Under the leadership of E. J. Owens, Southern Potteries, Inc., began operations in Erwin in Unicoi County in 1916-17 using skilled labor brought from Ohio and local unskilled workers. Its product was known as Clinchfield ware, and the company’s letterhead insisted “Clinchfield on China is like Sterling on Silver.” An early switch in leadership in 1922, when Charles W. Foreman of Canton, Ohio, purchased the plant, did not change its emphasis. The pottery’s greatest period of growth, however, began in 1938 with a shift from the use of decals in decoration to a new process of decorating the china with hand painting under the glaze. Southern Potteries’ primary product became the mass-produced, hand-decorated dinnerware known as Blue Ridge, the increasing popularity of which made Southern Potteries the largest producer of hand-painted pottery in the nation during the 1940s. But the post-World War II development of plastic dinnerware and a rise in Japanese import ceramics led to such market loss for the Tennessee pottery that it had ceased operating by 1957, never to reopen. The American public’s recent revival of interest in Southern Potteries’ distinctive Blue Ridge patterns has led to a marked increase in the value of individual pieces among collectors, however, and Erwin is trying to capitalize upon this development.
The selection of Erwin in 1916 for the pottery site made sense for several reasons. Upper East Tennessee had become more accessible due to construction of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway (Clinchfield), completed in 1915. Businessmen of the region believed in the New South philosophy and saw its implementation as their means to prosperity. An end to the boom period in Ohio’s china industry after 1910 made a move away from that region to Tennessee more appealing as well. The natural resources needed for the production of the Clinchfield dinnerware existed in the immediate area and adjacent states, and potential laborers abounded. The railroad could carry the china to markets across the country and bring department store buyers to the pottery’s doorstep. With Kingsport just up the rail line drawing several industries to its locale, Erwin investors imagined that any number of companies might soon be locating in its narrow valley beside the Nolichucky River. That rush of new businesses failed to materialize, and for forty years Southern Potteries functioned as Erwin’s second largest employer, well behind the Clinchfield. The pottery’s labor force reached perhaps twelve hundred in the 1940s.
The significance of Southern Potteries has yet to be definitively measured, but several features deserve mention. The product itself, mass-produced pottery, was created at a remarkable pace. In 1926, in a single day, 2,400 dozen plates could be produced, making Southern Potteries the largest plant of its kind in the South. The company maintained this level of production even after all pieces were hand-painted. At its peak, around the end of World War II, female decorators turned out 324,000 pieces of Blue Ridge ware each week. This dinnerware represented a peculiar combination of assembly-line precision and individual decoration.
The pottery operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with coal-fired kilns and billowing smokestacks. Converting the kilns to gas fuel by 1940 eliminated the smoky exhaust. Southern Potteries employees were members of Local #103 of the National Brotherhood of Operative Potters, though the pottery was not a closed shop. Perhaps because Erwin’s largest employer, the Clinchfield Railroad, was also unionized, the town’s population did not go through the same disruptions over labor issues that plagued many other Appalachian communities in the 1930s. Earlier, in the spirit of welfare capitalism, the railroad had begun construction of a model community planned by the New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury for its employees. Forty-five residences were completed in 1917, and the railroad sold two-thirds of those houses in 1920 to Southern Potteries, which first rented them and then sold them to employees in the late 1930s. This planned neighborhood may also have had some influence on employee satisfaction. Certainly the prospect for local women of employment as decorators and finishers had a positive economic impact in the town and surrounding counties. The liquidation of Southern Potteries in the late 1950s meant some women sought work at other small industries in Erwin, and other employees, both men and women, and their families moved away to work in other potteries.