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 of decals.

Fine China

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.

New Products

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.

New Ventures

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 Company.

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).

Libbey Inc. of Toledo, Ohio

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