- THE MAGAZINE
Over the past several decades, many family-owned U.S. ceramic manufacturers have disappeared. Some have been swallowed by overseas conglomerates, while others have folded in the face of increasing competition and a difficult manufacturing environment. But a few great family-owned U.S. companies have continued to prosper, turning difficulties into successes and proving that high quality doesn’t have to be sacrificed to remain competitive. According to Catherine S. Vodrey in the newly released commemorative book, A Centennial History of The Hall China Company, The Hall China Co., headquartered in East Liverpool, Ohio, is one such company.
In June 1901, six small eastern Ohio River potteries had merged to form a concern christened The East Liverpool Potteries Co. The venture was short-lived. On July 7, 1903, the board of the East Liverpool Potteries Co. met in the living room of the home of Robert Hall to undertake the disposition of the assets of the company. Hall was disappointed to see the company he and his family had only recently put together being disbanded. He made no secret of his frustration, and demonstrated his determination to make another run at the pottery business when he plowed his share of the assets into the creation of a new pottery named for his family: The Hall China Co.
Just 38 days after the East Liverpool Potteries Co. ceased to exist, Robert Hall went to work on August 14, 1903, with 33 potters and three bottle kilns. Initial offerings were kept to a minimum of individual designs—household ware, toilet sets, spittoons, and the like—in an effort to contain costs.
The fledgling company was dealt a serious blow just a year later, when Robert Hall died quite unexpectedly in 1904. He’d been in good health, and his death shook his wife and eight children. Nevertheless, his son, Robert Taggart Hall, rolled up his sleeves and took over The Hall China Co.
Searching for the Single-Fire ProcessHall searched from the start for a way to set Hall China apart from the competition. He became convinced that the answer to his quest lay in the fabled single-fire process. Pottery at the time was manufactured via the double-fire, or two-fire, process. This meant that once the body of a piece was formed and dried, it went into the kiln to be fired and came out as a bisque (unglazed) piece of ware. The ware was then coated with a clear or colored glaze and refired at a lower temperature. While this method worked well enough, it nearly always had the unfortunate eventual problem of crazing.
The single-fire process had originally been developed during China’s Ming Dynasty, a period of time (ca. 1368-ca. 1643) which saw a flowering of Chinese ceramic technology. The political instability of the Qing dynasty immediately following the Ming helped to trigger the eventual collapse of imperial support for potters throughout China. As a result, knowledge of ceramics production using the single-fire process was eventually lost.
Hall knew that rediscovering the single-fire process could assure Hall China’s success. In the single-fire process, ware was formed, dried and then glazed before being fired just once. The result was a vitreous ware of extraordinary hardness, strength and durability. Resistance to chipping, to thermal shock and to odor absorption were hallmarks of once-fired ceramics. Beyond this, because the single-fire process assured that the glaze literally fused into the body in the heat of the kiln, it solved the crazing problem, thus ensuring the lasting beauty of the ware.
With a select group of Hall China employees, Robert Hall set out in 1904 to rediscover the keys to the single-fire process. The difficulty lay not only in working out the process itself, but in resolving the issue of the glaze-to-body thermal expansion ratio. Beyond this, Hall needed to come up with the correct firing temperature. Hall’s research soon showed that glaze for a single-fire process would need to be lead-free. Lead added brilliance to the glaze, but it was an expensive element which simply burned off in the high temperatures required with the single-fire process. Thus with a few exceptions, Hall China was lead-free decades before it became the industry standard.
While Hall China grew, producing in 1908 its first dinnerware line, Hall was still systematically searching and testing, on the lookout for a breakthrough in the single-fire process. In 1911, the first batch of glaze made for testing the single-fire process was enough to coat only half of a cup, and was mixed by hand with a mortar and pestle. Certainly the group held their collective breath while this first piece was fired at 2200 degrees F. They were relieved that the mug came out of the kiln in one piece, although they all felt that the glaze still wasn’t quite up to their standards.
Painstakingly working their way up to a kiln filled entirely with ware coated in the leadless glaze, the Hall China research team found that the pieces which had sat in the hottest part of the kiln came out well, while the others did not. This led them to try firing a batch of ware at 2400 degrees F. The ware that emerged was glossy, durable, strong and non-porous. Following seven years of intense research and hundreds of frustrating trial-and-error tests, Robert Hall and his Hall China team had cracked the single-fire process.
Hall took great delight in his achievement. He was proud to claim his place as the first potter in centuries to understand and apply principles which would lay the groundwork for ceramics of surpassing durability and strength.
Success Breeds ExpansionThe new single-fire glaze was proving to be an invaluable and versatile tool in attracting new customers. F.I. Simmers, [sales manager and president], swore that they would have to double the size of the plant, and indeed, within a matter of months, production increased from a mere two dozen pieces a day to 16 dozen daily.
1914 saw Hall branch out into laboratory and chemical porcelain. Within a few years, demand for Hall ware was so great that the management bought the old multi-story Goodwin Pottery plant in downtown East Liverpool, remodeled it to better suit the company’s needs, and began firing ware there in January of 1920.
Unexpectedly, Robert Hall died in November 1920 at the age of 43. His widow, Millicent, asked her brother-in-law Charles Hall for help. He briefly assumed the presidency of the company in order to allow Simmers to continue to concentrate on sales and help solidify Hall’s market position. Millicent joined the board of directors just a month after her husband’s death, and personally chose her brother, Malcolm Wayland “Mac” Thompson, to take over as secretary, treasurer and general manager.
Beyond the death of Robert Hall, 1920 was a time of great change for Hall China in other ways. Tunnel kilns that fired ware faster, made more efficient use of fuel, and ensured fewer damaged ware losses than did the old upright bottle kilns were starting to be used industrywide. Tunnel kilns went hand-in-hand with the general industry movement to train chemical and ceramic engineers and establish research departments. American potters now worked with an eye towards refining production methods and improving quality.
Undaunted [by the stock market crash of 1929], Mac Thompson forged ahead with big plans for Hall China. In 1930, he authorized the purchase of 23 acres of land in the city’s East End and built on this acreage a new Hall China plant. The new plant was the height of modernity. Inside the factory, everything was on one floor, the better to allow the efficient, continuous movement of ware as it progressed from raw clay to firing and every step in between. The plant covered 170,000 square feet and was the nation’s first pottery to be built solely with tunnel kilns—although a periodic decorating kiln of traditional design was installed just in case the decorating tunnel kilns didn’t work. (The “just in case” kiln has never been used to this day.) Designed by the well-known Pittsburgh engineering firm of Swindell-Dressler, Hall China’s new tunnel kilns boasted approximately 40 individual burners instead of the usual small number of old-fashioned fireboxes.
There was by this time an enormous variety in offerings as compared to the company’s early years. By the early 1930s, Hall China was turning out teapots, coffeepots, custards, ramekins, casseroles, shirred egg dishes, coffee urn linings, pot pie dishes, steam table pots, and bain marie jars, among other items. By 1938, Hall China was East Liverpool’s largest employer with 815 workers. In the same year, four plant additions were erected to handle demand for Hall China ware.
Moving Away from DinnerwareBy the late 1940s and early 1950s, Japanese potteries were doing whatever they could to stay solvent after the privations of the second World War. Using a population of citizens who were pleased to get any sort of paying work, the Japanese ceramics industry was able to keep operating and wage costs low. By the mid-1950s, Japanese porcelain was being sold in the U.S. for less than American earthenware. American consumers began buying Japanese porcelain dinnerware in greater and greater quantities.
Hall China celebrated its golden anniversary in 1953. The plant now boasted well over 410,000 square feet of floor space. The company continued to produce an amazing array of ware. However, Thompson understood that Japanese ceramic manufacturers were always going to be able to beat Hall’s prices. Accordingly, he and other members of the top management made the difficult decision to move out of dinnerware manufacturing altogether. Within a few years, Hall had ceased production on domestic dinnerware and was concentrating solely on commercial and institutional ware, along with commissioned specialty pieces [and its widely admired decorated teapots].
Acquisitions and GrowthThroughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the main engine of the company’s growth was accomplished via the purchase and building of other companies. Presidents Jack Hall, and then John Thompson, vigorously pursued these options. The imposition of the Arab oil embargo in 1973 severely limited Hall China’s access to the natural gas needed for firing the kilns.
In the mid-1970s, Thompson and Hall visited Texas to look into the possibility of buying or building potteries there because of the area’s abundance of gas and land. The management at Gilmer Potteries in Gilmer, Texas, approached the two men and asked them to consider buying the company. In 1977, Hall China did just that. A small plant, Gilmer Potteries had been producing mainly bathroom accessory items like soap dishes and towel racks.
The Gilmer Potteries venture was so successful that Hall China expanded further into Texas. The company built a pottery called Franklin China in Vernon, Texas, about 35 miles from Gilmer. Buoyed by the continued success of commemorative ceramic pieces, the Franklin plant was laid out specifically for the production of slip-cast chinaware and whiskey bottles.
By the early 1980s, John Thompson was serving as president and chief executive officer, while John Sayle filled the positions of executive vice president and treasurer. Hall’s commitment to advanced ceramic and firing technology continued in 1987 with the installation of a fast-fire kiln. Manufactured by Reidhammer GmbH, this kiln was the first of its type in America and only the fourth such kiln in the entire world. One of the tunnel kilns Mac Thompson had installed at Hall China in 1930 was torn out to make room for this new roller hearth kiln.
The Hall China management recognized that this was a substantial capital investment. But the Reidhammer kiln would allow the company to compete more efficiently with potteries in low-wage countries because of the production increases afforded Hall with the new kiln. The installation of the kiln was only the first step in what has become a $19 million capital improvement program.
The new kilns shortened the firing process to six hours from the 48-hour block of time necessary with the old kilns. Nationwide, American dinnerware production had slipped from 11.3 million dozen pieces in 1971 to 8.3 million dozen by 1981. But Hall China’s continuous investment in technology and the company’s concentration on specialty pieces for commercial use had helped ensure that the company remained vibrant and competitive.
In 1989, Hall China sold Gilmer Potteries to The Pacific Tile Co. The 1980s and 1990s also saw Hall China selling Franklin China to Mid-States Tile and Electrical Refractories, which subsequently changed the name to E.R. Advanced Ceramics. The management had decided to sell these companies in order to further invest in cutting-edge technology at the East Liverpool plant.
A New PartnershipIn 1991, a partner in Hall China’s accounting firm called Sayle and told him about a woven wood basket company that might be interested in doing business with Hall. Located in Dresden, Ohio, the Longaberger Co. had mushroomed from a tiny family-owned company into a behemoth selling $100 million in baskets.
After company founder Dave Longaberger met with John Sayle, John Thompson and Jim Platte [vice president of manufacturing], he asked to do business with Hall China, combining Longaberger baskets with all manner of ceramic accessories. At the beginning, the Longaberger Co. specified just six shapes: a pie plate, two pitchers and three bowls.
Because Longaberger had such high standards and required such enormous production numbers, the basket company’s involvement supported Hall China’s ongoing emphasis on modernization. New equipment, designed and manufactured solely for Hall China and found at no other pottery worldwide, took advantage of the latest in ceramic engineering technology. Throughout the 1990s, visitors from the German, Japanese, French and English pottery industries flocked to Hall China to observe the company’s extraordinary computerized process.
In addition to the Longaberger partnership, Hall China’s institutional products continued to be very much in demand. The company was producing ware for dozens of major restaurant and hotel chains, as well as for a number of cruise lines.
The Company TodayIn 1998, Hall China invested further in technology when its website (http://www.HallChina.com) was launched in September. Aimed at the food service industry and designed to be of use to current customers, the site included all dealer contact information, a territory map, a section devoted to [the company’s retail outlet] The Hall Closet, and the company’s Super Express Service products. These pieces, of which there are almost 750 items and/or designs, are carefully packed and await immediate shipment to anywhere in the world.
Working with a broad North American network of distributors, Hall China goes to market via many family-run groups. The company enjoys dealer relationships going back generations in many cases—a fact that neatly dovetails with the power of Hall China’s own familial sensibilities.
Beyond the blood ties of the family members who have always run the company, the employees are part of the family as well. Over the years, there have been dozens of employees who have celebrated 50th anniversaries at Hall China—a telling fact that further emphasizes the company’s reputation for eliciting loyalty and pride among its workforce.
As Hall China faces the beginning of its second century, the current management plans to continue the company’s characteristic view to the future. As Robert Hall foresaw in 1903 with the founding of The Hall China Co., the company’s continued success is due to a resolute emphasis on the highest possible quality.
Editor’s note:The foregoing excerpts from A Centennial History of The Hall China Company, by Catherine S. Vodrey, were reprinted with the permission of The Hall China Co.
A Centennial History of The Hall China Company is available for $19.95. To order a copy, or for additional information, contact the company at 1 Anna Ave., East Liverpool, OH 43920; (330) 385-2900; fax (330) 385-6185; or visit http://www.hallchina.com.