What Is the History of Sheffield Fine China?
Sheffield Pottery Inc. is a pottery and china manufacturer headquartered in Sheffield, Massachusetts, since 1946. The company specializes in fine china for the home and creates pottery for the garden. Sheffield uses natural Sheffield clay mined on its own property and also supplies other potters with clay.
The Sheffield Pottery story begins near the Housatonic River with a quiet farm, purchased in the fall of 1943 by newlyweds Joseph and Marie Cowen. They raised cows, chicken and sheep, and made extra money by selling produce from a roadside stand. Marie Cowen happened to read an article about pottery in a family magazine and immediately thought about a large clay pit they had found on their farm. They hauled a bucket of clay up to the house to see if they could make something of it. Marie made a cup and Joe, a saucer. They took to their new craft, and a whole new business was born.
The Cowens' fledgling pottery business did so well that within three years of buying their farm, they sold off all their animals and turned the barn into a showroom, where they sold handmade pottery they fired in a tiny 6-inch-by-6-inch kiln. They quickly achieved a reputation for quality, and in December 1949 Sheffield Pottery was prominently featured in Redbook magazine. The company continued to grow over the years as Joseph and Marie Cowen raised three children. By 1965, according to Sheffield Pottery's website, the Cowens had bought a clay mixer, a pugmill and a large railroad-car kiln. They incorporated their company, enlarged their original building to accommodate the giant new kiln, and began selling ceramic supplies and clays in addition to their pottery and fine china.
In 1982, Joseph Cowen retired. His youngest son, John, took over as president of Sheffield Pottery. According to the company website, "John began almost at once to change the focus of the company toward becoming a high-quality ceramics supplier." A year after his dad retired, John and his team built a new warehouse so the company could store much larger quantities of dry materials. Delivery service was instituted, and Sheffield began delivering products to customers throughout New England. Further expansion came in 1993 with the construction of a new 14,000-square-foot production, processing and warehouse facility that was attached to the original building. More moist-clay production equipment was brought in as well, to meet rising demand. Yet another expansion took place in 2000 and 2001, with 12,000 square feet of additional production and storage space as well as loading docks. Sheffield Pottery also went high-tech with a custom-built, computer-controlled dry-batching system to ensure accurate formula preparation and a high-intensive Erich mixer.
At the heart of today's Sheffield Pottery operations, however, is still the natural Sheffield clay that continues to be mined from open clay pits on the company's property. The 300-foot-deep clay deposit is located on U.S. Route 7 in the southwestern sector of Berkshire County. According to the company's website, the clay is known for its plasticity, fired color and unique particle size.
A thriving collectors' market for Sheffield Fine China exists today. At any time, upward of 50 pieces of Sheffield Fine China are up for bid on eBay, the online auction site, and most are quite affordable, compared to other types of fine china. A vintage "Elegance" covered vegetable dish from the 1960s has a "buy it now" price of $27.50 (2009 prices), while a more recently produced 36-piece set of Japan Imperial Gold sold for $75.
Thomas K. Arnold is publisher and editorial director of "Home Media Magazine" and a regular contributor to "Variety." He is a former editorial writer for U-T San Diego. He also has written for "San Diego Magazine," "USA Today" and the Copley News Service. Arnold attended San Diego State University.