Abstract: 'It’s Our Bread and Butter': American Potters, Public Relations, and Corporate Social Responsibility

Stephanie Vincent


            In the face of public concern with business practice at the close of the nineteenth century, corporations engaged in the first attempts at public relations to control the narrative of their operation. By the mid-twentieth century, this practice was joined by the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, a business’s public demonstration of goodwill that cemented its place as a trusted member of the community. Both of these could be used to “civilize” a large company and make it socially accountable within the context of its community and its customer base. This paper will examine the practices of the three leading American commercial pottery producers, Onondaga Pottery (later Syracuse China), Shenango China, and the Homer Laughlin China Company as they sought to forge closer links with their workers, their communities, and their customers.

            The leaders of these plants knew that their success did not only come from the sale of a product but from the bonds forged between their neighbors and their workers. To cement these bonds, potteries actively engaged in fostering pride and loyalty at multiple levels. They encouraged their neighbors to seek out locally-produced china by encouraging them to flip over their plates when dining out, they engaged in community service and charity work through supporting charities, schools, and local sports teams, and they celebrated their homes and labor forces in local newspapers with advertisements crediting the community as a vital part of their success. These approaches represent the diverse ways in which American potteries sought to endure in a changing world. When foreign-made china posed a growing threat and the government refusing to pass a higher tariff or trade protection, any public overture to their hometown or any gesture that could bolster goodwill could provide a vital advantage in the battle to survive.