Clay Products and St. Louis Businesses

17, February 2011
Piece of sewer pipe made by Laclede Fire Brick Manufacturing Company, ca. 1890.

I’m Alex Choate, a graduate student in the Museum Studies program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. As part of my studies, I volunteer at the Missouri History Museum, where I am completing a large research project on the Museum’s pottery and ceramic collection.

Ceramics proved to be an important product for local businesses in St. Louis and the surrounding area in the middle to late 19th century. Various companies used ceramics in their manufacturing, as a vessel to hold their products, or as an attractive gift to please customers.

One such business was the Laclede Fire Brick Manufacturing Company. Founded in 1844 by James Green, the business began in St. Louis because of the city’s abundance of Cheltenham fireclay, a special kind of clay that requires high temperatures to fuse—or harden—and is also resistant to high temperatures afterward. The company, one of the oldest manufacturers west of the Mississippi, used fireclay to create fire bricks, which could be used to line furnaces. In 1907, the Laclede Fire Brick Manufacturing Company was consolidated and incorporated with another St. Louis business—the Christy Fireclay Company—and became known as the Laclede-Christy Clay Products Company. In 1954, the company was acquired by H. K. Porter, Inc., and in 1967, a fire devastated the factory, which had changed locations several times over the years.

The History Museum has a special piece of ceramic sewer pipe made by the Laclede Fire Brick Manufacturing Company around 1890. Pieces of pipe were considered complex forms, so Cheltenham fireclay was a suitable material to form them due to the clay’s stability during the firing process. The Museum has another sewer pipe on display in its World’s Fair gallery.

Other manufacturers of ceramic wares in the Midwest included three companies in Illinois: the Macomb Stoneware Company in Macomb, the Western Stoneware Company in Monmouth, and John Burger in Rochester. Interestingly, the Macomb Stoneware Company, originally founded in 1889, merged with seven other ceramic manufacturers located near St. Louis in 1906. These companies became the Western Stoneware Company. All of the companies were makers of stoneware, a certain type of ceramic that used clay with high silica content and fired at high temperatures to create a surface impervious to liquids.

Glazed cider bottle set made by J. D. Vail & Co., ca. 1867-1872.

Originally, John Burger owned a pottery called N. Clark & Company, named after its founder, Nathan Clark. In 1852, after being manager of the pottery, Burger and Thomas Harrington bought Clark’s shares of the company and named the business after themselves. By 1854, Burger became the sole owner, selling his pottery and wares under the company name of John Burger. The pottery operated under different Burger names until it closed in 1890 at the retirement of Burger’s son, John Burger Jr. During the operation of the pottery, stoneware pottery made for domestic use in the kitchen was created.

Instead of manufacturing ceramics, some St. Louis businesses utilized pottery as containers for their products. A pair of gray-glazed bottles in the Museum’s collection was once used to hold cider.  Stamped across the sides is the name of the cider manufacturer, “J. D. Vail & Co.,” of St. Louis. It is likely that the cider manufacturer was also the maker of the bottles. The bottles date between 1867 and 1872, when J. D. Vail & Company was in business.

Similarly, Levison’s Studio Paste was manufactured by Levison & Blythe Manufacturing Company for the printing business. The paste was kept in a glazed stoneware crock with a lid that would help prevent it from thickening. In another use, possibly as a gift to its patrons around 1909, Slinkard Grocery Company inscribed a miniature jug with “Compliments of Slinkard Grocery Co, Kirkwood Mo.”

It really seems like St. Louis was in the business of making clay products!

—Alex Choate, Museum volunteer