Another Serving of Restaurant China
By Linda Nelson
Many companies have made china for use in commercial food service over the course of American history, and many have gone out of business or changed hands and names. The history of the industry, if depicted graphically, might look like the crisscrossed lines of the Interstate Highway system linking the various states where dinnerware was made. Only a few companies discovered the secrets to long-term success and even fewer remain in business today.
After 85 years, the Sterling China Company is still turning out quality dinnerware for use in the food service industry. Since its beginning in 1917, Sterling China has made millions of pieces of dinnerware for use by hotels, restaurants, airlines, railroads, steamship lines, and hospitals.
The company's history reaches back past its 1917 founding. Like so many other makers of American dinnerware, Sterling China has a history checkered with changing owners, acquisitions, and name changes. Sterling China was founded in Wellsville, Ohio, and maintained offices for many years in East Liverpool, Ohio, but its business endeavors reached far and wide. Let's begin by going back to another city and other companies that were to play significant roles in Sterling China's history.
Pottery History in Trenton, New Jersey
By 1869, the pottery industry was gaining strength in Trenton, New Jersey. Thomas Maddock entered the pottery industry, and soon his family had a number of potteries operating there. In another part of Trenton near the Port of Lamberton, three Quakers, George Comfort, Thomas Bell, and Jonathan Stewart, formed a two-kiln pottery that they named the Lamberton Works after the nearby port. In 1892, a fire in one of the Maddock plants caused Thomas Maddock to buy the old Lamberton Works plant for his Maddock Pottery Company. The Maddocks made a fine grade of semi-porcelain for use by hotels at the Lamberton Works plant, including lines called America China and Lamberton China.
In 1901, D. William Scammell joined the Maddocks and soon was investing in the company. In 1923, he bought the remaining interest in the company and formed the Scammell China Company, which made hotel and railroad china. Scammell China made lines named Lamberton China and Trenton China, but which were made with formulas different from the Maddock's formula. Scammell China became leading restaurant china producer.
Sterling China Begins
Meanwhile in 1917, B.E. Allen founded a pottery in Wellsville, Ohio, that he named Sterling China Company. The company began making cups, bowls, and mugs then gradually added new items. This Sterling China Company had no connection to the Sterling China owned by the Sebring brothers that made semi-porcelain for household use. As the company grew, it continued to add new body colors and decorations. Sterling China installed the first dipping machine for glazes for use by an American producer of restaurant china, replacing the old hand-dipped method.
By World War II, Sterling China was producing a tremendous amount of china. One source stated that Sterling China produced most of the dinnerware used by the United States armed forces during the war. The company's success continued, and by 1949 it was counted in the three top producers of hotel and restaurant china. An ad that appeared in Hotel Management indicated that Sterling China had nearly 700 dinnerware patterns.
Following the war, famous ceramic and industrial designer Russel Wright created a streamlined dinnerware for Sterling China that was produced until 1950. The solid color dinnerware came in three colors: Ivy Green, Straw Yellow, Suede Gray, and Cedar Brown. Sterling China also used his dinnerware shapes with decals and airbrushed designs.
Lamberton Joins Sterling China
In 1954, Sterling China took over the Scammell China Company and added the Lamberton line to its products. Sterling China still offers a line named "Lamberton."
In the early 1950s, Sterling China obtained a plant in Puerto Rico and produced dinnerware under the Caribe label until 1977 when that plant was closed. Sterling China acquired the Wellsville China Company, which had started around 1900 in the old Pioneer Pottery factory only three blocks from Sterling China in Wellsville, Ohio. Sterling China operated the Wellsville China Company from 1959 to 1969. During the decade of the 1960s, both companies turned out similar products. It is possible that the companies used many of the same or similar backstamps so that it is hard to determine which factory actually made what. The plate and oblong dish in the photographs are the same pattern. The plate is marked Wellsville China, but the dish carries the Sterling China backstamp that includes the pattern name "Desert Tan."
A list of companies that Sterling China has supplied with dinnerware reads like a Who's Who. The following examples were marked with backstamps that contained both the company's name as well as Sterling China. Railroads include Pennsylvania Railroad, Southern Railway System, Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and Florida East Coast Railway. Airlines using Sterling China include Allegheny Airlines, Braniff International, Delta Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and TWA. Other institutions that Sterling China made dinnerware for include American Hospital Supply, International Hotel Supply, InnKare, and Piccadilly Cafeteria. Undoubtedly, many others used Sterling China not commissioned specifically for their companies.
Collectors can find Sterling China in its many forms. This company's high-quality product means that many examples are still in beautiful condition. Common items with minimal trim such as a Desert Tan plate with a stripe border are more readily available than airbrushed designs or items with logos from restaurants or other establishments. A recent check of eBay revealed a set of four cups and saucers with a turquoise airbrushed treatment that sold for $4. The copy indicated they showed wear from use. Another buyer snapped up five "Krispy Kreme America's Favorite doughnuts" coffee cups for $25 with the "buy it now" feature. On the other end of the scale, a platter with an all-over palm leaf design was still on the auction block at $117.50 with two days to go. Most items were much more reasonably priced and well within reach of a conservative collector's pocketbook. Many items in the completed auctions had not been bid on so opportunities are there for collectors to start bringing home Sterling China.
Linda Nelson writes for Suite101.com and provides freelance writing and editing services remotely, thanks to email and the Internet. Her other interests include drawing, painting, reading, genealogy, antiques, and searching the Internet to learn more about it all.
This article previously appeared on the Suite101.com site and is reprinted with permission.