Pottery Products, NEC

SIC 3269

Industry report:

This industry consists of manufacturers of art and ornamental pottery, industrial and laboratory pottery, unglazed earthenware florists' articles, and earthenware table and kitchen articles, as well as those establishments primarily engaged in firing and decorating white china and earthenware for the trade.

Industry Snapshot

Pottery products, not elsewhere classified, had 1,440 establishments in 2009. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the industry employed about 6,725 workers with an industry-wide payroll of nearly $219 million. The total value of industry product shipments increased from $631.3 million in 2007 to nearly $790.3 million in 2008. However, the industry generally was in decline from totals of the late 1990s, when the value of shipments was commonly over $1 billion annually.

The manufacture of pottery products, like the manufacture of vitreous china table and kitchen articles (see SIC 3262: Vitreous China Table and Kitchen Articles) is an anomaly in twenty-first-century American industry. It is labor intensive and to a large extent involves machinery and techniques that have changed little in the last half century.
Pottery is made of clays that are mixed with other chemicals. Some pottery products are made on modern versions of potters' wheels, and some are glazed and fired at extremely high temperatures to become vitreous china. Pottery that is glazed and fired in a kiln becomes vitrified, or nonporous and glass-like, when the high temperatures cause the glaze to fuse with the clay; this china is both delicate and extremely durable. For this reason, it is used for fine giftware such as bone china figurines and lamp bases.

Competition from abroad was intense. Pottery products were sold in the United States from Japanese, English, Chinese, and Spanish manufacturers, among others. Imports accounted for almost three-quarters of the U.S. gift market. During the first half of the 1990s, weakness in the U.S. dollar helped to even the playing field somewhat, allowing U.S. manufacturers to sell more of their wares in Canada, Taiwan, and Mexico. However, as the decade progressed and the dollar again strengthened, foreign manufacturers regained the upper hand. The weakening dollar in the early and mid-2000s did little to boost exports as other nations also experienced recessionary economic conditions.

The industry is also closely tied to economic conditions, as many consumers consider art and ornamental pottery to be a luxury. Although the U.S. economy recovered in the early 1990s, the upturn in the giftware market was slower than in other industries. Even fine china, once considered a staple of the bridal market, was being rejected in the late 1990s by some young couples who preferred to put more money into electronic equipment or more expensive housing. Between 1997 and 2002, industry shipments for the vitreous china, fine earthenware, and other pottery product manufacturing industry declined from $1.7 billion to $1.2 billion. Shipments of pottery products, not elsewhere classified, accounted for 59 percent of vitreous china, fine earthenware, and other pottery product shipments. As the decade continued, the industry was further weakened by poor economic conditions of the late 2000s and increasing competition from cheaper imports.

Organization and Structure

The pottery products industry is led by several manufacturers that also create tableware and kitchenware made of vitreous china and semivitreous earthenware. Much of the equipment used by these manufacturers is the same for all these products. Glazes and kiln temperatures vary widely, however, and the manufacturers often keep their different lines separate. Some manufacturers, for example, create their unglazed red earthenware lines in a separate plant from their semivitreous tableware lines.

The giftware market is critical for these manufacturers. Some of the promotional or commemorative pottery items slid through the recession without suffering, as corporate buyers continued to purchase promotional ceramics at much the same rate.

Background and Development

Porcelain was being made in China as early as the ninth century. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fine porcelain art objects were being created in Europe as well. When immigrants came to the United States, they brought their crafting techniques with them. The Ohio River Valley, where manufacturers had easy access to kaolin (the soft, white clay that is essential to the manufacture of china and porcelain), became the first pottery manufacturing center. By the late 1990s, more of the companies working with pottery products were in California, but companies in Ohio and Pennsylvania still accounted for nearly 15 percent of the industry's total shipments. In 2002, the U.S. Census reported that for the vitreous china, fine earthenware, and other pottery product manufacturing industry, California had 98 establishments, followed by Pennsylvania with 41 establishments and Ohio with 40 establishments.

The Industrial Revolution changed the manufacture of porcelain products just as it had changed other industries. Around the world, potters, who had created hand-thrown ware and painstakingly decorated their work one piece at a time, began to change the procedures they used. Mass copies of pottery objects became available at lower prices as the processes became more efficient. Some manufacturers objected to the new ways, however, and insisted on maintaining individuality and high quality in their wares.

Potters in the United States also had to adapt to the changing tastes and needs of their communities late in the nineteenth century. They had to compete with increasingly available glass and tin containers, and many of them expanded their product lines to include red earthenware pots, which became the only luxury many consumers allowed themselves through World War I and the Depression. For many U.S. potteries, these flowerpots were the company staple for decades.

During the recession of the late 1980s, the U.S. giftware market suffered. Even affluent consumers who purchased artware, stoneware, and earthenware items were becoming more price conscious. Manufacturers had to lower prices or develop newer lines to compensate for losses. However, while the retail market was sluggish, many manufacturers covered their losses by responding to increased demand for promotional giftware and tableware. In the dinnerware market (also covered in SIC 3262: Vitreous China Table and Kitchen Articles and SIC 3263: Fine Earthenware (Whiteware) Table and Kitchen Articles) more than half of sales were through mass merchants and department stores.
Giftware in the 1990s became increasingly diverse. New designs of ceramic and pottery items reflected interest in the environment and in multicultural themes. Both wholesalers and retailers displayed collections of pottery and stoneware that were reminiscent of specific cultures, or that were politically correct, environmentally friendly, or both. One popular cookie jar was designed to resemble the earth, complete with raised continents. Certain traditional items, such as elegant china and earthenware figures, still sold well.

The increasing concern about lead content in earthenware, pottery, and other ceramics led to the establishment of the Coalition of Safe Ceramicware (CSC). In early 1992, with Proposition 65, the CSC pledged that its members complied with all of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards regarding safe levels of lead, which required labeling on chinaware warning consumers if a product exposed them to more than 0.5 micrograms of lead per day, and with the California Tableware Safety Program.

The U.S. economic boom during the latter half of the 1990s gave a boost to giftware sales. However, increasing competition from imports undercut gains for U.S. pottery manufacturers. As the U.S. economy began to suffer in the early 2000s and through the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, shipment values of pottery products, not elsewhere classified, declined from $941.1 million in 2000 per the U.S. Census Bureau to $779.2 million in 2001 down to nearly $694 million in 2002. These figures included the shipments of products that were primary and secondary to the industry. Most of the value of product shipments for this industry came from art and decorative ware made either of china and porcelain, or of earthenware and stoneware.

Current Conditions

The value of products shipped continued to decline through the 2000s, falling from $1.1 billion in 2005 to $631.3 million in 2008. The economic recession that struck the United States in 2008 did not bode well for the industry, which was partially tied to the availability of disposable income. Not only did U.S. production fall during the late 2000s, but consumption fell as well. For example, the value of imports of pottery fell from $1.035 billion in 2006 to $677.4 million in 2009. During that period, the United States became increasingly dependent on China for its pottery imports. In 2006, China supplied $422.5 million of goods or 40.8 percent of pottery imports. In 2009, although China's total dropped to $325.7 million, its share of the U.S. import market increased to 48.7 percent.

In addition, the industry continued to battle trends toward cheaper imports as well as growing public perception that clay may contain unsafe lead levels. During the 1980s and 1990s, the EPA had led the charge to reduce the amount of lead in ceramics and other products being produced in the United States and being shipped into the country. Although by the late 2000s, the United States had in place very stringent lead level policies, other countries were not as strict in either their regulations or their enforcement of those regulations. As a result, often times consumers were unsure whether clay-based products were safe to use for food consumption. Because of the EPA's successful awareness campaign, consumers were more apt to steer away from clay-based products.

Industry Leaders

In the late 2000s, most of the recognized leaders in the manufacture of pottery products also manufactured fine earthenware or vitreous china table and kitchen products. Most industry leaders had been in the business for many years. Pfaltzgraff, founded in 1811 and headquartered in York, Pennsylvania, was recognized as the oldest continuously operating pottery manufacturer in the country. Operated by the Pfaltzgraff family for generations, the company expanded throughout the 1980s, purchasing another well-known manufacturer of pottery products, Syracuse, in 1983. In 1988, Pfaltzgraff bought Treasure Craft, a California company that was known for its giftware and household ceramic products. It had been owned by Susquehanna Broadcasting but in 2005 was purchased by the New York, New York-based Lifetime Brands Inc. In 2008, Lifetime Brands closed its 53 Pfaltzgraff and Farberware retail outlet stores due to ongoing poor performance. In 2009, Lifetime Brands, which also included over 30 brand names such as Cuisinart and KitchenAid, reported revenues of $415 million.

Lenox China, founded in 1889 in Trenton, New Jersey, was purchased by Brown-Forman Corp. of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1983. The china company's founder, Walter Scott Lenox, formed the Ceramic Art Company, which made table items as well as gift and art pieces including parasol handles, vases, inkstands, and thimbles. In 2005, the Lenox brand began operating under the Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Lenox Group Inc. However, the firm filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and was acquired by Clarion Capital Partners, which moved the headquarters to Bristol, Pennsylvania under the moniker Lenox Corporation. The company also sold off its Department 56 giftware segment to Enesco, a collectibles firm based in Itasca, Illinois.


Many workers in this industry spend their entire careers perfecting one job. Each job in production is unique, from the creation of the special clay mixture, called slip, to the packaging of the final products. Training a potter takes many years, and most manufacturers in this industry hire production workers with the intention of investing the time required so the workers learn the craft from top to bottom.

Some plants have a sliphouse, where there are machine operators, mixers, and others who must bring the raw materials to exactly the right consistency before it can be cast. Casters pour the slip into plaster of Paris molds where it dries for a specified length of time. The porous molds draw moisture out of the slip until enough of a shell forms the outlines of the product. If it sits too long, when the rest of the slip is poured out, the shell will be too thick to be glazed and fired. Each manufacturer has its own recipe for the slip and its own methods for casting, but each step is carefully monitored.

After pouring out excess slip, casters and finishers sponge the products, removing coarse edges and seams left over from the mold. In some plants, jigger men work in shaping and forming the clay, and cutters and finishers work in drying and secondary shaping. The pottery where the products are cast can be very dusty during the drying operations. During certain hours each day, all workers are required to wear respirators. The pottery, then known as greenware, must dry, usually overnight, before it is ready to be glazed and fired.

Most glazing is done by a glazer; glazes are sprayed onto one piece at a time. Some glazes are applied by glazing machines. In most factories, loaders place greenware onto tiered carts that can be moved from the casting room through the glazing department and directly through the kilns. Kiln operators and loaders get used to the intense heat needed to vitrify the greenware. Glazes and ceramics become melded together, forming the impermeable vitreous china. Kilns reach temperatures of up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit; therefore, they are almost never shut down, since it would take close to two weeks to get them back up to firing temperature.

Once they emerge from the kiln, the products are checked by inspectors and chosen by selectors. Pieces that are slightly defective are sent back for regrinding, reglazing, and refiring. Many items, especially in giftware, are then specially adorned by decorators. These must also be seen by inspectors before being sent to the packing department.

The manufacturers also have support departments, including machine shops, where machinery can be repaired or cleaned; mold departments, where plaster molds are made and repaired; and warehouses that handle shipping and receiving. They also have administrative departments covering human resources, public relations, corporate development, and other general business needs.

Many of the plants where pottery products were manufactured were unionized. Some of the organized workers belonged to the Glass Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union (GMP). The GMP published a health and safety manual that identified potential workplace hazards for manufacturers of dinnerware, chinaware, and other pottery products. The unions were also active in negotiating wages, certain workplace standards, vacation time, and other benefits for their members. In 2010, the GMP had over 250 local unions and represented thousands of workers.

Research and Technology

Much of the technology employed by the pottery industry in the mid-2000s was the same as it had been centuries ago. The factories in the early twentieth century used more machinery to produce more pottery, but the essential ingredients remained. For example, hand-throwing techniques were supplemented with hand-jigger machines. Today's potter's wheel is electric, and a jigger blade is usually used to quickly shape a plate. Salt glazing was gradually replaced by dip-glazing, in which the ware was dipped before firing. In some plants, pottery is glazed automatically, while in others, glazers spray glaze onto only one item at a time. Only slight changes have been made in the recipes for clays, the shape and type of molds, casting methods, and firing techniques.

However, some manufacturers were looking in new technological directions in the early 2000s to keep foreign competitors at bay. Pfaltzgraff was the first in the industry to have a dry press system, which formed, finished, decorated, glazed, and fired pottery products in one continuous process. It vastly increased productivity, especially for plates and small bowls. The company also invested in a CAD/CAM system that provided 3-D images of finished products so problems could be anticipated and corrected before production began. In 1997, the company estimated that it saved nine to 18 months in production and discarded one-quarter fewer pieces of china because of the CAD/CAM improvements.

The larger changes for the pottery products industry were in the general way business was conducted. In order to survive, these small, family-owned potteries had to become businesses that competed not only in the national but also in the international market. It was no longer enough to make a quality product. Manufacturers also had to market and sell their wares, create new innovations, and pass on to a new generation of potters the desire to keep this age-old craft thriving.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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