The Abandoned Shenango China Factory
Sitting abandoned in a small town in Pennsylvania is the Shenango China Factory, once one of the largest dinnerware producers in the US. The company was known for producing china mostly for hotels, with some production for private use. One of Shenango’s most famous products was “American Haviland”, produced for the French company Theodore Haviland. Shenango China Factory also manufactured dishes for United States Presidents and serving dishes for the White House, including a commemorative plate for Dwight D. Eisenhower and dinnerware for Lyndon B. Johnson.
History of the China Factory
The New Castle China Company was created in Pennsylvania in 1901, by purchasing the plant known as the New Castle Shovel Works. An addition was added on to the existing building that would eventually become the center of the Shenango China Factory. Kilns and more new buildings were added over the next several years as the company focussed on manufacturing dinnerware for private homes and a focus on hotels. In total, the company employed around 150 in its small town.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1905, as Shenango China went through financial difficulty, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. A new organization was created under the name Shenango Pottery Company. The company still continued to struggle. In 1909, James N. Smith took control through an entirely new group that were new to the pottery business. James Smith has historically be considered the founder of the company. In 1912, Shenango China purchased the plant of the New Castle Pottery Company and moved the equipment and operations to the new facility. The opening of the new plant was set for the following year, but was delayed due to the great flood of 1913, which left the plant covered in more than 3 feet of water. The Shenango China Factory remained in continuous operation until December of 1991.
First Tunnel Kiln in the U.S.
Until 1935, all production of Shenango Pottery was focused on commercial china for hotels, restaurants, and medical institutions. In 1928 they built the first tunnel kiln and began to fire hotel china for the first time in this country. It was at this time they started researching methods for fine china dinnerware for private use. This idea was eventually dropped due to the Great Depression.
Famous Haviland Dinnerware and the White House
1936 marked a milestone for the Shenango China Factory.
1936 saw one to the biggest changes at Shenango. Theodore Haviland was seeking an American company to produce their famous Haviland dinnerware line. They left so impressed with the quality of the china, that an agreement was made with Mr. Smith, with just a handshake. Shenango China produced china for Theodore Haviland for over 20 years, until 1956.
A set of Haviland china manufactured for a dinner honoring King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was sold to the New York World’s Fair in 1939. When the 1939 Fair closed, this set of china was sent to the White House in Washington, DC to be used in the State Dining Room. This china set was used during the terms of U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Expansions, Acquisitions, and Innovative Technology
From 1939-1949, Shenango grew more than 10x it’s original size. While it experienced major growth, it continued to experience financial trouble, including expansion programs being approved without plans for long term financing, and labor troubles, and strikes.
This is the part where it starts to get a little confusing, and messy. The name was changed to Shenango China in 1954, reverting back to the original name. During this time, they also developed the first fast fire kiln, which was a revolutionary change in the vitrified china industry. This was the effect it had: they now had a kiln that could fire glost china in just over an hour, where previous firing could take up to 40 hours.
1958 saw a minority stockholder suit finally come to an end, and by 1959 all stockholders had sold their shares to a company called Sobiloff Brothers. All assets of Shenango China were transferred to a newly formed subsidiary called Shenango Ceramics, Inc. During this time, Shenango also purchased Wallace China, and Mayer China.
Change again came in 1968, as Interpace Corporation bought Shenango Ceramics for $5.4 million, and all the subsidiaries. Interpace, who already produced fine china and earthenware, expanded and modernized the plant, building new bisque kilns decorating kilns, and adding a new cup system. They introduced the “valiela” process which reduced the cost of print.
In 1979, Interpace sold the plant to Anchor Hocking Corporation. Anchor Hocking continued to invest and modernize the plant, adding new clay forming, decorating, and firing equipment, and new computerized batch making equipment.
1987 brought more changes. Anchor Hocking sold Shenango China to Newell Company, which sold it six months later to Canadian Pacific. The plant was closed and reorganized. Previous employees had to reapply for their jobs, but many were not brought back.
In 1989, Canadian Pacific sold Shenango, Mayer, and Syracuse to the Pfaltzgraff Company of York, PA. The Mayer operation was moved to the Shenango plant.
Shenango China Closure and the Plant Today
After the Mayer operation was moved to the Shenango plant, plans were set and drawn for expansion, that never happened. Factory consolidation, a declining economy, increased labor costs, and the struggle to keep up with inexpensive imported china forced the closure of the plant in 1991. It has sat abandoned since.
The Shenango China factory has fallen victim to arson and vandalism over the years, as with most abandoned buildings.
On June 28, 2011, a fire that would later be ruled an arson, engulfed a portion of the former abandoned facility. Eight workers had been in the building the previous day doing cleaning, and had chased out some vandals/scrappers that were using torches to burn plastic coatings off of cooper wire in an attempt to steal the copper. In May 2012, another fire happened at the abandoned complex. Today, the buildings still sit abandoned, and falling apart. Lots of old china has been left behind, smashed broken across the plant. Nature has slowly started reclaiming the structures.
Shenango China Factory Photo Gallery
Sources and Additional Reading
Sources listed below, and additional reading if you’d like to learn more about the abandoned factory.