Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff Company History

Address:
140 E. Market St.
York, Pennsylvania 17401
U.S.A.

Telephone: (717) 848-5500
Fax: 717-771-1440

Private Company
Incorporated: 1970
Employees: 4,000
Sales: $550 million
SICs: 3269 Pottery Products Nec; 3262 Vitreous China Table & Kitchenware; 4832 Radio Broadcasting Stations; 4833 Television Broadcasting Stations

Company History:

Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff Company is a holding company whose major subsidiary is The Pfaltzgraff Co., an historic American manufacturer of high quality stoneware and bone china dinnerware that is a leader in its industry. Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff also includes Susquehanna Radio Corporation and Susquehanna Cable Company.

The name Pfaltzgraff is familiar to millions of American consumers, and is especially known to collectors. It is the oldest manufacturer of pottery in the United States, growing through five generations of family management and ownership. Founded by immigrant German potters in 1811, Pfaltzgraff's early years are largely unrecorded up until the late 1830s, when Johann George Pfaltzgraff built a potter's shop in Freystown, Pennsylvania, at the time an expanding center of cottage industries.

Pfaltzgraff was joined by a number of relatives from Germany, and in 1848 the operations were moved to Foustown. Located near several main highways that facilitated the importation of blue clay used to make stoneware, as well as the distribution of the final product, there were also rich farmlands where Pfaltzgraff found red clay and limestone deposits needed for earthenware products, in addition to timberlands that provided the wood necessary for running the kilns. By 1850, the potter's shop manufactured 16,000 gallons of ware--a measurement for pottery based on capacity of each piece of ware--made on hand-powered machinery and using 16 cords of wood for firing the kiln. Not only a potter, Pfaltzgraff was also a farmer, which enabled him to anticipate people's pottery needs. Records show Pfaltzgraff & Son Pottery producing $1,000 worth of pottery in 1870, employing two men and turning wheels by both horse and hand. Thirty cords of wood were used that year for the 10,000 gallons of ware.

Five of Pfaltzgraff's sons entered the pottery trade, three of whom left a legacy of salt-glazed products. The process of salt-glazing entails shoveling common rock salt into a hot kiln in which ware is baking. The salt vaporizes in the heated air, but sodium from the salt that hits the clay results in a unique shiny glaze with a textured surface. The eldest Pfaltzgraff son, John B., made distinctively witty and casual pieces, with no two pots decorated the same way, often making novelty items for birthdays, marriages, and other special occasions. He later diversified, adding coal and cigars to his stoneware business. In 1899 his cigar company had 50 workers, while the Pfaltzgraff Stoneware Company Ltd. employed 30.

In the meantime John's brothers George and Henry really marked the direction of the company. Both men had operated their own pottery businesses before deciding to combine forces in 1889 to launch H.B. & G.B. Pfaltzgraff--the forerunner to The Pfaltzgraff Co.--located in York, Pennsylvania. The brothers started out with two hard-working horses to mix the clay and three kilns. For the first time, the company began adapting itself for mass production and using stencils. At the same time, George ran a general store and Henry traded horses and worked in politics.

The company name was shortened to The Pfaltzgraff Stoneware Company in 1894, just as the third generation of Pfaltzgraffs was joining the operation. The following year, as the company's production demands were straining its small plant, more land was purchased--strategically located near a railroad--and a larger pottery facility was built. By 1903 two more buildings of the same size had been added to the plant on Belvidere Street, which had been more mechanized in order to keep up with mass production. In 1896 the name was changed again to The Pfaltzgraff Stoneware Co., Ltd. Between this time and the 1920s, production moved ahead at a strong pace as Pfaltzgraff produced countless liquor jugs for the healthy liquor trade in York and the surrounding area. Other products included such everyday items as crocks, butter jars and churns, as well as specialty items like chamber pots, mixing bowls and pigeon nests.

In 1906 the booming Belvidere plant was destroyed by a fire--rumored to have been started by a recently fired moldmaker--and the loss was tallied at nearly $27,000. Nonetheless, just a few weeks after the devastating blaze, the Pfaltzgraffs salvaged what they could and began building a new plant, thus forming The Pfaltzgraff Pottery Company. Located near two major rail lines in West York, the new plant--which is still in operation--was up and running by the summer of 1906. It was, in fact, a great improvement on the old, multi-story buildings on Belvidere, which had not been very efficient. The revived Pfaltzgraff struggled first with debt and outdated machinery, then with World War I, but managed to stay in business as other potteries folded. One steady product that contributed to Pfaltzgraff's survival was the simple red clay flower pot.

By 1919 Pfaltzgraff's sales and distribution stretched along the East coast from Maine to Florida, and the following year the company was doing well enough to add a sixth kiln, in addition to a garage and a machine shop. The flower pots and florist items continued to be a mainstay, comprising more than 73 percent of business in 1927. The 1920s were prosperous for the company, although Pfaltzgraff suffered, along with the rest of the country, during the Great Depression--sales revenue dropped almost 40 percent between 1927 and 1933. Changes in production, as well as an increase in imported pottery, combined with the economic climate to challenge the company. It's notable that during this period Pfaltzgraff began manufacturing an entirely new line of products known as Art Pottery. This was accompanied by experiments in glazes, colors, and shapes, and stoneware production began to slow as such items as the decorated flower pots caught on. Sales dropped, however, and there were difficulties with the railroads--in 1933 the company lost money for the first time.

By 1935 Louis J. Appell, who was married to George Pfaltzgraff's daughter, had purchased the company from his father-in-law, under whom distribution had grown to cover nearly half of the United States. Until he purchased Pfaltzgraff, Appell had not been active in the company, but with 122 workers under his leadership, production and profits grew steadily until World War II. While production in 1941 had increased nearly 34 percent over 1933, it was still almost 31 percent below the level of production in 1927, and the company recorded losses in 1943. By the following year, with Pfaltzgraff's situation showing no signs of improvement, Appell began to consider selling the company. The long Pfaltzgraff history, however, persuaded him to keep it going, and while production did not cease during the war, product lines dwindled. In addition, the level of foreign imports was nearly twice that of domestic production.

In 1946 Appell's son, Louis, Jr., became the fifth generation of Pfaltzgraffs to join the company. Two years later Pfaltzgraff recorded its first profit since 1941, and by the following year business was hearty again. With an improved fiscal condition, Pfaltzgraff was able to update its production facilities and introduce new lines of ware, including one developed for such chain stores as F.W. Woolworth Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. Also popular around this time were Pfaltzgraff's character mugs and cookie jars. In 1950 a new line of giftware was introduced called Gourmet Royale, later known as the Gourmet line. The following year dinner plates were added to this popular line, and by the mid-1950s such stoneware tabletop items had become the mainstay of the company.

Louis Appell died suddenly in 1951 while serving as president of The Pfaltzgraff Pottery Company, in addition to other Appell family businesses including the Susquehanna Broadcasting Company. Appell's wife briefly headed Pfaltzgraff, which, in 1954, became a division of Susquehanna Broadcasting Company, founded in 1942 to run a radio station. The 1950s proved to be a difficult time for the industry as a whole in the United States. Imports from Japan and Europe, together with tariff rates, formed a combined threat, resulting in a more than 50 percent drop in domestic production between 1947 and 1961. While many potters gave up and closed shop, Pfaltzgraff commissioned freelance designers to develop new products and lines, and worked on developing a nationwide network of sales representatives.

Susquehanna Radio Corporation's president, Arthur William Carlson, was hired by Louis Appell, Jr., in 1961. Susquehanna was running WSBA (AM) in York and WARM (AM) in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, for which Carlson helped to gain a 40 percent share of the market within 60 days. Three more stations joined the Susquehanna family shortly thereafter, and the group bloomed in the 1960s, adding stations in Providence, Long Island, and Miami. By the early 1990s the company ran 17 radio stations around the country. In 1966 the Susquehanna Cable Company was founded and eventually provided cable television to cities in Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Indiana, and Illinois. In addition, Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff was also affiliated with Penn Advertising, Inc., an outdoor advertising company with interests in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.

In the early 1960s Pfaltzgraff introduced such classic lines as Country Casual and Heritage, and by 1964, in order to reflect the diversification away from pottery, the business was renamed The Pfaltzgraff Co. In 1967 a new pattern, Yorktowne--considered the largest-selling tabletop pattern in history--was introduced, though its design of a blue flower on a gray background was borrowed from Pfaltzgraff's 19th century salt-glazed stoneware. Sales of the three dinnerware lines--Gourmet, Heritage, and Yorktowne&mdashcounted for nearly 70 percent of Pfaltzgraff's total sales around this time.

The first Pfaltzgraff plant built in 64 years was constructed in 1970 in order to manufacture a new line of metalware products, including fondue pots and pewter, copper, and tin items designed to complement the stoneware lines. However, all metalware and wood product production was discontinued by the end of the decade as it proved unsuccessful. Instead more money could be made by licensing its designs to manufacturers of household products and other home furnishings. In the early 1970s Pfaltzgraff also shifted away from the gift and specialty stores that had carried the company's products the previous two decades, and began appearing in department stores. This move, along with the introduction of the Village dinnerware line in 1975-1976, created an explosion in sales. Retail store and direct mail activities were also accelerated at this time.

To accommodate increasing demand, Pfaltzgraff bought a production facility in Aspers, Pennsylvania, in 1973, later adding the Bendersville plant, purchased from Continental Ceramics Company. In 1978 a new plant, located in Thomasville, began operating with state-of-the-art technology that still allowed old-style craftsmanship. That same year the company purchased the Trenton, New Jersey-based Stangl Pottery, which had been operating its own retail store, Flemington. While the Stangl plant was not operated, Pfaltzgraff used the store as its third retail outlet. A fourth was opened in 1979 in Fairfax, Virginia, and by 1989 there were more than 20 stores throughout the United States.

The company was reorganized in the mid-1980s, resulting in the formation of the holding company Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff Company, which included The Pfaltzgraff Co., Susquehanna Radio Corp., and Susquehanna Cable Co. At this time imports were once again causing problems for the pottery industry--almost two-thirds of all earthenware sold in the United States in 1981 was a foreign import. Pfaltzgraff responded by aggressively researching market needs and introducing new dinnerware patterns, taking advantage of the growing bridal market and targeting mass retailers and catalog showrooms. In 1989, six of the top fifteen casual dinnerware patterns chosen by brides were Pfaltzgraff's.

To become even more competitive, in 1985 the company invested in a state-of-the-art computer system that displayed three-dimensional images of the products to help with design, modeling, drafting, and machining. In 1988 Pfaltzgraff acquired Treasure Craft, a manufacturer of household ceramic products based in California. The purchase marked the first time the company acquired an operating pottery manufacturer in order to expand. During this same time Pfaltzgraff also acquired the New York-based company Syracuse China, the largest supplier of ceramic dinnerware for institutions, hotels, and restaurants in the United States.

In 1988 William H. Simpson--who had been with the company since 1971--became president and chief operating officer of The Pfaltzgraff Co., while Louis J. Appell, Jr., was the CEO and board chairman, as well as president of the Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff holding company. That year Pfaltzgraff took a decisive step in a new direction and began to manufacture bone china, a risky move for a company best known for its casual dinnerware. It marked the first bone china to be produced in the United States and has been featured in leading department stores across the country. Since its introduction in 1988, Pfaltzgraff's bone china line has grown respectably, taking the company into new markets. While the Pfaltzgraff name garnered a mixed response from consumers who recognized and respected it, but associated the name with informal dinnerware, Pfaltzgraff's bone china items found a toehold in the bridal industry and have done well since.

Over the years, Pfaltzgraff has expanded through licensing and new product lines to create a total home concept with such items as dinnerware, glassware, and home textiles. In the early 1990s Pfaltzgraff reached licensing agreements with Trans Ocean, a top rug supplier; Croscill Home Fashions, for window treatments; and Bess Mfg., a leading supplier of lace table linens. By 1992 the company had more than 30 licensees.

Principal Subsidiaries: The Pfaltzgraff Co.; Susquehanna Cable TV; Susquehanna Radio Corporation.

Further Reading:

  • "Arthur William Carlson," Broadcasting, July 6, 1992, p. 67.
  • Chase, Marilyn, "Ten Makers of China Tableware Settle with California Over Lead Contents," Wall Street Journal, January 18, 1993, p. A7B.
  • Coady, Cliff, "Redesigning the Dinner Plate," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, November 2, 1992, pp. 50-78.
  • Cohan Hollow, Michele, "Bess Inks Pact With Pfaltzgraff," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, June 22, 1992, p. 40.
  • Griffin, Marie, "Pfaltzgraff Breaks the Mold, Traditionally," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, November 5, 1990, p. 84.
  • Historical Society of York County, Pfaltzgraff: America's Potter, York, Pennsylvania: The Pfaltzgraff Company, 1989.
  • Kehoe, Ann-Margaret, "Pfaltzgraff Giftware Line Bows," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, April 19, 1993, p. 166.
  • Nellett, Michelle, "Meet the Generations: Pfaltzgraff," Gifts & Decorative Accessories, April 1992, pp. 68, 82.
  • "Pfaltzgraff's Home Designs," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, April 27, 1992, p. 114.
  • Tupot, Marie Lena, "Ceramics: Classically American," Gifts & Decorative Accessories, April 1993, p. 56.
  • Williams, Stanley, "Trans-Ocean Inks Vanderbilt, Pfaltzgraff," HFD: The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, February 24, 1992, p. 39.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 8. St. James Press, 1994.