown area. It has housed the Grand Central Market on its ground floor since 1917. Its upper floors have been used for department stores, offices and apartments. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright maintained a Los Angeles office in the building in the 1920’s. The building has been enlarged, renovated and modernized periodically but the market has continued to be a famous anchor tenant.
After the plant was constructed in Newell, and the bridge built, Newell grew from farms and a few houses to about 130 homes by the end of 1907. The plant itself covered ten acres, was 700 feet long, five stories tall and took the Company’s production capacity to 300,000 pieces a day. The plant continued to expand and in the 1920’s replaced bottle kilns with tunnel kilns. This had the effect of moving from batch production to continuous production, which along with other improvements increased production.
By 1929 the Ohio plants had all been closed as obsolete, while the Newell works continued to grow. Later plant additions like Plant 8, 1200 feet long and 300 feet wide employed 900 people, the number of people employed by Plants 6 and 7 combined. At its peak the plant employed 3,500 people. In 1948 over 10,000,000 dishes were produced in a year and total production exceeded 120,000,000 pieces.
All of this growth was shepherded until 1930 by Mr. W.E. Wells when he retired the reins were turned over to his son Joseph Wells who served from 1930 to 1960. He was followed in turn by Joseph Wells, Jr. who was in turn followed by his son Joseph Wells III. In 2102, the sister of Joseph III, Liz McIlvain took over as President and continues today. The Aaron family also continued to be involved for four or five generations, into the 21st
Recently, there has been publicity given to transactions whereby product lines have been sold and restructuring has occurred. This has been done to give the brand a better chance to survive in today’s competitive environment. Where once the area had 300 potteries, today it has HLC. We also once had Weirton Steel, Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel, Crucible Steel, glass works in Wheeling etc. It is difficult to operate potteries in a world where unscrupulous producers can ignore copyrights and trademarks and pass-off an inferior product as the genuine article. Hopefully this iconic brand does everything possible to continue its existence, and the manufacture of its signature product Fiesta©.