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Homer & Shakespeare Laughlin  

In 1871, two brothers from East Liverpool, OH formed a partnership to sell pottery ware, which was made in the factories located in their hometown. The siblings, Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin, were visionaries. Even though the pottery industry in East Liverpool had begun in the 1840's by taking advantage of the rich deposits of local clay and utilizing the Ohio River for transportation, the ware only came in a crude yellow. By 1870, public preference was shifting to a more sophisticated white ware that was being imported from England. The Laughlin Brothers jumped at that need, submitting a proposal to the East Liverpool City Council. As a result, the council gave them $5,000 in seed money to build and operate a pottery factory for production of white ware.

Their two-kiln plant was built on the banks of the Ohio River in 1873 on land purchased for $300 from Benjamin Harker, who had his own pottery factory next door. The Laughlin Brothers quickly gained a reputation for quality and, in 1876, their white granite ware won an award at the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. 

In 1877, younger brother Shakespeare pursued other interests. So the business continued as an individual enterprise, Homer Laughlin China Works. Prosperous through the 1880's, it became one of the better-known manufacturers of ceramic dinnerware and toilet ware in the United States.

The Wells & Aaron Families 

The next evolution in our history happened in 1889. William Edwin Wells, a young bookkeeper from Steubenville, OH answered a classified newspaper advertisement to manage the books of the growing establishment. In a very short time after being hired, Mr. Wells was managing the business while Mr. Laughlin spent time traveling with his wife. In 1897, Homer Laughlin had decided to retire to California to be near his son who had just graduated from Stanford University. He offered to sell the business to Mr. Wells and a financial partner, Louis I. Aaron of Pittsburgh. The sale was finalized on December 7, 1897.

With new ownership came accelerated growth. Within two years, a second plant was built in the East End of East Liverpool, expanding further to three East End plants by 1903. Key customers contributing to the company's rapid growth included the F. W. Woolworth Company, the country's fastest growing variety (5 & 10 cent) store chain and the American Cereal Company of Chicago, who was packing oatmeal bowls in Mother's Oats boxes as fast as Homer Laughlin could produce them.

The Move to Newell, WV  

The partners saw the need for further expansion, but there was no more room at the East End location. In 1902, a tract of land on the opposite side of the Ohio River was purchased from the Newell family. The North American Manufacturing Company was a formed as a subsidiary company to develop the town. That town would become Newell, West Virginia. 

To create the town, building lots were laid out, a water and sewer system was installed and electric power was secured. There was even a suspension bridge built across the Ohio River, connecting the new community with East Liverpool. Just as vital was a trolley line built to transport pottery workers across the river. 

History was made in 1906, as the company constructed plant 4, which was the largest pottery plant ever built in the entire world. The Homer Laughlin China Company now had a combined production capacity of 300,000 pieces of ware per day, allotting for 10% of the United States production capacity. With the feather in their cap of plant 4, the company's headquarters were moved to the Newell location to kickstart 1907.

The 1910's  

In 1911, Louis Aaron retired and was succeeded as president of The Homer Laughlin China Company by his son, Marcus Aaron. Rapid growth continued and, in 1914, plant 5 was opened with 16 additional kilns. The company now had a total of 78 ware kilns and 60 decorating kilns. 

Business was booming. In January 1917, W. E. Wells wrote to the Woolworth Company to recap their business for the year of 1916. He proudly communicated, "I think that I may safely say that this is the first time in history that the purchases of any one concern from any one pottery firm have reached the million (dollar) mark in one year." At an average price of 72 cents per dozen, that amounted to 16.7 million pieces of ware sold to one customer in one year.

The 1920's  

The early 1920's marked the beginning of the most revolutionary change that had ever hit the pottery industry. Until that time, a pottery's size was measured by the number of ware kilns that it possessed. Intermittent bottle kilns had a limited production capacity due to the many steps in the production process that required more than a week to fire a limited amount of ware. The only way that a pottery could increase its capacity was to build more kilns.

But in the early 1920's, continuous firing tunnel kilns were introduced to the industry. These kilns maintained their full firing temperatures constantly. This was a revolutionary change in production time, and the potteries with the financial resources rushed to build these new kilns. Firms without the resources would soon wither and die.

Not one to collapse, the Homer Laughlin China Company announced that they would build a new plant with tunnel kilns and retrofit old kilns with tunnel kilns. Three years later, plant 7 was opened. 

Ultimately, the old plants in the East End were phased out in favor of the largest Laughlin plant yet. Plant 8 opened in December 1929 with 800 employees in that plant alone. Initially, all of plant 8 production was allocated to make ware for Woolworth's, as its total capacity was now equal to 160 upright kilns.

The 1930's & 1940's  

The opening of the last great Newell plant coincided with the retirement of W. E. Wells in January 1930. He was replaced as general manager by his eldest son, Joseph M. Wells Sr. The company hired Frederick Hurten Rhead as design director in 1927, a post which he would hold until his death in 1942. Rhead's 15-year reign proved to be the most prolific period of new product introductions in the company's history. He designed Virginia Rose as well as several eggshell shapes. 

However, Rhead's most famous accomplishment was Fiesta. America's favorite dinnerware was introduced by The Homer Laughlin China Company with great fanfare at the Pittsburgh China & Glass Show in January 1936. 

With Fiesta leading the way, The Homer Laughlin China Company continued to flourish until the onset of World War II. During the war years, much of the company's production was shifted to the production of china for our armed forces. After the war, production returned to normal, and the company reached its peak production year in 1948. More than 3,000 workers were now employed to produce over ten million dozen pieces of ware.

Marcus Aaron retired as president of the company in 1940 and was succeeded by his son, Marcus Lester Aaron. For almost half a century, M. L. Aaron would serve as president.

The 3rd Generation Reign from 1950’s-1990’s  

A challenge emerged in the 1950's, due to a large increase in imported dinnerware that was produced in countries with very low labor costs. This competition took its toll on the American industry, and many potteries did not survive the decade. The Homer Laughlin China Company's management reacted to shift their emphasis from consumer dinnerware to commercial ware for the hotel and restaurant trade to counteract losses from international imports. 

In 1959, the Homer Laughlin China Company introduced its "Best China" brand of vitrified hotel china. J. M. Wells, Sr. retired at the end of that year, turning over the management of the company to the third generation of his family, Joe Wells, Jr.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were difficult years for the American pottery industry, with low-cost imports carving out market share in the retail markets at the expense of domestic companies. The Homer Laughlin China Company’s hotel ware was gradually becoming a prominent player in the foodservice industry, eventually overtaking retail dinnerware in sales volume.

In the early eighties, the company began to produce lead-free china, something that would become very important as the country became more environmentally conscious. Using lead-free glazes and a vitrified china body, Fiesta was reintroduced in new and updated colors. As this new version of their most famous product was being launched, Joe Wells, Jr. retired in 1986 and was replaced as executive vice president by his son, Joe Wells III. Then, at the end of 1988, M. L. Aaron retired as company president and was succeeded by his son, Marcus (Pete) Aaron II. The company was now in the hands of the fourth generation of each family.

The 2000s  

As Fiesta began to flourish in the retail sector and the Homer Laughlin China Company was becoming a leading force in the foodservice china industry, the aging factories were undergoing many changes. State-of-the-art computerized kilns were installed throughout plants 6, 7 and 8. Much-needed new forming and glazing equipment was installed and a self-contained "plant within a plant" was built at plant 8. Homer Laughlin was preparing to enter the new millennium as the industry leader in both the foodservice and retail businesses.

By 2002, ownership of the company was shared by third-, fourth- and fifth-generation members of the Wells and Aaron families, among others. Many of the shareholders were scattered throughout the country and had little involvement with the business. In an effort to consolidate resources and provide improved direction for the company, Joe Wells III, together with his sisters, Jean Wicks and Elizabeth McIlvain, purchased the interests of the other stockholders. In June 2002, Joe Wells III was elected president and chief executive officer. After serving for a decade, Joe stepped down and his sister Liz McIlvain took over as president in 2012. She was first female president in the company’s history, as well as the first time the presidency was passed between siblings instead of from father to son.

Since the reorganization, the company has experienced continued growth and is poised to move forward with the Wells Family's pledge to continue produce quality, American-made china and provide jobs for potters of the Ohio Valley.

A New Direction  

In 2020, The Homer Laughlin China Company took a bold step and returned to its roots, focusing solely on manufacturing dinnerware for the home. The foodservice divisions and brand names of The Homer Laughlin China Company and the Hall China Company were acquired by Steelite International. The Homer Laughlin China Company was renamed as The Fiesta Tableware Company. The Fiesta Tableware Company continues to operate in Newell, WV, as a retail-only tabletop and giftware manufacturer. In addition to the Fiesta brand, The Fiesta Tableware Company also manufactures and sells other tableware designs, previously only available to the foodservice marketplace, to the retail market and home chefs.