The History of Syracuse China
The company now known as Syracuse China was founded in 1871 as the
Onondaga Pottery Company (O.P.Co.) in Geddes, New York (now a part of
Syracuse). It was named after the county in which it was located and to
celebrate that region's native Iroquois tribe. On July 20, 1871, sixteen
local businessmen, who had purchased a struggling local pottery,
incorporated, capitalized the company for $50,000, and began to expand its
lines to produce white earthenware for table and toilet use.
Syracuse China is today one of the world's leading suppliers of
commercial china for the foodservice industry. With over a century and a
quarter of continuity, the firm can claim a rich heritage of product
innovation and pride in an enduring quality of craftsmanship that has been
passed from one generation to the next.
The pottery industry was not new to Geddes. Its roots were planted in
1841 when W.H. Farrar arrived from Vermont to establish a small pottery
for making salt-glazed stoneware, an American ceramic product since
Colonial times. His product-line grew to include a redware called
Rockingham, reproducing English ware such as cast dogs and spittoons.
Farrar moved his pottery closer to the Erie Canal in 1857. In 1868 he sold
the business to a group who formed the Empire Crockery Manufacturing
Company. It was managed by an English potter, Lyman Clark. When the
Onondaga Pottery took over, it gained the building, its stock, and Clark.
A maverick from the start, O.P.Co. was located far from the New Jersey
and Ohio centers of ceramic manufacture. Though there were no natural
sources of clay or coal in Central New York, and no clay workers in the
region, raw materials and fuel were easily transported on the Erie Canal
and the railroads.
Clark hired English potters and trained local men. The new company soon
expanded its facilities. At first the company backstamped its ware with
the English Lion and Unicorn Arms. In 1873 it dropped its reference to
England and adopted the Great Seal of the State of New York to mark the
improvements in its ironstone ware. When Clark left, another English
potter, Richard Pass, took his place as Superintendent.
Until 1884 the ware went undecorated. That year Elmer Walter
established the Boston China Decorating Works across from the pottery,
giving the company access to a designer, printer and hand decorator. In
1886, after fire destroyed the decorating shop, the pottery hired Walter
and his employees and established one of the earliest in-house decorating
departments in the industry.
The Birth of "Syracuse China"
In 1885, Richard's son, James Pass, joined O.P.Co as Superintendent,
later becoming President. During his twenty-eight years with the company
he made it a national leader in ceramic research. In 1888 he developed
America's first truly vitreous china body. Pass introduced the new china
body to the public in 1891 with a line of fancy accessory pieces called
Imperial Geddo. His new ware won the medal for translucent china at the
World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Two years later, in 1895,
the name "Syracuse China" appeared in the backstamp of this revolutionary
china. The company continued to produce the earthenware body until 1897,
when it was discontinued. From then on, all ware was and still is made of
vitreous "Syracuse China."
Hotels Become a Major Market
With the introduction of its chip-resistant Round Edge shape in 1896,
O.P.Co. became the national leader in the fast growing hotel ware market,
where a heavier, more durable product was needed for restaurants and
institutional use. To demonstrate the superiority of the Syracuse China
hotel ware, company salesmen gave away over 2500 samples. Orders came in
before production officially began. In that same year, the company
installed the industry's first in-house lithographic shop for the printing
O.P.Co's fine decorated translucent china for home use also became a
national best seller. Made of the same durable Syracuse China body as
hotel ware, it was jiggered into thinner, stylish shapes. In 1908, the
company again led the industry in perfecting the underglaze decal process.
Following James Pass's death in 1913, Bert Salisbury became President and
led O.P.Co. to a new age of marketing and advanced technology. National
advertising campaigns brought Syracuse China to the pages of major
national magazines. In 1921, the company built a new hotel ware factory on
Court Street, the first linear, one-floor plant in the American china
industry. Manufacture of fine china continued in the Fayette Street plant
until 1970 at which time it ceased, the plant was torn down, and all
production moved to the Court Street Facility.
The company's research labs created two colored clay bodies, Old Ivory
in 1926 and Adobe, a tan color, in 1931. In 1933, R. Guy Cowan became the
company's chief designer. His art deco Econo-Rim shape (still in
production) was introduced as a revolutionary design in hotel ware. Its
narrow rim was especially suited for railroad and diner china where table
space was at a premium. For decades, O.P.Co manufactured 70 percent of the
nation's railroad china.
During World War II, the company, under the leadership of Richard Pass,
developed and manufactured non-detectable ceramic anti-tank land mines.
The company received the distinguished Army-Navy "E" award for excellence
in service to the war effort. After the war they developed a record number
of shapes and patterns for both commercial hotel and dinnerware china. In
1954 the Onondaga Pottery Electronics Division was formed to produce
highly reliable printed circuit ceramic components for radio and
television manufacturers, a venture that closed in 1959. In 1959 the
company established a Canadian china-manufacturing subsidiary, the
Vandesca Pottery Ltd. of Joliette, Quebec, the only pottery in Canada that
manufactured vitrified china. It was closed in 1994.
New Management Acquires Company
As the company marked its 100th anniversary in 1971, processes of
change already underway both inside and outside of the business shaped its
entry into a second century as an industry leader. During its first
century, the ownership of Syracuse China had been vested principally in
two Syracuse families. Now, after four generations of direct involvement
in the business, family ownership ended. New management purchased the
assets of the old company and formed the new Syracuse China Corporation on
September 30, 1971.
Merger Forms Strong Financial Ties
In April 1978, shareholders of Syracuse China Corporation voted to
merge with Canadian Pacific Investments, Ltd., a multi-billion dollar
corporation with successful worldwide investments in oil and gas
resources, mines and minerals, forest products, iron and steel, real
estate, hotels and foodservices, finance and other diversified businesses.
As a wholly-owner subsidiary of CPI, and retaining its corporate
identity as well as the management team that had successfully operated the
business, Syracuse China Corporation prospered despite intensifying
challenges from overseas competition.
Mayer and Shenango Acquired
The company expanded its presence by acquiring the Mayer China Company
in 1984 and Shenango Pottery in 1988. The Syracuse China Company closed
both Pennsylvania plants and made the ware of all three companies at its
Syracuse plant by the early 1990s.
Susquehanna-Pfaltzgraff Embraces Syracuse
In 1989, redirecting its assets into its core businesses, Canadian
Pacific put the Syracuse China Company on the market. The Susquehanna-Pfaltzgraff
Company of York, Pennsylvania, outbid more than twenty investors for the
highly regarded pottery. After six years of ownership, the Pennsylvania
firm returned to it's retail-oriented roots by selling the Syracuse China
Libbey Inc. Emerges
In 1995, Libbey Inc. of Toledo, Ohio purchased the Syracuse China
Company to complement its strong presence in the foodservice industry.
Together, the two leading companies would go to market offering two of the
oldest, and most respected brands in their categories. Libbey has
subsequently invested millions of dollars of capital into the company. The
industry successes achieved by Syracuse China for more than 125 years are
being joined by new successes today.
For more history, get Syracuse China by Cleota Reed & Stan
Skoczen (Syracuse University Press, 0-8156-0474-2, 1997).
Inc. of Toledo, Ohio