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History of Buffalo Pottery - Part 2

A Brief History of The Buffalo Pottery Company - Part II - Continued from Post of December 4, 2011

December 10, 2011 at 10:47am
2. The Buffalo Pottery

The Larkin Company required a considerable amount of pottery and china to satisfy its premium needs and merchandise of quality was expensive. Further, depending upon an outside firm for prompt delivery was chancy.

Among the pottery salesmen who regularly called on the Larkin Co., was one Louis Bown, representing the Crescent Pottery of Trenton, New Jersey. After numerous conversations between Bown and Larkin, a charter for the new pottery was issued in October 1901 and The Buffalo Pottery was capitalized at $50,000. Construction of the new plant was completed in 1903 and firing of the first kiln took place in October that same year.

Bown resigned from Crescent Pottery to become general manager of the new pottery enterprise. Wanting experienced potters to get the new venture off to a good start, he brought with him from New Jersey William J. Rea who was made the first superintendent of production. A number of other craftsmen were also hired.

Rea not only produced good pottery but tried constantly to raise the quality level, especially that of the underglaze ware. It was through his endeavors that the firm manufactured America’s first Blue Willow. Rea retired in 1927 after 20 years with the company.

Other knowledgeable and experienced employees were recruited from various potteries. Most skilled help was paid on a piece-work basis, and a conscientious worker could make a fine wage. Hence it was not long before potters from all over the country were seeking employment at Buffalo Pottery.

Among the job seekers coming early on to the pottery was Ralph Stuart a ceramic artist of the highest caliber. Hired in 1903, he brought with him a rich heritage in the ceramic arts. He, his father and his grandfather had all worked at leading potteries in the Staffordshire District of England. Stuart himself is said to have worked at Wedgewood and Royal Doulton. He was related to Gilbert Stuart who painted the renowned portrait of George Washington.

The original Buffalo Pottery buildings formed the largest fireproof pottery in the world. Constructed of brick, steel and concrete, it provided over 80,000 square feet of floor space and with more than 400 windows and skylights, an abundance of air and light entered the factory floor. It was the only pottery in the world operated entirely on electricity, power being supplied from a generator in an adjoining building.

Raw materials came from all over the world and were very carefully handled to ensure their purity.

There were 15 kilns in the Buffalo Pottery four of which were biscuit or bisque kilns, five “glost” (glaze) and six for decorating. The kilns could accommodate thousands and thousands of ware at one time, the bisque kilns burning the clay into ware of the whitest form, the glaze kilns fixing the glaze.

Thermostats for a kiln were unknown at that time. Instead, to gauge the temperature, the fireman peered through small holes at various points in the kiln walls and observed the condition of heat cones placed in groups of four. These cones were made of varying proportions of feldspar and clay, and of such consistencies that they would melt and droop at different temperatures. When the last little point just bent its head, the fireman knew he could stop shoveling coal.

When ware from the green room was taken to the bisque kiln, it was cream-colored and very fragile. After baking for fifty hours at temperatures ranging from 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, it emerged pure white in color, hard and bisquelike. Each piece was then brushed and sandpapered, to make it ready for the next step.

The production process was a continuous one, with a minimum of lost motion. Although the equipment at Buffalo Pottery was designed for maximum efficiency, probably the most important factor was the skill and experience of the management and the company artisans for they were strictly focused on turning out wares that were exclusive in design and pattern and of the highest quality.

Although most Buffalo wares were manufactured with the Larkin Company in mind, in time they were also distributed to wholesale and retail outlets. By 1908, Buffalo Pottery had selling agencies in New York, Chicago and St. Louis and by 1911 was exporting to more than 25 countries.

Early Buffalo Pottery pieces are easy to spot and identify since most of them were clearly marked and dated. From the beginning, the pottery had the foresight to date almost all the pieces it produced, a practice that was continued until mechanization entered the picture in the 1940’s.

In 1905 an underglaze Blue Willow was produced that was far superior in color, glaze and body to imported ware. Buffalo was the first pottery in America to succeed in producing a Blue Willow that not only duplicated but even improved upon the underglaze colors of the imported product, for which they were completely justified in claiming to be “…the originators of old blue willow in the United States.”

In 1908, seeking to produce an artistic quality product that would compete with and perhaps be superior to the prestige pottery imported from England at that time, Buffalo Pottery turned to the production of Deldare Ware. Today this ware is among the scarcest and most eagerly sought of all Buffalo Pottery products and commands a high price in the collector market.

An examination of the annual Larkin catalogs indicates that Deldare Ware was offered only once as a premium—in the fall/winter catalog of 1922-23. That catalog also represented the last time that Buffalo Pottery ware was mentioned as a premium. In the later 1920’s and 1930’s the Larkin Company turned almost exclusively to imported china for premiums because it was cheaper than producing their own.  Buffalo Pottery then turned to the manufacture of exclusive hotel and institutional ware under the  mark of 'Buffalo China'.

For decades the company was one of the biggest suppliers of this type of commercial china...they sold to railroad china vendors, created patterns and styles for individual restaurants and formulated some of the most unique china ground colors ever produced.

Sadly, though, on November 29, 1983, Buffalo China, Inc. was acquired by Oneida Ltd. of Oneida, New York and became a wholly owned subsidiary. A great American company that so richly symbolized the creative spirit of the country,  melted into the mediocrity of late 20th Century mass produced, design-less, featureless ceramic dreck.

First written by David Simons, June 1996, rev. December 2011

Sources: The Book of Buffalo Pottery, Seymour and Violet Altman, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1987.
Maine Antique Digest, March, 1997
Collectors News, March 1998
Colonial Homes, June, 1996, pp. 20

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