Lenox, Inc. History
Lawrenceville, New Jersey 08648
Telephone: (609) 896-2800
Fax: (609) 896-3704
Sales: $310 million
SICs: 3262 Vitreous China, Table & Kitchenware; 3229 Pressed & Blown Glass
Lenox, Inc., is the oldest and most famous manufacturer of fine china in the United States. The company has filled orders for four American presidents, met the requirements of a desert prince who needed enough tableware to throw a banquet for 1,000 revelers, and sent a delegation around the world to sketch pheasants from various countries for a customer who wanted the images to decorate his service plates. Lenox china has become so famous and highly valued that it was selected by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for its 1989 exhibit on American porcelain, and it is the only American china ever shown at the renowned Ceramic Museum in Sevres, France.
The founder of Lenox, Inc., was Walter Scott Lenox, born in 1859 in Trenton, New Jersey. At that time, Trenton was a focal point for pottery and ceramics in the United States, and the young Lenox soon resolved to become a ceramicist. After a stint as an apprentice at the Willetts Manufacturing Company, he concentrated on problems of ceramic design and decoration. Lenox was recognized for his hard work and talent, and during his 20s he was hired by the well-known Ott and Brewer Company to serve as art director for its factory. By the time he reached the age of 30, Lenox had saved enough money to enter a partnership with Jonathan Coxon, Jr., and opened his own firm, the Ceramic Art Company, in 1889.
Lenox dreamed of producing china as good as or better than any other ceramics company in the world. During the 19th century, the nascent American ceramics and pottery industry produced unrefined wares due to their unsophisticated manufacturing techniques; as a result, wealthy Americans turned to famous, centuries-old European manufacturers for dinner service and tableware. Lenox's goal was thus formidable: he had to master the difficult techniques involved in making fine china, overcome American prejudices against domestic china, and, in addition, secure sufficient backing to finance his operations.
The Ceramic Art Company experienced severe financial hardship during the early years of its operation. Lenox and his partner hired talented craftsmen and spent large sums on materials, but the results were ever-increasing expenses and minimal profits. In 1894 Lenox purchased Coxon's interest in the Ceramic Art Company, and thereafter he ran the business alone. Lenox concentrated on producing a ware known as Belleck, a rich, thin, ivory-colored porcelain of extremely high quality manufactured in Belleck, Ireland, bringing two potters from Ireland to help him master the technique. But there were more disappointments in his attempts to produce a high-grade china than there were successes, and the company fell deeper and deeper in debt. At one point, in order to obtain financing for a new factory in Trenton, Lenox was forced to accept that the building would be so designed and constructed as to be quickly changed into a tenement building if his company went out of business. Undaunted, Lenox continued working toward his dream of creating high-quality American china.
In the early years of the new century, Lenox's health began to deteriorate. Gradually becoming paralyzed and blind, he redoubled his efforts. He continued to work at the factory on a daily basis, with his chauffeur carrying him to his desk, and began to monitor the production of porcelain with his hands as his eyesight deteriorated. Although Lenox still made all the decisions regarding production, he relied more and more on his assistant and secretary Harry Brown, who had been with Lenox since the early 1890s.
In 1906, with Brown's help, Lenox established Lenox, Inc. The company's first big break came when the firm filled an order from Shreve and Company, a retailer located in San Francisco, which was delivered just in time to be destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. However, dug out of the ruins of Shreve's store was a glazed Lenox plate that looked as exquisite as it had on the day it was produced. The plate soon became the cornerstone of Lenox's marketing campaign.
Harry Brown approached Tiffany's in New York City with the surviving plate and other examples of Lenox china, and Tiffany's agreed to become Lenox's first account. Following their lead, stores from New York to Philadelphia began to sign on as customers. The company began to grow rapidly, and, by the time World War I began, Lenox was had gained wide respect as a manufacturer of quality china. In 1917 the company came to the attention of the White House, which was trying to fulfill a Congressional mandate of 1826 stipulating that everything used in the White House should be domestically produced. Until that time, however, presidents had been unable to find domestic china deemed suitable to serve honored guests at the White House table, and they remained dependent on foreign-made tableware. Woodrow Wilson broke this precedent by ordering a 1700-piece tableware set from Lenox at a cost of $16,000. (Subsequent orders for complete sets for the White House came from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, Harry Truman in 1951, and Ronald Reagan in 1981.) Thereafter, Lenox was recognized internationally as one of the world's premier manufacturers of fine china.
Walter Scott Lenox's health continued to deteriorate, but his company prospered, and when he died in January 1920 the firm was finally out of debt. Yet the battle for the American market continued, with European companies dominating both in revenues and design. Almost eight of every ten pieces of porcelain sold in the United States still originated in Europe.
After Lenox passed away, Harry Brown assumed the presidency of Lenox, Inc., and began to hammer away at the pre-eminent position that European ceramics held in America. During the 1930s, when the company was making significantly less than $1 million per year, Brown hired designer Frank Holmes. Breaking away from the elaborate style that European designers favored, Holmes began to create a new style in china that was soon described as "modern." With clean, simple lines, and uncomplicated decorative motifs set against a background of ivory, Holmes's modern style soon garnered a great deal of attention. By the end of the decade, the style was so successful that Lenox had captured 25 percent of the domestic market.
At the beginning of World War II, the company's revenues were just under the $1 million mark, and the war prevented the company from implementing any of its anticipated expansion plans. Fortunately for Lenox, however, the onset of the war led to the complete cessation of importing fine china from Europe. This situation encouraged numerous American firms to enter the market for fine china, and by the end of the war large amounts of capital were flowing into the domestic production of porcelain. As competition increased among American companies during the postwar period, new merchandising and sales methods were introduced to increase sales. Lenox itself used such mainstream methods as exhibits and displays, while also creating more unusual educational films about making Lenox china for distribution in schools and women's social clubs.
During the 1950s, Lenox broke away from the European system of selling china, which involved the purchase of an entire service set at significant cost. The result was that china represented an investment that was out of reach of the average family. Instead, Lenox began to offer five-piece complete place settings, three-piece-buffet/place settings, and individual pieces for sale. In addition, Lenox was the first company to develop a bridal registry, whereby women engaged to be married could register their choice of china at selected retail stores, and family and friends could purchase pieces from the registry as wedding gifts.
During the 1960s Lenox initiated an acquisitions program. The company's first purchase was America's oldest and best-known crystal glassblowing firm, Bryce Brothers, which was established in 1841 in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. Committed to maintaining Bryce Brothers' high standards of quality, Lenox produced crystal that became known for fine design and craftsmanship. Lenox's growing marketing sophistication also contributed to its line of crystal becoming the favorite choice of new brides across America. During the late 1960s, Lenox crystal was chosen by the vice-president of the United States for use at state occasions and by the State Department for use in its embassies and consulates. During the 1970s, Lenox continued its acquisition program by purchasing Hartmann Luggage, a manufacturer of quality luggage and leather accessories, and Athalon Products, Ltd., a highly regarded producer of nylon sports luggage.
In 1983 Lenox was acquired by Brown-Forman Corporation, a large conglomerate with most of its sales in the beverage industry. Brown-Forman's management was attempting to diversify its holdings at the time, and Lenox was a prime example of the new direction Brown-Forman wanted to chart. Management at Lenox, however, was not in favor of the acquisition, and a strong disagreement ensued. Brown-Forman finally convinced Lenox that it would not interfere with the production of its china, and Lenox was also assured that it would have some control over the marketing methods used to sell its products. An agreement was finalized and Lenox became a wholly owned subsidiary of Brown-Forman.
Lenox benefitted from the acquisition by Brown-Forman. The large conglomerate not only enabled its subsidiary to continue an aggressive acquisitions program, but also provided capital for the company to expand its facilities. In 1985 Lenox opened a new plant in Oxford, North Carolina, with state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques for the company's fine china gifts. In 1991 another new plant was opened in Kinston, North Carolina, to help the company maintain its competitiveness in the growing domestic bone china industry. That same year, Lenox acquired the Kirk Stieff Company, a producer of fine sterling; Dansk International Designs Ltd., the leader in consumer tabletop, houseware, and gift markets; and Dansk's subsidiary, Gorham Silver, the leading American manufacturer of sterling silver products. These acquisitions helped solidify Lenox's position as the pre-eminent fine china company in the United States and one of the world leaders in the industry.
Principal Subsidiaries: Hartmann Luggage; Athalon Products, Ltd.; Kirk Stieff Co.; Dansk International Designs Ltd.
Further Reading:Lenox Fine China--The First Hundred Years, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Lenox, Inc., 1994, pp. 1-6. The Story of Walter Scott Lenox, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Lenox, Inc., 1994, pp. 1-5.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 12. St. James Press, 1996.