The Alberta Pottery Industry, 1912–1990; A Social and Economic History

FOR A SURPRISING number of Canadians, particularly those on the Prairies, the word “Medalta” evokes nostalgic memories of “brown betty” teapots and hefty crocks that did service in their grandmother’s kitchen. These pottery pieces are the hallmark of Alberta’s once successful pottery industry. Anne Hayward’s study provides much insight into the factors that advanced the industry in the small city of Medicine Hat, then steadily brought it to its knees in the post-World War II era. As the first scholarly study of the Alberta pottery industry, Hayward’s book establishes a useful foundation on which others can build to explore Canadian, and particularly Alberta’s, industrial development. Nevertheless, greater historical context and more attention to differences of class, gender, and ethnicity would have enhanced its value as a labour study.

Drawing on a range of statistical evidence converted into easy-to-read charts, Hayward demonstrates that Alberta’s pottery industry dominated Canadian pottery production from the early 1920s until the 1950s. Pottery manufactured in the area was sold across the country and as far away as New Zealand and Australia. By 1929 Medalta Potteries was manufacturing 75 per cent of all pottery produced in Canada. During World War II Medalta and Medicine Hat Potteries, the other major pottery manufacturer in the city, dominated Canada’s war production, operating around the clock to fill government contracts. But those were the industry’s salad days and after a protracted decline the last pottery closed its doors in 1989. Since then the buildings and artifacts that remain have been designated heritage sites, and two industrial buildings have been partially restored to house an interpretive centre that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Through careful research Hayward has pieced together a detailed history of Medalta Potteries and Medicine Hat Potteries, which were the two largest of thirteen pottery operations in Medicine Hat. Medalta’s trials and tribulations tend to dominate the narrative because more extensive records for that company have survived. The study is enlivened by photographs as well as charts, and includes a helpful glossary of terms to offer a level of production and marketing detail that is invaluable to collectors as well as historians. Approaching her subject in the tradition of material studies, Hayward emphasizes the “rivalry and espionage” among pottery entrepreneurs, and the struggles of scientists and craftsmen “to perfect the pottery materials and manufacturing processes.” (x–xi) The book provides good insight into the particular challenges posed by an extreme climate, lack of experienced workers in the region, and manufacturing at a distance from markets.

Hayward attributes the initial success of Alberta’s pottery industry in large part to an abundance of cheap natural gas in the Medicine Hat area, as well as high quality clays, railway access, and the availability of American capital. Medicine Hat’s location atop a major gas field was critical to development of the pottery industry, which required large amounts of natural gas to fire the kilns at high temperatures. Gas was so cheap in the early part of the century that the municipality found it less costly to keep city street lights lit day and night than to hire someone to turn them off at night.

Cheap raw materials and easy access to transportation and capital, however, did not alone ensure the industry’s success. Hayward argues convincingly that product development and constant refinement of manufacturing processes helped Medalta and Medicine Hat Potteries adapt to a shifting market and capitalize on technological changes that reduced costs, particularly the cost of labour. One of the book’s strengths lies in the painstaking care with which the author has reconstructed the history of these developments, particularly at Medalta Potteries. Drawing on material artifacts as well as photographs, company records, contemporary publications, and oral histories, the author identifies important management decisions that brought both success and failure.

Hayward highlights the development of artwares at Medalta as an innovation that helped the company survive both the introduction of glass bottles in the late 20s, which hurt the company’s stoneware sales, and the constantly shifting tastes of consumers. An exclusively female art department developed during the Depression to perform the labour-intensive work of decorating pottery pieces made from the same moulds to vary them economically at a time when labour was cheap. As a labour shortage developed during the war, pottery owners increasingly turned to technology to achieve cost efficiencies. Assembly-line systems were installed using large conveyor belts to eliminate the employment of “runners,” and automatic jiggering machines were purchased to reduce each company’s need for jiggermen, the most highly paid workers in the factory.

Hayward argues that Alberta’s pottery industry was undermined in the postwar period by lengthy labour disputes, a hike in the cost of clay from Saskatchewan and cheaper imports, as well as poor product-line decisions by management. The series of strikes and walkouts by workers at several clay products factories in 1947, which culminated in a long and bitter strike at Medalta Potteries, is viewed as a crucial turning point in the fortunes of the industry. Yet the labour actions were part of a nation-wide wave of labour unrest that did not devastate all other industries. An influx of cheap pottery imports that undercut Medicine Hat wares was a more compelling reason than labour unrest for the industry’s demise. Significantly, the rest of the clay products industry in Alberta, which produced brick and tile, actually expanded in the postwar period despite rising costs for labour and supplies.

Although ostensibly a “social” history as well as an “economic” history, Hayward’s sources and analytic focus provide only limited insight into the identities and perspectives of ordinary men and women who worked in the potteries, and the role of labour in the industry’s success. Only two of the twelve individuals interviewed were non-management personnel, and Hayward does not mention that the Medicine Hat News, on which she relies heavily, was owned by Harry Yuill, a local industrialist who also owned and operated Medicine Hat Potteries. Reading such sources against the grain and consulting union records and more rank-and-file workers, as well as histories of Cold War labour politics would strengthen the labour analysis and expand our understanding of how thousands of men and women experienced their work in the potteries. One also wonders how “Whiteness” and ethnicity influenced power dynamics in a workplace where the owners and managers were usually of Scottish or English origin and the workers were primarily of German origin.

Hayward provides valuable detail about the gender segregation of labour and working conditions that could also be incorporated more effectively into her analysis. Gender was a key organizing principle that determined most tasks and all wage rates within the pottery industry and played a significant role in its success. Hayward might have noted that the restriction of labour-intensive decorative work in the art department to female employees, who earned roughly 64 per cent of the male wage, helped keep costs low. This practice was common in the American and British pottery industries where Marc Stern has demonstrated that employing a greater percentage of women workers gave the English an advantage over American potteries.

Similarly, the inter-war drought that devastated the agriculture-dependent Medicine Hat region long before the 1930s Depression, played a crucial role in the industry’s success. Intense drought combined with gendered property inheritance patterns to generate a large pool of cheap labour upon which the potteries could draw. The young, unmarried daughters of struggling farm families comprised a disproportionate number of those seeking paid work in the city, which helped keep wages low. Linking harsh working conditions and management’s cavalier attitude toward its workers to the larger economic and social context makes more explicit the human cost of the industry’s inter-war success.

Such comments should not detract, however, from this well-researched and engaging industrial history that establishes the broad outline of a once-important Alberta industry. Material history scholars, pottery collectors, and anyone interested in Alberta’s economic development will find Hayward’s study rewarding.

Cynthia Loch-Drake
York University