On January 21st, 1966 the Onondaga Pottery Company officially changed its name to the Syracuse China Corporation. The company’s president, William Salisbury, announced that the change had been made because of “the broad national and international identification of the product name with the company.” The Onondaga Pottery Company was organized in 1871 and initially only made earthenware.
However, after James Pass joined the organization in 1885 he soon developed a new type of translucent chinaware which came to be known as “Syracuse China.”
The Onondaga Pottery Company began producing the first American-made vitreous china in the early 1890s and by 1895 the name “Syracuse China” appeared in the back-stamp. Syracuse China would come to be used in hotels, clubs, airplanes, trains, cruise ships, and restaurants around the world.
More on the history of Onondaga Pottery/Syracuse China and the company’s role in World War II
Prior to World War II, Onondaga Pottery Company (O.P. Co.) had been manufacturing a variety of ceramic products at its Fayette St. and Court St. plants in Syracuse. The company was world renowned for its fine residential china and commercial hotel and restaurant ware. In 1893, Onondaga Pottery Company won the High Award Medal for its ornate vitreous china known as Imperial Geddo at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1904, the company won the Grand Prize of Clays and Table Ware at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1896, the company installed the ceramic industry’s first in-house lithographic shop for printing decals that decorated the ware. In 1921, the company opened the Court St. plant to make its hotel ware, the first linear, one-story plant in the American china industry. By the late 1930s, O.P.Co. was decorating its ware with Shadowtone, an airbrush design that sprayed colors onto the ware through stencils. Although still in the midst of the Great Depression, the 1930s proved to be one of O.P. Co.’s most successful decades for design, reputation, and even sales.
By the fall of 1939, a new world conflict had begun in Europe, and two years later the U.S. joined its allies in Europe and the Pacific to fight the Axis powers. At the time, O.P. Co. employed 1,150 people. Once the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan, local men, and some women, joined the armed forces, and O.P. Co.’s workforce became predominantly women. Wartime production dramatically increased as these women assisted with filling large military orders for bowls, mugs, and plates for the Army Quartermaster and Medical Corps, Navy bases, and the Marine Corps. O.P. Co. also supplied large quantities of ware to the burgeoning wartime government agencies and bureaus, as well as the cafeterias at aeronautical factories and munitions plants throughout the U.S. During the four war years, the women employees contributed to making almost 60 million pieces of china for these military and civilian entities.
However, conceivably the most significant and secretive wartime operation at Onondaga Pottery Company was the development and production of the M-5 anti-tank landmine and the M-7 pocket mine. Working in conjunction with the Army’s ordnance dept., Richard Pass, company president, selected specialists from O.P. Co. and Pass & Seymour to develop a non-metallic landmine that the enemy could not detect with electronic mine sweepers. Army specifications stated that the landmine had to work in any type of soil, as well as under water, and it had to remain intact under the feet of infantry soldiers but explode under the slightest weight of moving vehicles. It also had to be effective between -40 & 170 F. The landmine required a specially designed chemical fuse. After seven months of research the O.P. Co. and Pass & Seymour design team created a non-metallic landmine that would detonate in any weather conditions. Tests were conducted inside Highland Forest Park south of Syracuse. Electrical workers at Pass & Seymour made the fuses and O.P. Co. employees made and assembled the landmines. The company also made the M-7 pocket mine, an explosive device carried by soldiers in their pockets and used for demolition purposes, as a booby trap, and as a hand grenade.
Production began in July 1943 and lasted fifteen months until October 1, 1944 when the military met their quotas for landmines and fuses. The project was kept secret until the Rochester Ordnance District released information to the public on July 28, 1944. A special section had been carved out of the Court St. plant and converted to landmine production. Several female employees were re-allocated to the Court St. ordnance division where they often worked seven days a week and produced 1.3 million landmines. On September 30, 1944 about 90 former ordnance employees attended a banquet in their honor at the Eastwood Sports Center.
The Army Ordnance Department recognized Onondaga Pottery Company as being a pioneer in the field of non-metallic ammunition and was commended by military officials for their work. On October 18, 1944, Court St. employees were presented with the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production of war equipment. The company also had the honor of flying the Army-Navy “E” Award pennant outside the Court St. plant. It was quite a tribute; only about 3% of all American production firms were qualified to receive the “E” award. President Pass, in his congratulatory speech to the employees stated, “The successful production of the mines here has been made possible only by the faithful, loyal work and support of every member of the Pottery organization. This support has accomplished more in aid of our country’s war effort than you may know.” The non-metallic landmines produced by Onondaga Pottery Company became known as the “Syracuse Secret Weapon of World War II.”
Onondaga Pottery Company had “turned a source of beauty into a force of destruction. One of the finer products, so much a part of the American Way of Life, became a force in the defense and preservation of that American Way.”
Once landmine and fuse production ceased, company officials turned the production space back to making civilian ceramic items. Many of the women who made the landmines and fuses decided to stay on at O.P. Co. From that point in time, more than half of the employee work force consisted of women. After World War II ended in 1945, returning male veterans joined these women in producing some of the finest American china the world has ever known. Later employees followed their parents and grandparents to work at Onondaga Pottery Company, even after the company officially changed its name to Syracuse China Corporation in 1966. Syracuse China continued to produce ware until it closed in 2009. At its closing, the Onondaga Historical Association acquired the remnants of the 138 year old establishment: business records & documents, decals & other designs, tools, and tens of thousands of pieces of ware. Although the company has closed and Syracuse China is no longer made in Syracuse, its legacy continues at the Onondaga Historical Association. Visitors may still see 138 years of company history and revel in the fact that Syracuse was once home to a company that made the world’s best china, as well as one of World War II’s “secret weapons.”
Curator of Museum Collections
Onondaga Historical Association