By Rebecca Sloan
Museum of Ceramics tells the story of ‘Crockery City’
At its peak, East Liverpool produced more than 50 percent of America’s ceramics.
EAST LIVERPOOL — Fine art doesn’t have to fit in a gilded frame.
It can come in the shape of a plate, or a bowl, or even a shaving mug.
For proof, just visit the Museum of Ceramics at 400 East Fifth St. in East Liverpool.
This Columbiana County destination is chock-full of lovely examples of local pottery, and after a visit, tourists will possess a new appreciation for everyday objects such as teapots and soup tureens.
That’s because the items on display at the museum are so exquisitely beautiful.
The antique platters, cups and saucers, candy dishes, vases, pitchers, jardini√®res and decorative figurines sit snugly in glass cases and gleam beneath the soft lights.
You’ll be dazzled by the hand-painted details and colorful sheens, and while you’re admiring all the pretty porcelain, you’ll also be getting an education on East Liverpool’s pottery production, which was at its peak from about 1840 to 1930.
“It was during this time that East Liverpool was known as the ‘Pottery Capitol of the Nation’ and ‘America’s Crockery City,’” said Museum Director Sarah Webster Vodrey. “Hundreds of potters lived and worked here, and East Liverpool produced more than 50 percent of America’s ceramics.”
Vodrey said several factors made East Liverpool a pottery mecca.
“Its location on the Ohio River made it easy to ship ceramics all over the country by barge. The area also had rich deposits of clay,” Vodrey said.
Museum photographs, artifacts and life-size exhibits help tell the story of East Liverpool’s potters.
One museum display features mannequins balancing heavy crates of pottery on their heads.
“They wore hats with special cushions in the tops known as potter’s donuts,” Vodrey explained.
Another exhibit depicts mannequins hand-painting dishes, and another exhibit shows a potter family — even a young boy — hard at work.
“This was before there were child labor laws, and children worked just as hard as adults in the manufacturing of pottery,” Vodrey explained. “Whole families worked together. They were following the English pottery traditions that they had brought with them to America.”
Some of East Liverpool’s potteries were small operations, while others were known nationwide.
Among some of the most well-known were Hall China, Harker, Goodwin and Homer Laughlin. (Vodrey said Hall China and Homer Laughlin are still in business today.)
More than one display in the museum shows the markings companies used to stamp the back of their finished pottery.
Vodrey, who happens to be descended from local potters, pointed out her family’s own mark.
“Vodrey’s pottery was manufactured from about 1847 until 1928,” she said.
Although East Liverpool is no longer such a ceramics mecca — only a handful of companies remain in operation — Vodrey said area residents tend to be more aware of the symbols on the backs of their plates.
“In East Liverpool people are always checking the backs of their plates to see who made it,” Vodrey said with a laugh.
The Museum of Ceramics features examples of utilitarian pottery as well as pottery produced for the sake of art alone.
Among the museum display cases you will find everyday china similar to what your grandmother might keep in her curio cabinet, and you will find pieces of rare and priceless pottery that must be kept under lock and key.
The museum’s collection of Lotus Ware fits into this latter category.
“Lotus Ware is considered to be the finest porcelain ever produced in the United States, and we have the world’s largest display right here,” Vodrey said proudly.
Lotus Ware was made in East Liverpool by Knowles, Taylor and Knowles during the 1890s. The name Lotus was chosen because of the translucent pearliness of the glaze, which resembled the glowing sheen of a lotus blossom.
Some of the white Lotus Ware at the museum might also remind you of an ornately decorated wedding cake with sumptuous frosted details.
For example, a Lotus Ware rose jar boasts fantastically rich filigreed detail. The knobs and curls of its pearly ceramic finish look as if they were applied by a skilled cake decorator.
Many pieces of Lotus Ware are pristine white, but colored pieces were made as well.
Lotus Ware is often distinguished by its filigree netting or ornate patterns with raised embellishments.
Vodrey said Lotus Ware was extremely difficult to make — only about one of every dozen pieces survived the firing process — and is highly coveted by collectors of American porcelain.
Most of the museum’s Lotus Ware is on display near the building’s main entrance — a grand, pillared alcove that speaks of great things to come.
The museum is housed in a circa-1909 structure that was once East Liverpool’s post office.
Made of granite and limestone and fashioned with ornately decorated domed ceilings, marble and terrazzo flooring and oak trim, the building itself is worth seeing.
“It was used as a post office until 1969 and was designated as The Museum of Ceramics in 1980,” Vodrey said.
In April 2008, the museum faced a funding crisis when the Ohio Historical Society cut 93 percent of the museum’s yearly operating funds.
Since then, friends and supporters of the museum have formed the not-for-profit corporation the Museum of Ceramics Foundation and are working at fundraising.
Vodrey said every little bit helps and encouraged financial contributions.
She also encouraged visits.
“This is one of the few museums in the nation devoted to ceramics,” she said. “The museum offers a priceless historical, cultural and artistic resource.”
XThe Museum of Ceramics is open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission for adults is $4. Students and children pay $2. For more information write P.O. Box 60, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920, call (330) 386-6001, e-mail MuseumofCeramics@gmail.com or visit www.TheMuseumofCeramics.org. The museum is not yet handicap accessible.