Steve Smith is the steward of Louisville Stoneware, a Louisville icon and tradition. “We call it a great American treasure,” he says, explaining that the pottery company has changed hands 15 times over 200 years. “I’m not going to claim that I own it or I’m charge of it because I think it’s mostly in charge of itself after this long,” he laughs.
In this podcast episode, he explains how the name shifted over time to reflect whichever owner was in charge at the time, says Smith. So originally, it was The Lewis Pottery Company – which opened across from the Slugger Field baseball stadium in 1815. Later, it became the Dohn Pottery Company, the Melcher Pottery Company, and the Bauer Pottery Company during the Civil War. It became the Louisville Pottery Company in the early 1900s, which it stayed for a long time under the direction of John B. Taylor. In the early 1970s, it took on its modern name, Louisville Stoneware, under the care of John Robertson.
Back in 1815 when the company got its start, three things put the city of Louisville on the map, says Smith. The perfect confluence of events led to the rise of stoneware in Louisville. First, there was the end of the War of 1812, which ended Indian hostilities in the Ohio Valley. Then there was the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which brought about peace in Europe. Lastly, there was the successful journey of the Enterprise steamboat from New Orleans to the Falls of the Ohio River, which dawned an era of mechanized water travel.
European immigrants stopped on Louisville on their way to claim lands in Missouri and Illinois during the Louisiana Purchase era, filling up their “most precious goods, salt, sugar, a little bit of moonshine to handle the trip,” explains Smith. “The only thing that you could safely store those items in was the stoneware crocks.” Smith has seen crocks as big as 50 gallons, weighing 225 pounds empty!
The river provided the clay needed to make some of these old crocks. Every city along the Ohio River had dozens of stoneware factories, but what really set Louisville Stoneware apart was their innovation. “It changed with the times and when nobody wanted a 75 pound butter churn,” he explains.
A gentleman by the name of John B. Taylor started painting the pottery in the early 1900s, which hadn’t been much of a consideration before that. The average American family was eating off tin and still couldn’t afford fine, white china. The idea of buying everyday stoneware dishes painted elegantly appealed to American society – as a sign of moving up.
At one time, Louisville Stoneware was the biggest factory of its kind with 225 employees. In modern times, the average employee has been with the company for 25 years, but there are also gentlemen and master mold makers who have honed their craft over 40 years. “We need to respect the tradition, but we also need to look to the future,” Smith explains.
The bachelor button pattern is still the top seller – which has been the case since the 1950s. People love the styles reminiscent of pottery that has been passed down from grandma, through the generations. “We still hand-craft everything the way we made it 200 years ago,” says Smith, “so our tradition is deeply seated in the past.” Yet, he adds, they’re also giving a modern twist to some of the older styles.
In Smith’s view: “The newer, faster, cheaper of modern manufacturing is not what makes us happy. It’s the product of human creativity that sustains our soul.” People don’t want houses full of stuff – but rather, we want something that is just authentic. We want treasures inherited and passed down through the ages. We want a human connection. In a tour of Louisville Stoneware, you can meet the person who painted your piece of pottery – as Smith describes it, “the person who’s been here for 35 years, taking care of their family by what has become a lost craft and a lost story.”