- "Your Food Is Only as Good as It Looks":The Shenango China Collection at the Lawrence County Historical Society
hidden gems, foodways, New Castle, Lawrence County, pottery, industry and business
The study of foodways refers to not only the role food plays in history but also how food is presented and the cultural and emotional responses it elicits. For many types of foods, preparation and presentation is not practical without a serving vessel, either flatware (plates, platters, and the like) or bowls of various shapes and sizes. To borrow from the Institute for Motivational Research, "sociological and psychological findings reveal that dinnerware serves a much deeper and more basic function than something from which to eat."1
For many, the nostalgic image of dinner prepared by a mother or grandmother is not complete without being served on the family's china. Others recall the excitement of dining out at diners and restaurants where the dinnerware invoked bright colors and patterns designed to complement the food on the plate. For nearly eighty years, much of this dinnerware came courtesy of the Shenango China plant in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Shenango was a leader of the industry into the late 1950s, when the company began to struggle from foreign competition and changing dining habits. Its story sheds an often unseen light on the history of dining auxiliaries. Indeed, for historians, very little in terms of archival information is available on American potters, especially those in food service. Shenango is one of the few potteries for which primary source records and physical collections remain. While the plant shut down in 1992, the memory of "The Pottery" remains, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Lawrence County Historical Society, located in New Castle. There, the Shenango China collection spans a wide variety of print and material sources to suit the interest of both casual observers and seasoned researchers.
The most visible piece of the collection is the society's vast holdings of actual product, much of it permanently on display at the Clavelli Mansion (the original home of tin plate magnate George Greer). The display rotates throughout the year to match either current exhibitions or seasonal changes [End Page 409]
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(fig. 1). For those wanting to dig deeper into the history of the plant as well as the history of food service, the adjacent Medure Annex holds a variety of source material from the plant, its products, and its employees. In the lobby, a number of Shenango catalogs, employee newsletters, and photos are available. Oral history accounts from pottery workers detail the everyday operations of the plant as well as the aftermath of the closure (these especially are useful for scholars of deindustrialization in western Pennsylvania). The basement offers a selection of the company's archives, ranging from roughly 1968 to 1990, which were relocated there following the closing of the plant. The day-to-day operations of the plant reveal the complexity in designing, maintaining, and selling dinnerware while dealing with domestic and foreign competition. A selection of publicity materials are available here as well, consisting of photos, original advertising proofs, and communications with promoters. These help reinforce the conscious decisions made in the crafting of china as an extension of the dining experience itself. As one advertisement states, "people don't eat out just to eat"; the shape or pattern mattered almost as much as the food it would eventually hold.2 To that point, the society also offers dozens of detailed pattern books from all of Shenango's lines, along with advertising fliers, price lists, and catalogs (including Stylebook 70, one of the first dinnerware [End Page 410] catalogs to consciously display the product with food on it rather than as a stock illustration). Scholars can also trace the plant's efforts to stave off failure in its final period of decline by perusing company memos, production notes, and attempts at participatory management as new owners tried all that they could to keep the business in operation...