History of Southern Potteries

The following is reprinted with permission from Blue Ridge China Today by Frances and John Ruffin.

In 1916, the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad selected Erwin, a small town in northeastern Tennessee, as the site for a pottery. The railroad was attempting to develop commercial enterprises along its lines as sources of revenue. Jack Conley, a retired railroader still residing in Erwin, recalls that raw materials - coal to fire the kilns, feldspar for making pottery - were transported by a trunk rail line to the pottery. Finished products were then hauled by train to major rail distribution centers for transport across the country.

The railroad, which had established machine shops in Erwin, decided that the town was situated in a uniquely beautiful natural setting and deserved more than random residential and commercial development. In 1916, Grosvenor Atterbury, a New York City architect, was engaged by the railroad’s land holding affiliate, Holston Corporation, to draw up a planned community. Two basic house plans were utilized to construct approximately fifty homes intended to house pottery employees. Rather than sell the lots in their planned community, the company built homes as rental units in order to control land usage and influence others to follow their lead in developments throughout the town. These homes still stand today, although most have undergone renovations over the years and are now privately owned.

The pottery was constructed in 1916 along the traditional lines of potteries of the day-one long building housing seven beehive kilns. Two additional kilns were added later. In the earliest days of the new pottery, local artisans were trained in gold lining, a popular method for decoration of china at that time. The new potteries’ first commercial production of china occurred in 1917. At that time, the work force consisted of around one hundred employees.

Early operators for the new pottery were brought from Ohio and West Virginia by E.J. Owens, who owned a pottery in Sebring, Ohio, to initiate the production lines at the new plant. It is believed that the Owens family actually owned the pottery in Erwin from the outset.

Southern Potteries went public in 1920 when it received its corporate charter and stock totaling $500,000 was initially offered for sale. Charles W. Foreman, an associate of Owens in Ohio, bought the pottery outright in 1922. Foreman is credited with the introduction and perfection of the hand painting techniques which were to characterize Blue Ridge China in future years.

From 1917 through 1938, patterns were primarily applied to the bisque (the fired clay-like blank shapes) by use of decals, may of which were commonly used by other china producers of the period. Beginning in 1938, most patterns were hand painted on the bisque prior to glazing. Trained by the pottery to produce the brush strokes and techniques to be used for each pattern, local women (and a few men) fashioned leaves, stems, flowers, scenes, and animals commonly seen in Blue Ridge patterns.

Blue Ridge production methods seldom utilized embossed (raised) or incised (cut) methods to outline the pattern designs as did many of the period’s potteries. Often the patterns were painted on the unglazed bisque after an outline of the central object of the pattern had been hand stamped on the object. This helped as a point of reference and to provide some sense of consistency in production. For the most part, painters freehanded the details. Obviously, some variances in the same pattern among various painters and even the same painter occurred at different times. These differences make Blue Ridge China truly distinctive; in fact, each piece is an original work of art.

Southern Potteries had a reputation of accommodating its customers, both large and small. Large order customers were able to command small and large changes in standard Blue Ridge patterns to suit the whims of their purchasing agents. On the other end of the spectrum, Southern would accept orders for as few as one dozen of a single item from small order customers. According to Earl Peterson, a former employee, it was not unusual to have upwards of one thousand of these small orders on hand an any point in time.

By the time World War II broke out, Southern Potteries ranked as one of the largest producers of china in the United States. Production reached its peak in the early 1940s when imports were largely excluded from the domestic marketplace. With over 1,000 employees, approximately half of whom were painters, production reached an estimated 17 million pieces a year during the mid-1940s.

Southern Potteries’ work force was completely unionized. Approximately half of the employees at any point in time were painters. According to surviving artisans, the starting wage for painters was 13 1/2 cents an hour in 1941.

By maintaining eleven Blue Ridge showrooms throughout the country from New York’s Fifth Avenue to San Francisco, Southern Potteries introduced customers to the varied patterns of the largest hand painted china producer in the country. Additionally, Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward carried Blue Ridge china in their stores and mail-order catalogs. It was not unusual to see Blue Ridge china offered as premiums by retail stores and producers of consumer goods throughout the country.

World War II brought Blue Ridge to its height of popularity, and its end sadly brought it gradually to its demise within twelve years after “VJ-Day.” After the war, imports gradually increased until, in the mid-1950’s, most American potteries were unable to remain competitive with the lower-priced imports, primarily from Japan. Increasing domestic labor costs and the introduction of plastic dishware added to the difficulties American potteries faced. By the end of 1956, Southern Potteries was down to around 600 employees, many of whom worked only part-time. Southern’s board of directors voted to close the pottery in January of 1957. Directors were able to close the doors without resorting to bankruptcy; in fact, stockholders received a final dividend.

After closing in 1957, a number of Blue Ridge painters went to Cannonsburg and Stetson potteries to complete orders existing at the time Southern Potteries closed its doors. This accounts for some of the similarities often seen in the finished products of the three potteries.

The remaining structure of the original Southern Potteries complex stands abandoned today as a small haunting reminder of what once was the nations largest producer of hand painted china. Today, it is an attraction only to the growing numbers of Blue Ridge collectors, who sense that no journey to Erwin is complete without visiting the spot where Blue Ridge china had its origins.