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HISTORY FROM OHA: The story of the Iroquois China Company

By Thomas Hunter

Date:

The Iroquois China Company was founded in 1905 in Solvay, by J. Brewster Gere of Syracuse and Lamont Stilwell of Solvay. Gere was a local businessman and president of two other companies: Gere Coal Company and Onondaga Vitrified Brick Company. Stilwell was an attorney with the firm Stilwell, Viali, & Skerritt, and served as the attorney for the Village of Solvay. He also had local real-estate interests and was instrumental in promoting Solvay’s business development.

In July 1905, the nascent Iroquois China was completing its incorporation process with $75,000 in capital. Gere and Stilwell purchased a building at 2320 Milton Avenue in Solvay and hired six carpenters to transform it into a china manufactory by installing workbenches, machinery, and kilns. The company already had formed a board of directors that included men from Pennsylvania and New York City, as well as Gere and Stilwell. They planned to make vitrified china for hotels, restaurants, and railroads as early as that September.

By November 1905, Ames Kerr was elected as president of the company and J. Brewster Gere as secretary. Iroquois China took out a $100,000 mortgage with Syracuse Trust Company and issued 25-year bonds to create additional capital.

By April 1906, Iroquois China was selling a variety of china pieces for commercial use, including a 112-piece tableware set decorated with a pink floral design for $12.75 (about $367 today).

By the early 1920s, the company boasted about its tableware’s durability, citing it could withstand machine-washing in an electric dishwasher without damaging the design and finish. Large kilns that held over 40,000 pieces at one time were fired for 60 hours at over 2,000 degrees (Fahrenheit). The tableware was then annealed for another 36 hours to further strengthen it. 

In 1938, Earl Crane purchased the Iroquois China Company and became its president. Crane was an adept salesman who developed 16-piece and 45-piece china sets and began directly selling the tableware to customers without the assistance of a sales agent. He also started the “tip-over” or “turn-over” club and recruited many local residents as members. These club members traveling around the country would tip or turn over the china tableware at restaurants, hotels, and in railroad cars to determine if it was made in Syracuse. 

During World War II, Iroquois China made thousands of vitrified china-tableware pieces for the U.S. armed forces. Using clay imported from England, employees fashioned tableware for assorted military departments including the U.S. Army Medical Corps and the U.S. Navy Aviation Cadet Training Program.

Post-WWII

While the U.S. was returning to civilian life and fostering economic growth after WWII, business began to boom for Iroquois China Company. The company augmented its commercial vitrified tableware lines to make its first residential tableware in 1946. It placed numerous want ads in the Syracuse newspapers looking for both male and female employees. Returning veterans and displaced war-production workers were invited to apply for a wide variety of manufacturing and decorating jobs. In a 1946 help-wanted ad, Iroquois China offered residents full-time work with overtime, asserting that transportation to work would not be a hindrance for most people because the factory was on the public bus line. The company implicitly promised steady work “forever” with their enticing ad taglines, “There will always be a need for china” and “There will always be jobs for pottery workers.” 

The Iroquois China Company partnered with Russel Wright, notable American industrial designer, in 1946 to design Casual, a Midcentury Modern style of residential tableware that Iroquois China produced between 1946 and 1967 in a variety of solid colors labeled Sugar White, Ice Blue, Ripe Apricot, Nutmeg Brown, Avocado Yellow, and Pink Sherbet. Wright designed Casual with smooth surfaces and round edges. Made from an English-bodied stoneware, Casual pieces were fired at 2,300º F, and Iroquois China confidently guaranteed the tableware against breakage for three years. To promote the top-quality of the Casual design, Wright conducted in-store demonstrations of its durability by pouring dishes from a container out onto a counter. In a 1947 Syracuse newspaper photo, Wright and Harold Allen, vice president of Iroquois China Company, dumped a basket of Casual tableware onto the floor. Wright often startled visitors to the company by dropping basketfuls of the tableware onto the floor to demonstrate its thermo-shock properties. In the late 1940s, Dey Bros. sold a 16-piece starter set of Casual (four dinner plates, four bread & butter plates, four cups, and four saucers) for $9.95 (about $106 in today’s dollars).

In March 1949, Iroquois China recognized 89 employees who had at least five years of employment with service pins. The loyal employees who represented more than 1,100 years of production effort were honored at an appreciation party hosted by company President Earl Crane. Howard Smith of Syracuse was recognized as the longest-tenured employee with 34 years. Smith and five other men who had worked at Iroquois China for at least 30 years were acknowledged for having made vitrified china for the military during the first and second world wars. 

Iroquois China developed a partnership with another notable industrial designer, Ben Seibel, in the 1950s and 1960s. Best known for his tableware designs, Seibel created four alliterative tableware lines for Iroquois China — Impromptu (1956), Informal (1958), Inheritance (1959), and Intaglio (1964).

Iroquois China’s advertisements promoted the Ben Seibel designs as possessing both an elegant form and durability: “You’ll love its special elegance, its jewel-like motif, its unique sculptured design and its All-Occasion versatility.” The company also endorsed the china’s practical feature of “cook, bake, ‘n serve” all in the same dish, as well as continuing its tableware warranty by replacing damaged or broken pieces for up to three years. 

By 1955, Iroquois China employed about 200 local people and annually produced approximately 350,000 dozen pieces of tableware. The company used about 35 tons of material each week and boasted that its high-fired vitreous china could be used as a hammer to drive a nail into a wood board. By the middle of the 20th century, Iroquois China Company officials believed that their competency in the industry could “keep Solvay folk employed for another half century, at least.”

In 1956, the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts hosted the 19th Ceramic National, an art exhibit featuring ceramic fine art. Along with the Ceramic National, the museum offered another smaller exhibit titled, “Artists in Industry.” This exhibit displayed sets of tableware selected from an invited group of ceramic industries, which also highlighted leading industrial designers. The purpose of the exhibit was to recognize the successful alliance between the ceramic industry and art. Iroquois China was invited to participate in the exhibit, and company officials displayed an Impromptu tableware set with a Jardinieres pattern designed by Ben Seibel. 

Iroquois China received an exclusive license from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan in late 1965 to reproduce and sell reproductions of the museum’s historic 18th and 19th century fine china. The Henry Ford Museum selected Iroquois China from among several ceramic competitors. The reproduction china was part of a larger program established by the museum to reintroduce to American consumers a variety of early American furniture, fabrics, wallpaper, glassware, pewter, rugs, and lamps, all copied from the museum’s original objects. Donald Shelley, director of the Henry Ford Museum, stated that museum officials chose Iroquois China because the company “impressed us…with [t]heir ability and willingness to comply with our rigid insistence on accuracy of reproduction….” “We also were favorably influenced by their advanced manufacturing methods and excellent customer relations programs.” Beginning in early 1966, the company began to make moderately priced tableware based on the historic shapes and patterns. Known as “The Museum Collection by Iroquois China,” the reproductions were unveiled at the China and Glass Show in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It then became available for sale to the general public in department stores. In a September 1966 print advertisement that appeared in the New Yorker, Iroquois China promoted the new line as coming “from a famous museum…to your table…beautifully reproduced, exclusively by Iroquois, in ovenproof, durable genuine china.” “Gift-boxed for distinguished giving — in Museum White and 3 authentic-pattern reproductions.”

PEMCO

But Iroquois China Company’s destiny began to change in 1967. That year, David Kend of Great Neck, Long Island, acquired the company seven months after Earl Crane had died in December 1966. Two years later, Kend merged Iroquois China with the Pacific Electro Magnetics Company in Palo Alto, California, to form PEMCO, Inc. When he purchased Iroquois China Company in 1967, Kend stated that he knew nothing about china but that he recognized a solvent company and a competent management team. The PEMCO merger promoted Robert Anderson to the vice-president position. Anderson joined Iroquois China in 1938 as a ceramic engineer, advanced to plant engineer, and then to vice president. The merger also established Iroquois China as the home furnishing division of PEMCO while continuing its operation in Solvay with about 150 employees.

At first, the future looked bright for Iroquois China Company. Al Reiner, Iroquois China’s head of marketing, described the new PEMCO as a mini- conglomerate, enthusiastically promoting plans to expand into other areas of home furnishings with lighting fixtures and laminated plywood accessories such as ice buckets and portable bar carts.

The Cliff Dwellers designs created by Peter Max in 1967 and 1968 were highly regarded in the ceramic industry and sought after by consumers. The Primaries designs created by Michael Lax in 1968 helped to transition from formal dining to a buffet style. Lax’s other design, Dining +, made it possible to cook and serve gourmet meals in the same dish. Through popular demand from local consumers, Iroquois China opened a factory outlet store and sold china with selected patterns at reduced prices.

In another attempt to attract local consumers, in 1970, Iroquois China partnered with P&C and other grocers to offer a line of residential china called Joshua Crabtree, Esq. Commemorative China, styled after early American designs. The program allowed shoppers to purchase various pieces of the set over a period of fifteen weeks. This “easy, budget-pampering” installment plan offered consumers the opportunity to buy tableware and matching accessory pieces such as a coffee pot, an oval platter, a covered casserole, a gravy boat, a butter dish, a soup plate, a salad plate, and salt and pepper shakers, one or a few pieces at a time. Interested shoppers paid 39 cents for each starter piece with every $3 they spent at the store. A different piece of tableware was offered each week allowing consumers to assemble their own sets.

But all these initiatives could not stem the growing pitfalls of a global economy. Soon afterward, overseas competition, especially from Japan, caused Iroquois China to close its doors for good in August 1970, just a little more than a year after announcing the mini conglomerate of PEMCO. About 140 employees who had been enjoying a summer vacation since that mid-July were informed that the plant had closed and they were suddenly out of work. 

In August 1971, the Elias H. Frey & Sons auction business liquidated Iroquois China’s china-making and office equipment, as well as lathes, drills, grinders, welders, and other shop equipment. The factory store remained open and continued to sell china until about 1972.

Notable legacy

Throughout its 65-year tenure in Solvay, the Iroquois China Company manufactured tableware for some notable hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City; the Blackstone in Chicago; the Ryan in St. Paul, Minnesota; and the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado. The company also furnished china to all the railroad dining cars made by the Pullman Company. Along with the U.S. military, various branches of the U.S. government also purchased Iroquois China tableware, including all the china required by the government for the Panama Canal Zone construction project in the early 20th century. Other clients included the Southern Pacific Railroad, General Electric Company, the YMCA organization, as well as the Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba.

After the company closed its doors, John and Rita Yennock purchased the Iroquois China building and much of its leftover china in 1970. The Yennocks established China Towne Furniture & Mattress in the former china factory. In the lower portion of the building John Yennock produced his own furniture cabinets. In the upper portion, he sold the surplus china. In the early days of China Towne Furniture & Mattress, the store sold a mixture of wallpaper, paint, carpeting, appliances, knick-knacks, clothing, and even cars. As the Yennocks sold much of the residual china, they transitioned to selling more furniture and mattresses. Today, China Towne continues to operate its successful furniture and mattress business in the former Iroquois China building.

The Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) has a modest collection of Iroquois China consisting of assorted tableware, some pieces designed by Russel Wright and Ben Seibel. OHA’s collection also includes an ashtray made in the Crane China Company factory in Puerto Rico that was established by Iroquois China’s president, Earl Crane, in 1949 (Crane operated this company for just two years before he sold it in 1951). There is still an abundance of Iroquois China for sale on several Internet sales and auction websites. Most individual pieces are moderately priced and collectors have their choice of shapes and patterns designed by Russel Wright, Ben Seibel, Peter Max, or Michael Lax.        

 

Thomas Hunter is the curator of collections at the OHA (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

 

 

 

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