Syracuse China: Fired Forms of the American Experience

For well over a century, the dinnerware produced by the Syracuse China company has reflected the ever evolving lifestyles of America. In its permanent exhibit on Onondaga Pottery and Syracuse China the OHA’s downtown Syracuse museum features nearly 200 examples of china made by the Syracuse China company, spanning a 130-year period. Accompanied by dozens of historical photographs, advertisements, and period graphics, the exhibition presents the captivating story of a Central New York company whose product became admired and heavily used across the nation.

Syracuse China has been a vital part of ornate hotel banquet rooms, roadside cafes, private clubs, elegant mansion dining rooms, suburban backyards, countless railroad dining cars, ocean-going ships, naval aircraft carriers and refined tea rooms. It can be found in locations that stretch from the governor’s mansion in Maine to the landmark Hotel del Coronado in Southern California. Examining the china and learning the stories of its decorations, shapes and marketing provides an intriguing look into America’s growth and dining habits.

Just a few of the pieces on display include an example of the company’s breakthrough Imperial Geddo ware, which won a prize at the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago; a 1910 plate used on a private car of the Empire State Railroad; an Arts and Crafts style serving dish with a pattern called “Indian;” a plate from the New York Central’s streamlined Mercury train, designed by Henry Dreyfus; and the exclusive Airlite shape developed for American Airlines in the late 1940’s.

The exhibit also contains a cup and saucer in the Wellington line, the last fine china shape produced before the company ended the household side of their business in 1970. Intense foreign competition, following World War II, and changes in America’s lifestyle in the 1950’s and 1960’s conspired to make the production of household china an unprofitable portion of the business.

To help communicate the rich history, the exhibit includes a life-size reproduction of a pottery worker, from about 1920, carrying rows of cups to the kiln for firing. Large murals convey visitors to the inside of the company’s clay shop in 1910 and to the aisle of a 1930 Union Pacific Railroad dining car. Hands-on activities include a game to match custom designs with the dining spot where they were used and a push button quiz to guess which plate is true china.

To convey the breadth of the Syracuse China story, OHA secured historic records from collections across the country, including Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the Western Heritage Center in Montana, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Ohio and the University of Baltimore in Maryland.

The exhibit also chronicles the specific history of the Syracuse China Company, which started in 1871 as the Onondaga Pottery Company, but can trace its roots back to the small Geddes, New York pottery of Williams Farrar, founded in 1841. Through the ceramic skills and manufacturing vision of James Pass, the company was expanded from a small local pottery into a national leader in the design and production of dinnerware. This was due, in large measure, to Pass’ development of America’s first true vitreous china in 1888. This was the highest grade of china ware, previously the domain of European potteries. Today, Syracuse China is owned by Libbey, Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, a national corporation serving the American dining industry.

The exhibit was made possible through the encouragement of Syracuse China and Libbey officials who made the company’s vast archives completely accessible to the exhibit’s curator, Dennis J. Connors, OHA’s Curator of History.

A tremendous resource for the company’s history was the 1997 Syracuse University publication, Syracuse China. Its authors included Syracuse China archivist, Cleota Reed, and long -time company employee and historian, Stan Skoczen. Both helped as advisors to the exhibit, along with Ruth Pass Hancock, the granddaughter of James Pass.