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This page was originally created as content for a website run by the Jefferson College Historical Society.  My grandfather Charles W. Atkinson, worked in the potteries in Canonsburg for most of his life and I saved the information found here in order to have my own copy of this article and the photographs.  I recently asked for permission from JCHS and Mr Herron, the author, and they graciously gave me permission to recreate this page on my website.  Thank you so much!






For a good many years, Kenny Rogers has been singing a song about meeting up with a gambler on a train bound for nowhere. The Canonsburg area got a couple of potteries under similar circumstances, though the train had a destination and one man was a preacher, the other, neither a gambler nor a stranger.

The story has the Rev. David R. MacDonald, pastor of the Canonsburg U. P. Church (Greenside) riding along in a train in Ohio some time about the turn of the century. On the train he met an old friend, W. S. George. What MacDonald was doing on the train and how he knew Mr. George are neither explained nor important.

The Rev. Mr. MacDonald would have been in his forties, having been born in Scotland in 1856. His family emigrated to Pittsburgh (actually Allegheny, now North Side Pittsburgh). After graduating from the Pittsburgh High School and Westminster College (in 1881), he taught for a while at Grove City College before enrolling in the United Presbyterian seminary at Allegheny. After his graduation in 1885, he served five churches in the Tarentum area, then was president of a mission college in Norfolk, Virginia. He came to the Greenside Church of Canonsburg in 1891. Mr. MacDonald's traveling companion, W. S George, was a bit younger than he, having been born in East Liverpool, Ohio in 1865. His father, also W. S. George, had been with the Lincoln Pottery Works there. The younger W. S. was an exceptional pottery decorator and had gone to the East Palestine Pottery Company in 1897. The following year he became manager. According to the story, George told MacDonald that he was looking around for a site on which to build a pottery. The preacher then told the potter that Canonsburg might be the place he was looking for. W. S. George came to Canonsburg and decided that David MacDonald was right. According to McFarland's History of Washington County, though, the effort to attract a pottery to Canonsburg began in 1899 with the subscription of stock by local residents. The lure was not clay deposits, but coal, gas, and the railroad. A company was organized in October 1899 with a board composed of W. S. George, Samuel Munnell, John L. Cockins, C. C. Johnston, and D. R. MacDonald. All were from Canonsburg except George: Munnell was in the ice business, Cockins, a furniture dealer, Johnston was cashier of the Citizens Bank, Limited (which became the Citizens Trust Co. in 1901), and MacDonald, the clergyman. The presence of the minister with this group of businessmen gives credence to the train story. The company began as the Canonsburg China Company, chartered February 21, 1900. A contract to erect a plant in South Canonsburg, then an independent borough, was awarded to Taylor & Crawford in April. The construction cost was $18,192, including a subcontract to James F. Speer for laying eleven million brick (presumably including the kilns). =======
Figure 1,right, from the Canonsburg Centennial photograph booklet, probably was taken in 1902. It was taken from Buffalo Hill and shows Meadow Lane beyond the buildings. Directly above the rightmost kiln is the South Side Ball Park. Chartiers Creek was beyond that (to the north), and the railroad right-of-way was on the far bank of the creek. Fort Pitt Bridge Works would later grow into the overgrown field on the other side of Meadow Lane. 
Comparison with the line drawing at the head of this page, from the Daily Notes in 1900, shows that the artist used a bit of license. 
Figure 2 probably was taken about the same time, as there are eight kilns, though from the opposite side. The buildings in the foreground, on the far side of a dirt street (Orchard Avenue) belonged to Taylor & Crawford's lumber yard. The pottery later expanded to the street. Buffalo Hill is in the background. Howard Taylor photograph. 
Figure 2a [Back Cover of JCTimes] Howard M. Taylor was the son of M. L. Taylor, of Taylor and Crawford, contractors, who operated a lumber and builders' supply yard on Canonsburg's South Side. He took this view of a driveway at the lumber yard in 1912. Reference to the 1913 Sanborn Map below allows the building in the background to be identified as the planing mill. Behind are beehive kilns of Canonsburg Pottery. 
Figure 3, from a post card mailed in 1909, is slightly more recent than the photographs on the preceding page, and there are now four kilns in a row. The picture shows the southern and western sides of the plant, from the corner of Orchard Avenue and Harrison Street.
Figure 4. Another post card, this one undated but showing rows of four kilns. The Fort Pitt Bridge Works office building is on the right with the ball park beyond. Like figure 1, the photographer was on Buffalo Hill, but farther north.

Neither contractor had far to travel. The site chosen for the pottery was between Meadow Lane and Harrison Street on the eastern side of Taylor & Crawford's lumber yard, which spanned Orchard Avenue. The pottery later bought the land between their plant and Orchard Avenue. Jimmy Speer lived just a block away, on Central Avenue.

With equipment, the cost of the plant came to about $50,000, and it began operation with eight kilns. The plant was leased to W. S George the first week in January 1901, and the first workers began to be hired. On January 21, the Notes reported that some '20 to 30 hands are employed at the pottery." Local 51 of the National Brotherhood of Operative Potters was organized February 20, 1901. By 1910, the capacity had been increased to 13 kilns: seven ware and six decorating kilns. Some 200 employees earned about $10,000 a month for putting out a quarter of a million dollars worth of ware a year.

The main ingredients of pottery are clay and water. The water was from the North Strabane Water Company, but the clay came from Florida, North Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, and Kentucky, as well as two kinds of clay imported from other countries. The pottery was dependent upon a railroad spur that passed through the Fort Pitt Bridge Works. A branch of the spur that served the pottery continued across Orchard Avenue into the lumber yard.

In 1910, the plant was producing "high-grade semi-porcelain dinner and toilet wares, fancy shapes, plain and decorated, cable and D.T. hotel wares and decorated specialties." About half was shipped to New York City for distribution.

The name of the business was changed from Canonsburg China Company to Canonsburg Pottery Company in March 1909 and it was reincorporated with $150,000 in capital stock, most locally held. W. S. George was elected president; John George (his brother), vice president and plant superintendent; James Shaw, secretary; and John C. Morgan, treasurer. John C. Morgan was in his mid-sixties and had lived in Canonsburg since 1878. Until 1903, he was in the dry goods business, and in 1891 he had built the four-story building on the southeast corner of Pike Street and Central Avenue that still bears his name. In 1909 he was vice president of the Citizens Trust Company bank and had served a term as county treasurer. A daughter, Edna, was the wife of Arthur Shaw of East Liverpool. Among Canonsburg Pottery's first projects was to build a second plant in the flat between the creek and the railroad in Canonsburg's West End, near Strabane. The main building, 450 by 150 feet, was finished in 1911. Soon the plant employed 200 workers. It was officially denominated Plant #2 but commonly known as the "upper pottery," since it was upstream on Chartiers Creek from the South Side facility.

W. S. George owned the East Palestine pottery and had bought a plant in Kittanning in 1905. He named the company after himself, the W. S. George Pottery Company. In 1910, a fire had severely damaged his East Palestine plant, and in 1912 he purchased the upper pottery. W. S. George lived in East Palestine, Ohio until his death in 1925, but his brother, John, who had replaced him as president of the Canonsburg Pottery, lived in Canonsburg.

The plan of the Canonsburg Pottery, figure 5, left, and of the W. S. George Pottery, figure 6,right, are from the maps of Canonsburg produced by the Sanborn Map Company, New York. The maps are dated November 1913. The building marked Hydro Metallurgical Works later became Standard Chemical, then Vitro Rare Metal Works, and the area would become contaminated with radioactivity.

In 1927, the Daily Notes took its readers on a virtual tour of the Canonsburg Pottery, describing the production of a single cup. First, powdered flint and spar rock, each gauged by an automatic scale, were mixed with clay from England or Kentucky. The amalgamation was mixed with water in a pug mill. The pottery had three mills, two to prepare clay from scratch and one to recycle previously mixed clay.

When thoroughly mixed, the soupy fluid was poured down a trough to a cistern where it could be stored until needed. From there, the suspension passed through a cloth strainer to remove dirt and much of the water. Then it was run over a revolving electromagnet to remove iron particles, which would rust and produce black spots in the finished ware. More water was removed in presses, producing leaves weighing about 72 pounds. These were put in a cool dry room to age. Better products required longer aging.

From the aging room, the clay was put in another mill and worked into rolls weighing 88 pounds. These rolls then were sent to the second floor on a conveyor belt. There, in a large room were machines known as jiggers, that shaped a ball of clay in a mold.

In operation, a boy put a lump of clay in a plaster of paris mold, which removed excess water as well as shaped the clay. Then the jigger rotated the mold at nearly a thousand revolutions per minute, spreading the clay over the inside of the mold. When the clay was shaped and was the correct thickness, the mold was taken off the machine and put on a rack by another boy. The ware was then taken to a room to dry. The output of a jiggerman and his assistants was some 400 cups a day.

The handle of a cup was made separately. In all other potteries in the country, plaster of paris molds were used, but Rush Kerr, of the Canonsburg Pottery, invented a metal mold to make the delicate parts more efficiently.

To make the handles, silica, soda ash, and water were added to the clay to make a thick liquid called slip. The slip was poured into a metal mold that made two dozen handles at a time. When dry, the halves of the mold were separated and a "tree" of handles was worked by hand to separate and smooth the individual handles. Then the points of attachment were moistened and the handles attached to the bowls of the cups.

The ware was then taken to the "greenhouse," which was so called not because it had lots of light, but because that was where green (unfired) ware was stored for several hours. Then the pieces were put in saggers (containers made of hard clay) and placed in what the newspaper called a biscuit kiln. After 58 hours, the bisque ware was removed from the kiln, brushed, sandpapered, and then dipped by hand in glaze.

The ware was again placed in saggers and taken to the glass kiln, where it was fired for 33 hours. The resultant pottery, called "rough ware," was usable but undecorated. Those that passed inspection in the glass warehouse were taken to the decor shop to be decorated, fired in a decor kiln, stored in a warehouse, then packed for shipment.

The article was written at the time operations at the plant were changing. With indoor plumbing, there was little demand for chamber pots. Both potteries emphasized dinnerware, though in 1944 the W. S. George Pottery still advertised "Toilet Ware and Specialties." Orders were being siphoned off by competitors in low-wage countries. This the management of the potteries complained about bitterly. In this country, child labor laws had done away with their own cheap labor. Note the number of young boys in the photographs.

Figure 7. The photographs are undated, but they would have been taken before the federal child labor laws of the 1930s were enacted.

Figure 8. Undated image of the W. S. George Pottery, probably from a post card.
Figure 9, left, and figure 10, right, show the potteries after 1935. Like the plans in figures 5 and 6, above, these drawings are from a Sanborn Map Company book. They were kept current by pasting alterations on them, but since the additions are undated, no exact date can be determined. Note the circular tunnel kiln on the Canonsburg Pottery plan, left.

Hand production was expensive. Plates, saucers, cups, and bowls were hand-jiggered by a crew of four at a rate of 300-dozen in an 8-hour day. Hollow ware, such as sugar bowls, creamers, and gravy boats, was cast in molds using liquid clay slip at a rate of a little less than two dozen an hour. Glazing of the bisque was done by hand dipping the ware in tubs of liquid glaze. Likewise, painting, decaling, gold stamping and lining was done by hand. The upright, beehive periodic kilns required a kilnman to place the ware in a sagger, carry the 30- to 40-pound loaded sagger on his head, climb a tall ladder, and place it on top of a bung (stack of saggers) for firing.

The kilns were fired with coal in a number of fire boxes around the base. Constant attention had to be paid to the temperature throughout a firing, and ashes had to be removed continually. Considering the number of kilns and the length of time ware was fired, ash removal would amount to a considerable expense.

In 1927, the Canonsburg Pottery eliminated its six decorating kilns when a gas-fired Holcroft Decorating Tunnel Kiln was installed. The modern technology improved the quality of the product as well as being more economical. The three bisque kilns were demolished in 1931 in favor of a Harrop Bisque Tunnel Kiln. The four upright glost periodic kilns gave way to another continuous tunnel kiln.

The decorating department was substantially automated in 1948, when decal machines and gold lining and stamping machines were installed. Hand jiggering lasted until a Wahl Quadramatic Jiggering Machine replaced the jiggering crews in 1953. Where a hand-jiggering crew could produce 300-dozen units a day, a crew of 6 to 8 could produce 300-dozen per hour with the automatic machine.

Arno Haber invented a ware dressing machine at the plant that was able to remove sagger pin marks from the backs of flatware at a rate of 300-dozen per hour, nearly doubling productivity. In addition, the number of firings was reduced from three to two beginning in 1960 by the use of a new type of decal. Formerly, a decal was placed over glazed ware which was fired a third time in the decorating kiln at about 1430F to fuse it to the glaze. The underglaze process allowed decals to be placed on the heated bisque, which was then glazed and glost fired. Also, the new method protected the decoration from dishwasher detergents.

A. C. Ward, who was in charge of the upper pottery from 1917 until 1930, held patents and oversaw modernization as well. In his time at the West End plant he patented a kiln bottom, a spreader, and a revolving drier. The patent for the drier was received just before he retired, after 43 years in the pottery business. He had come to Canonsburg in 1917 from Clarksburg W.Va.

Ward retired just as a revolutionary gas-fired circular kiln was installed in 1930. At the time, the company also was active in the development of a glaze spraying machine. On Ward's retirement, Wilmer Lane, foreman of the clay shop, presented him with a watch on behalf of all the employees of W. S. George Pottery No. 2. Ward was replaced by Frank George, who had been in charge of Plant No. 3, at Kittanning.

Figure 11, left, and figure 12, right, are details of an aerial photograph taken in 1939. The large, dark building in figure 11 is the W. S. George Pottery. The railroad, with a long string of freight cars is below the pottery, and the streetcar line is above. Chartiers Creek can be seen meandering through the frame. Figure 12, right, shows a somewhat straighter section of the creek at the top. The group of large buildings is Fort Pitt Bridge Works, with Canonsburg Pottery below and to the left. The street at the left of the picture is South Central Avenue.
Figure 13, below, is a 1952 photograph showing both potteries. The railroad is nearly horizontal, halfway down the picture. The W. S. George Pottery is at the left edge; Canonsburg Pottery is at the lower right. 

Both potteries survived the Depression, though they closed down temporarily. The lower pottery (Canonsburg Pottery) was affected less than the W. S. George Pottery. In 1934, the upper pottery was closed for six months. Sufficient orders were obtained to start up again in September and the company announced that within weeks 175 to 200 employees would be called back to work.

Donation ads by Canonsburg Pottery appeared in local publications like high school yearbooks and a "city" directory. The ware at top, figure 14, is a detail in an advertisement in the 1947 Canon Log, the Canonsburg High School Yearbook. In the middle, figure 15, is a full page Canon Log advertisement that appeared for three years, beginning in 1955. 
Figure 16, the photograph below, is of the decorating department from the 1961 ConSurvey Directory.
 

 

Production at the potteries tended to be seasonal. In 1937, both companies requested exemption from the 44-hour work week law. The newspaper item identifies R.G. George as representing the W. S. George Company at hearings in Harrisburg, and Willard C. George, the Canonsburg Pottery. The Notes reported that the Canonsburg plants were the only potteries in the state.

 

 

 

Figure 17 contains examples of dinnerware from the two potteries. Top left is a personalized set of dishes for a child, made by the W. S. George Pottery in the early 1940s. The commemorative plate in the middle of the bottom row was made by Canonsburg Pottery for the Canonsburg Sesquicentennial in 1952. The touch mark has a gold cannon against a blue sky, but the pottery identified itself only by initials. 

The ware in the row above, from Canonsburg Pottery, are named after people. Patricia was Willard's daughter and GeorgeLyn is easily deciphered to one of Jack's daughters. 

To the right is ware made in the 1960s. Canonsburg Pottery is spelled out and also appears as a "CP" logo, but the cups are marked only with the initials, "USA."

 

The Canonsburg Pottery on the South Side and the W. S. George Pottery, West End, were separate companies. The home office of the upper pottery (the W. S. George plant) was East Palestine, Ohio. The Canonsburg Pottery, though owned by the same family, was locally owned. John George, W. S. George's brother, was superintendent in the early years and became president of the company in 1915. John died in 1920, and his son, Willard C. succeeded him.

Willard George's three sons--John (Jack), William, and David A.--followed him into the company, and on Willard's death in 1948, Jack became president; William, vice-president; and David, secretary-treasurer.

Managers at the upper pottery reported to East Palestine, Ohio. W. S. George was president until his death in 1925. At the time he was considered to be the largest individual pottery operator in the country, possibly the world. His eldest son, W. C. George (a cousin of Canonsburg Pottery's W. C. George), was president from 1925 until 1951, when his son, W. S. George, succeeded him. In the early 1950s, Canonsburg Pottery employed about 350 workers in the production of semi-vitrous dinnerware. Employment of young boys was illegal, but the majority of the employees were women, who had lower pay scales than men. In 1950, the general superintendent was E. J. Boling, and plant superintendents included O. B. Hoon, Helen Williams, John Campbell, Les Phillips, and Delmar Hanley. The W. S. George Pottery also produced semi-vitrous dinnerware in the 1950s, but its work force, about 280, was smaller. The general manager of the plant was W. B. Kent and the plant superintendent, Frank Bedillion. On Tuesday afternoon, August 13, 1957, the headline of the Daily Notes announced, "Report Strabane Pottery Padlocked." The article said that the head office at East Palestine had denied the report. Lester Ward, treasurer, "admitted to a cut back in production and said that 97 per cent of the employees have been laid off." The newspaper had to redefine the location of the plant (it was in the Borough of Canonsburg) and an erroneous assertion that the company also owned the Canonsburg Pottery, but a week later Ward admitted that a receiver had been appointed. A national agreement between the potteries and the Operating Potters Union put further pressure on the W. S. George Company. Wages were increased by 14 an hour, which meant that women would earn $1.41 and men, $1.63. The Notes observed, "The Canonsburg Pottery is affected by this agreement." During the winter, the pottery hired some 125 under the receiver. By spring, the plant was idle, though the company announced a reorganization on the basis or receiving a $250,000 small business loan and $200,000 raised by the people of East Palestine. None of the George Family was in the list of officers. By 1961, the plant was operating, but by Haws Refactories, not the W. S. George Pottery. The Canonsburg Pottery, on the South Side, continued production, but the wage increases and improvement in automation, meant that by 1972 the work force was reduced to 170 persons. The output remained the same, about 850,000 pieces annually. Most of the former market--chain stores, department stores, and mail-order houses--had been lost to the Japanese, and the potteries' sales were described as being "through the various promotional channels." A 1970 advertisement in the high school yearbook used the name, "Pottery Company: Canonsburg Pennsylvania." As a result of protests by American dinnerware potteries, in 1972 an increased tariff was placed on imported ware. But the government giveth and the government taketh away. Pollution, safety, and health regulations were heaped upon the pottery and other industries. And, like its neighbors in the steel industry, the cost of doing business became too high to continue. By the end of 1976, there were only 100 employees, and within months, Canonsburg Pottery was in receivership. In mid-January 1977, production of dinnerware stopped. The Quadramatic machine would never again feed slugs of clay into molds to produce the crockpots Canonsburg Pottery had made in its last years. There were just two bidders for the plant: the Jeanette Corporation, which owned several potteries, and Angelo Falconi, president of Mac Plastics, in Canonsburg. Jeanette bid $350,000, but Falconi prevailed with a bid of $530,000. There was talk that the pottery would be put back into operation, but that was wishful thinking. Another source of pollution was shut down, but the jobs went, too.
 
 
N.B. The article's end notes are transposed to their locations in the text, bulleted, and colored blue.
 

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