The "baseball vase": a classic ceramic piece made in Trenton in the 1870s.
A picture from a 1929 history of Trenton shows the city's first pottery in 1852, Taylor and Speeler.
|1923: An industry gets shattered
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
|Pottery is, the oldest of human crafts. By the turn of the 20th century, it was also a $40 million industry that supplied the nation's homes with plates, tiles, vases, china, sinks, tubs and toilets -- and Trenton was its capital.
More than 4,000 potters, painters, glazers and kiln men toiled in the city's ceramics factories, painstakingly turning out pieces praised as equal to the finest of English stoneware.
Each skilled laborer placed his personal mark on his product, passed trade tips on to apprentices and assumed his work would go on forever.
But in 1923, Trenton's pottery business was shattered by a crippling series of disasters.
First came a nationwide strike that broke the trade unions and allowed plants to replace skilled workers with labor-saving in machinery. Then came a federal trust-busting action that dissolved Trenton's pottery manufacturing cartel.
After the strike of '23, locally owned potteries found themselves getting swallowed up by national conglomerates -- a pattern that would be repeated over and over again in other industries, destroying Trenton's whole manufacturing economy.
“In the '20s, pottery is a vital, important industry," said Marc Stern, author of the book “The Pottery Industry of Trenton."
"But it's an industry that's going to disappear, because technology has changed and the nature of corporate structure has changed."
Pottery is made from the most basic of ingredients -- earth and water, tempered by fire -- and the best soil comes from the feldspar-rich dirt of Staffordshire, England. In 1852, two immigrants from Staffordshire founded the city's first industrial pottery, Taylor and Speeler on Mill Hill.
Another pioneer was Staffordshire potter Thomas Maddock. He was attracted by the city's strategic location astride the Delaware and Raritan Canal, giving him access to New York City and Philadelphia, and to the skilled labor living nearby.
In the 1850s, Maddock set up shop at Perry and Carroll streets and began marketing his tableware and tiles along the East Coast. If not the equal to Staffordshire pottery, Maddock pottery was strong, craftsmanlike and cheap, and it became a national brand name.
Maddock really found his niche in 1874 by branching into a new field, sanitary ware, which is basically a nice term for toilets. Soon, with Maddock at the forefront, Trenton was making more than 80 percent of the nation's bathroom fixtures.
"Like the crater of a volcano," one visitor described the Maddock pottery, and it was an intensely hot, dark place where potters spun wet clay into usable forms and kiln men lowered them into blazing furnaces.
Kiln men hauled the pottery around in "saggers" -- clay boxes that weighed as much as 50 pounds, and had to be balanced on the top of their heads. Long before Green Bay Packer fans adopted the nickname, Trenton pottery workers called themselves “cheeseheads” because of the slabs they hoisted on their noggins.
"It really pressed into your scalp," said one kiln man, Hugo Stockburger, who worked at the Scammel pottery on Third Street from 1924 to 1929 before becoming a state trooper, and is now 92. "That's how I started losing my hair."
The jobs offered little more than a living wage based on piecework, but membership in a trade union was a point of pride. The unionists regarded themselves as craftsmen, not mere factory workers, and formed the powerful National Brotherhood of Operative Potters.
The union jealously guarded its members' rights, ensuring that everyone got paid decent rates and no man would exceed his daily quota of pieces.
The bosses couldn't complain. "No machinery has ever been invented to ... work without the guiding hand of the potter," explained one brotherhood member in the 1890s.
Other potteries shared in Maddock's success. There was Walter Scott Lenox, who crafted
the finest American china ever made: ivory-tinted, eggshell-like plates and vases often preserved in museums. There were the Elite, Resolute, Egyptian, Bellmark and Young Potteries. There was J. L. Mott on Lalor Street, which built the world's biggest bathtub for 350-pound President William Howard Taft.
But during this prosperous time, trouble simmered under the sooty smokestacks of the Trenton potteries.
One source of future woes occurred when the owners formed the Trenton Pottery Association in 1894 to control prices and assign production levels to every pottery in the city.
The arrangement was winked at by federal authorities, who approved of controlling a market that might otherwise disintegrate into cutthroat chaos. But the Pottery Association was plainly a restraint of trade, violating antitrust law.
Meanwhile, inventors were coming up with ways to produce more ceramic goods at a clip faster than ever before.
One invention was the continuous kiln, a tunnel-shaped oven. Clay goods could be rolled through it, conveyor-belt-style. Another new technique was casting, in which liquid clay was simply poured into plastic molds instead of being shaped by hand.
These innovations threatened union jobs -- jobs that paid as much as $5 a day -- and the brotherhood was able to keep them out of Trenton potteries through the first 20 years of the century.
But after World War I, new potteries in Ohio and Indiana began to produce cheap wares and undercut Trenton pottery. The Trenton Pottery Association responded by demanding a 25 percent wage cut from the union when its 1922 contract expired. The owners also asked for time clocks, an increased use of casting and tougher penalties for hasty, inefficient work.
The unions felt blindsided. "We are at the end of our rope," complained the brotherhood president, Frank Hutchins, at a bargaining session.
In turn, the tactless president of the pottery cartel, Archibald Maddock -- the grandson of Thomas -- vented his rage.
"I hate anything and everything that has to do I with your organization; I despise them; they are a cancer; they are trying to ruin us;' the ticking a knife in our backs," he shouted.
Not the best conditions for labor peace. Still, union and management leaders reached agreement on a 10 percent wage cut and no time clocks. But all that work was undone when the brotherhood voted, 2,018 to 252, to reject the contract and go on strike.
The union began its strike on Nov. 1, 1922, with every expectation of victory. Nearly every skilled potter belonged to the union; surely, the owners could not find enough scabs to replace them. Strikers were, in fact so confident of getting hired back that they didn't even bother to organize picket lines around the plants.
Most of the city's 26 potteries closed rather than try to break the strike. But Maddock saw an opportunity; he declared an open threw his doors open to shop and anyone willing to work.
Casting was easy to teach the new employees, and the Roaring '20s resurgence in home-building meant there were plenty of orders to fill for tubs an toilets. Other potteries followed, and by December, business was at two-thirds its usual pace.
The potters, panicked, offered to return to work for wage cuts in January 1923. But by then, the owners scented complete victory and demanded that they accept an open shop.
On June 20, 1923, the union accepted defeat and ended its strike.
Of 4,000 members, only half would be rehired in the next year. The trade unions never regained anything like their former strength.
But if the strike seemed like a victory for the owners, they had other problems.
In April, two months before the strike came to an end, a federal judge in New York City found the Trenton Potteries Association guilty of violating federal law by conspiring to create a monopoly. Seven members of the association's executive committee, including Archibald Maddock, got $5,000 fines, and only an appeal by their lawyer -- future U.S. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes -- saved them from prison.
"You were ... in a powerful position to further your criminal purposes," a judge lectured the potter owners. "You refused to let the American public have a vital commodity when it needed it most."
However, the busting of the pottery trust only wiped out jobs instead of strengthening the union's hand.
Forbidden from setting price controls, Trenton's locally owned potteries found themselves in fierce competition with the cheaper Midwestern companies. Most of the time, they allowed themselves to be bought out. Tepeco pottery was the first to yield, selling to Chicago-based Crane Co.
Maddock tried to expand by building a huge new plant in Hamilton. He overextended himself, nearly went bust and was bought out by American Standard in 1929.
After the strike, 200 additional jobs were lost to mergers and automation. Those who remained in Trenton's potteries had to swallow wage cuts of as much as one-third.
Pottery as an industry did not altogether disappear in the Trenton area. After World War II, two small firms, Cybis and Boehm, began crafting world-class porcelain.
But of the 26 pottery firms in business at ?the end of the 20s, only two are still in business: Lenox and American Standard.
Both have moved to the suburbs.
"Capitalism is a double-edged sword," Stern said. "Did consumers get cheaper and more durable ceramic goods? Certainly. Did certain areas like Trenton suffer economic dislocation? That's true, too."