What Sets Syracuse China Apart
Whether you're serving tired truckers waffles in the middle of the night at a roadside diner or catering to country clubbers with high expectations, choosing the right dinnerware is critical. Since it's said that we eat first with our eyes, forming our expectations of the meal based on what it's served on, plates are more than a conveyance; they're messages to your customers. And countless foodservice operators have relied on Syracuse China to give exactly the right impression for nearly a century and a half.
But, what gave the company's forefathers the right to call their product "china?" The answer is a point of pride for the company, as one of its earliest leaders pioneered the production of vitrified china in the United States.
The Birth of Syracuse China
Founded in the village of Geddes, N.Y., which eventually became part of (you could probably guess) Syracuse, the company now under the Libbey Foodservice umbrella was founded as Onondaga Pottery Company. Its earthenware vessels and dinnerware were the same as other porcelain produced in the United States at that time, until the company's Superintendent James Pass developed a process that produced what the company claims was the first true commercial vitreous china made in America1. That prompted the name change to Syracuse China, a name that first appeared in that now-famous backstamp in 18952.
Pass originally called the line "Imperial Geddo," and claimed a medal at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 for it. From there, the brand caught on with commercial operators across the country and the rest is history3.
From Pottery to China
So, how did they know what they were producing should now properly be called "china?" As you probably know, all china is earthenware (meaning formed of natural clay), but not all earthenware is china. There are a few generally accepted standards that establish the difference between porcelain and true china.
- Factor No. 1: The Process
- Factor No. 2: The Glaze
- Factor No.3: The Finishing Touches
This is truly the most important one, with the others sort of the icing on the cake. It's what provides the distinction between porcelain and china, both in terms of our understanding of them and the qualities of each type.
According to a history of the company by Cleota Reed and Stan Skoczen, In porcelain production, the raw earthenware piece is first heated in a kiln at a relatively low temperature – a step called bisque firing – to set the clay. Once it cools, it's dipped in a glaze and fired again to set the enamel. The process that yields china flips that, with the highest temperatures in the bisque firing, which creates an almost translucent quality in the very delicate piece. Syracuse China reportedly sets its kilns to around 2,400 degrees F, a level called Cone 12 for those who know pottery4, for the initial bake. The glaze is typically finished in a kiln at between 1,380 and 1,560 degrees F (Cone 017-014).5
The finish on china is called vitreous enamel. The term vitreous is derived from a Latin word that meant glass, giving way to the current meaning of "resembling glass6." Vitreous enamel, then, is a finish made of very fine glass that is applied to an earthenware piece. When that piece is put into a kiln at high temperature, the glass melts, fuses to the surface, and becomes a permanent, non-porous layer. The result is a hard, glassy finish that isn't just beautiful, it's also functional, as the glass seals any pores left in the earthenware, which means it won't absorb foods served on it. Syracuse's distinctive process produces a glaze so hard, it's actually given a lifetime no-chip warranty.
Like not all china has to be bone china, not all china technically has to have decorative flourishes. However, to be considered "fine china," most collectors expect a piece to have at least a distinctive pattern or finish.
In its early days, all the dishware was unadorned. That changed in 1884, when a ceramics decorator named Elmer Walter set up shop just across from the factory. A Bostonian, he brought with him the name of a company established in that city in 1860 – Boston China Decorating Works7. Walter's firm began nearly immediately putting elegant flourishes on a wide range of earthenware items from the plant, and continued to do so until it was destroyed by a fire just two short years later. After that, Walter and his staff were hired on by Syracuse, creating what's believed to be one of the first in-house decorating departments at a U.S. china manufacturer8.
Syracuse China: Setting a New Dinnerware Standard
Since Pass perfected the process, this china has remained the standard for high-end service everywhere from hotel ballrooms to starred restaurants. Employing the same quality practices that produce the china that revolutionized the American dinner table, the company produces an incredible variety of pieces now, from sake servers to a take on the traditional tagine. In fact, there are more than 900 pieces in the Syracuse catalog now.
Those come in a range of elegantly understated patterns, from the textured rims of the Solario line to the swirls of Silk to the unadorned exaggerated curves of Slenda. Of course, no discussion of patterns in these offerings would be complete without a look at the bone china sets, which are recognized by diners around the globe. The filigreed rims of the Scarborough design are accented by precious metal leafing, as are the simple circles and loops of Barrymore. Meanwhile, the inlays in the diamond pattern of Baroque evoke the grandeur of works from the period the series is named for.
While all those lines are built on the simple white china the company is known for, it has dabbled in color with its brightly-hued Cantina dinnerware, which is available in limon, blueberry, saffron, cayenne, and sage. For color that is more understated and design that brings to mind the basic attraction of the farm-to-table movement, the Terracotta series offers intentionally off-kilter curves and a choice of three colors: pine tan, fern green, and mustard seed yellow.
No matter what kind of foodservice operation you're buying for, we can help you find the Syracuse China pieces you need. We can even secure samples of these dishes so you can ensure they'll fit your tables and atmosphere perfectly. Please contact us at email@example.com for assistance.
1 Syracuse China by Cleota Reed and Stan Skoczen, published 1997
2 "The History of Syracuse China" from Syracuse Then and Now
3 Syracuse China by Cleota Reed and Stan Skoczen, published 1997
4 "Good News, Syracuse China Collectors", article by Katrina Tulloch published Nov. 11, 2014 on Syracuse.com
5 Kiln Firing Chart from ceramic arts daily
6 Definition of "vitreous" from Meriam-Webster
7 Boston China Decoarting Works advertisement in May 1920 issue of Keramic Studio magazine
8 "Syracuse and Onondaga China Information & History" from Collectics