Why all the fuss about the Onondaga Pottery Co.?

As every archaeologist knows for every hour you spend in the field, you can expect to spend 4 hours in the lab. This has proven true for our recent field school excavations. A fruitful 5 week field school this past summer has left us with hours and hours of lab work. Our steadfast team of undergrad volunteers has been chugging along since September and we’ve finally put a dent in the artifact cataloging, yay! Now that we’re beginning to understand our vast array of artifacts, we can start to analyze patterns and research artifact types.

Onondaga Pottery, a.k.a. Syracuse China
Onondaga Pottery, a.k.a. Syracuse China: Gunson Unit D

One of the most common pottery types we found during our excavations of the Gunson site was green striped Onondaga Pottery Company Syracuse China. The company was initially founded as Farrar Pottery 1841, and changed hands a number of times until it became the Onondaga Pottery Company in 1871. Located in Geddes New York, Onondaga was named after Onondaga county, where it was located.

Onondaga Pottery Company quickly built a reputation for having high quality earthenware. Later, their shift to semi-vitreous China made them a nationally renowned pottery company. Their non-crackle guarantee (during this time the glaze on most American made pottery would crack, leaving marks across the product) made them the first pottery company in the US to carry such a warranty.

O.P.Co Makers Mark with date stamp - July 1914. Gunson Unit A
O.P.Co Makers Mark with date stamp – July 1914. Gunson Unit A

In 1884, the Onondaga Pottery Company teamed with Elmer Walter, who had a China decorating factory directly across the street from Onondaga Pottery. Before this partnership Onondaga produced only plain white China. Later, when Elmer’s factory was destroyed by fire, Onondaga hired Elmer and created an in-house pottery decorating department, one of the first of its kind.

Another O.P.CO. makers mark - Gunson Unit A
Another O.P.CO. makers mark – Gunson Unit A

The biggest turn for the company came in 1884 when James Pass became the company’s superintendent. James Pass, the son of Richard Pass the previous superintendent, grew up studying pottery. James studied analytical chemistry at Syracuse University in order to understand and overcome the problems in pottery manufacturing. When James became superintendent he developed America’s first truly vitreous china, known as Syracuse China.

The development of Syracuse China made the Onondaga Company what it is today. The company did not officially change its name until the 1960s, it quickly became known as Syracuse China because of the product’s popularity. The company found an intense market for Syracuse China in places like hotels, restaurants, and railroad companies. Onondaga’s 1896 chip resistant technology only enhanced its popularity in these markets.

Taking the history of the Onondaga Pottery Company a.k. Syracuse China, into consideration it’s easy to understand why we discovered so much of this pottery in the refuse pit on MSU’s campus. This high-quality, durable, china would have been ideal for a college campus. Dinner ware that can hold up to the trauma inflicted by college students and visitors is well worth its weight in gold.  With regards to the Gunson house, it may have served as more everyday serving ware as we also have Onondaga Pottery Company ceramic fragments that are not the three green stripes.  These examples are more delicate and detailed, with embossing and scalloping although we have yet to find a fragment with a date stamp.

Author: Kate Frederick




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