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Vodrey: Tri-State Still No. 1 in Pottery Making

February 21, 2011

WHEELING - Glass and pottery once made in the Ohio Valley are still so beloved that clubs dedicated to collecting the wares have soldiered on for years after the plants have closed.

Perhaps such clubs - like the National Imperial Glass Collectors' Society, dedicated to the glass once made in Bellaire, and the Fostoria Glass Society of America, dedicated to glass once made in Moundsville - are testaments to the popularity of the items, and also to their workmanship.

The question now is this: What is the state of the Ohio Valley's glass and pottery industry today?

Article Photos

File Photo by Shelley Hanson
Marble King machine operator Matt Wayne sorts marbles at the Paden City factory.

While the Ohio Valley currently is home to few glass and pottery companies, at one time hundreds of factories, such as Imperial and Fostoria, lined the Ohio River. Those remaining today - Marble King in Paden City, Homer Laughlin in Newell and Hall China Co. in East Liverpool - are recognized as the best in the industry.

Holly McCluskey, curator of Oglebay Institute Glass Museum, remarked on the area's glass history, noting the Tri-State region played a major role in glass production for years.

"At the turn of the (20th) century, 50 percent of all pressed glass was made in Wheeling and Pittsburgh," she said.

Fact Box

Glass once was a major employer in the local region, with 50 percent of all pressed glass made in Wheeling and Pittsburgh. What's the state of the glass industry today?

While glass companies such as Fostoria and Imperial no longer operate, their items remain popular, a testament to their quality, said Oglebay Institute Glass Museum Curator Holly McCluskey. Marble King remains in operation, and the tri-state area is still the nation's leader in terms of pottery and ceramics, with Homer Laughlin China Co. and Hall China Co. still popular with consumers, said Sarah Vodrey, director of the Museum of Ceramics, East Liverpool.

The glass museum, McCluskey noted, collects five main companies that once produced glass in Wheeling: Ritchie, Sweeney, Hobbs and Brockunier, Central and Northwood. The Sweeney company provided funding to start the museum, stipulating that it be dedicated to Wheeling glass companies, McCluskey said.

She noted the glass factories closed for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of a shift in the public's taste and an influx of less expensive foreign imports.

When glass factories were booming in the mid-1800s up to the 1920s, the fuels used to make it - coal and natural gas - were cheap and plentiful. An abundance of cheap fuel, combined with a skilled work force and easy access to the Ohio River and railroads, made the Ohio Valley the perfect place for glass production. Pottery, she noted, also used the same natural resources.

One local glass company that is still operating is Paden City-based Marble King, which makes marbles used for toys and industrial uses, such as in paint cans. Beri Fox, Marble King president and chief executive officer, said her company uses mostly scrap glass to create its marbles, but also produces some "virgin glass."

Fox has talked publicly about the future of American manufacturing and how the United States needs a strong manufacturing base to survive.

"American manufacturing is the backbone of America," Fox said during a recent reception for a new Marble King exhibit at the Delf Norona Museum, Moundsville.

Fox noted as manufacturing declines so will innovation, as the nation cannot have one without the other. To help keep her business going, Fox said she plans to continue to diversify how her marbles can be used, as children do not play with marbles as in years past. As one example of diversification, Marble King marbles are often used in spray paint cans.

When it comes to pottery, the Tri-State area still is No. 1 in the manufacture of ceramics in the United States, said Sarah Vodrey, director of the Museum of Ceramics in East Liverpool. This distinction, she noted, is true mainly because of two local companies that are still making pottery sold across the nation: Fiesta-maker Homer Laughlin China Co. in Newell, and Hall China Co. in East Liverpool. Last March, Homer Laughlin announced it was partnering with Hall China Co., allowing Homer Laughlin to sell Hall China products.

"We're still the pottery capitol of the country based on the ... number of potteries and based on the fact more is still made here today than anywhere else," Vodrey said, referring to the East Liverpool area.

Vodrey said she has talked to people in the industry and for American pottery companies to survive, they need the playing field leveled.

"They're not asking for an unfair competitive advantage. They want everyone to play by the rules," she said, referring to cheaper foreign imports.

Many foreign competitors, Vodrey noted, do not have the same business practices or child labor laws as the United States. And until the playing field is leveled, Vodrey said she and others will continue to support American pottery manufacturers.

"Any place I go, I turn plates," Vodrey said, referring to looking at a company's stamp on the bottom of a pottery piece.

And if that plate was made in the United States, Vodrey said she takes time to thank the restaurant owner for buying American.

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