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Medalta Potteries Ltd.

Attaching handlesIn an attempt to revive a struggling pottery industry, Medalta Stoneware Ltd. opened in 1916, determined to give Canadian consumers local crafts at comparable quality to American and European imports. The company, its name derived from the city in which the factory was located (Medicine Hat, Alberta), would grow from a modest beginning to become a power-house of Canadian industry, and for nearly 40 years, define its Southern Alberta community.

Three local men founded the company in December 1915: Charles Pratt, Sherman Grant Ulysses and William Creer. The factory was situated strategically, within close proximity to Alberta’s vast natural gas supply and of a large pocket of clay in Eastend, Saskatchewan.

Truly Sanitas HandleMedalta began manufacturing crocks, jugs, churns, water coolers, mixing bowls, pitchers, teapots and bean and flowerpots. By 1922, the line had expanded to include pickle jars, cuspidors, jam jars, meat roasters, foot warmers, chemical tanks and battery jars.

The company diversified in 1924, and in pursuing financial backing to support its new Whiteware line of dishes, became Medalta Potteries Ltd.

The Fall of a Prairie Industry
The pottery industry enjoyed a boom in the 20s, and Medalta reaped the benefits of being the dominant suppliers to many Canadian companies. Resources remained cheap and plentiful, and a growing mail order industry insured a steady source of demand from eastern Canadian consumers and major department stores such as Eaton’s and Woolworth’s.

The Artware line was established in 1929 in an effort to tap into a growing demand for non-utilitarian stoneware. Medalta hired skilled artists to create popular designs and develop new glaze colours.

By the end of the decade Medalta was producing 75 percent of the pottery in Canada. Two of the founding members left to retire, selling their assets to a group of Calgary investors.

Not six-months later, the company was in despair. The stock market crash marked the beginning of the great depression and Canadian pottery production plummeted 85 percent in four years. Medalta managed to stay in business by keeping only essential workers, and producing a limited number of products. Many former employees branched out to form their own companies: Alberta Potteries Ltd. in 1931 and Medicine Hat Potteries in 1937.

The Second World War breathed new life into a dying industry. Despite growing competition from glass companies, armies needed record amounts of stoneware. All lines were put on hold for the war effort. Cups, dishes and water coolers for the troops were priority. Business boomed as imports from Europe and Japan were cut off, and other materials, such as tin, were found to be inadequate.

A major labour shortage throughout the war forced Medalta to look beyond the now enlisted young men for workers. A record number of women were added to the payroll, owners pled their case to the government for hiring boys as young as 15, and in 1945 Medalta took on nearly 50 German prisoners of war. Although the POWs were paid little in comparison to their co-workers, the working conditions at the factory were preferred to life in the internment camps.

Demand for pottery remained steady into the 40s, but the after-war glow was wearing thin on the labour fronts. Unrest swept across Canada as unions began to barter for the right to represent. In 1947, Mine-Mill gained control of the Medalta workers union, three months later they had embarked on what would be one of the longest strikes in Southern Alberta. Workers took to the picket lines on August 12 demanding higher wages. They would not return to work for 72 days.

Negotiations broke down quickly, and by September the strike turned violent. Picketers destroyed a shipment of crock-pots and vandalized the homes of replacement labourers. In one incident, 15 striking workers were arrested and convicted of various crimes when an employee was assaulted while trying to cross the picket line. Eight men were sent to jail and seven women were given suspended sentences, but all were hailed as heroes in the community. As the strike wore on, Mine-Mill’s position rapidly deteriorated, with them ultimately admitting defeat on October 24, 1947.

As workers gradually returned to their posts, Medalta’s owners scrambled to find ways to remedy a struggling industry and duplicate the company’s early success. New lines were introduced including the innovative "Sanitas Cup". By the early 1950s production was down again, this time owing to increased imports and higher manufacturing costs. The decreased value of British products put Medalta temporarily out of business in 1949. The company was officially disbanded in September 1954.

Related Article

Mr. Medalta David Jamieson by Angela Stubbs

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