My grandfather worked for Syracuse Pottery for over 50 years. He made cups, he oversaw other potters; he refused several offers to be a manager; he liked the overtime for the potters. In the tradition of old American companies, he received a pin in recognition of his work when he reached 50 years. When we were little and traveled on Sundays occasionally to visit him and my grandmother in their cottage-y house on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse, we were in awe of that pin. It had a diamond in the center of a small, black enameled circle. He wore it on his best suit for weddings and funerals. The pin and the diamond were tiny, but we didn't know that. He was so proud of it, and therefore, so were we. Onondaga Pottery, Syracuse Pottery, Syracuse China, whatever its name at various times of our childhood, it was a part of our lives and it was the only china we used.
We never went there, or toured it; my grandfather embodied it, so we didn't need to. We went to the Pottery Picnic every summer when we were small to swim and play organized games like three legged races. During the Depression, he only worked at the Pottery part-time and so my Dad and a few of his brothers had to step in with paper routes or selling flowers. He always was finding new ways to supplement his Pottery salary -- he had six children -- apparently never considering leaving the Pottery or trying to rise through the ranks to receive more salary.
My grandparents gave all their children fine Syracuse pottery for wedding gifts; my mother was very proud of her set. She used to tell us that the good Syracuse china was so fine you could see the light through it, but it also was incredibly strong and therefore unique. But outside of Syracuse, the company seemed most well-known for its hotel and restaurant china, the thick, well-glazed pottery, also very strong. You could drop it on the floor, as we often did, and it rarely broke. The old-fashioned white china with the simple green wavy trim was its signature restaurant pottery. But they made special order china for clubs, colleges, big old hotels, in the days when American companies made and bought mostly American products. Syracuse china was part of our lives. My husband took my entire family out for dinner at an elegant French restaurant when he was courting me, and we all sat down, looked at the china, knew it was Syracuse and every one of us picked up our plate, and lifted it high to check the bottom. We were right. He sat there totally startled at the odd ritual all of us rhythmically followed.
We in turn spent so much of our youth assessing whether china was Syracuse that most of my siblings and I can spot Syracuse china in a restaurant, at an antique store, at someone's house, although that is more and more rare. We are almost always right. We know the heft, the glazes and the designs. The company disappeared in 2009 and Fishs Eddy has bought the old samples and sells them at rather high prices. We are sentimental about the china, but rarely buy Syracuse china at those prices. No, we hunt for pieces; and keep mismatched collections at summer camps or country houses and give each other unique pieces when we find them. We are building a camp on a small Adirondack lake in the forever wild part of the Park. While my brother slaves away building the place, my sisters and I collect pieces of Syracuse china for it. I found nine large, hotel plates for $12 recently, so we are all set for dinners. My sister found eight oval sandwich plates for lunches. We're getting there. Once I found a very old, sturdy and small Syracuse china bowl in which I always fed my elderly Dad his breakfast cereal when he visited our country house. He loved it: the perfect circle shape, the white clay, the glaze. It is art to us, and history and family, a link to our childhoods and home.