In 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
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 Albertas vast natural gas supply
and of a large pocket of clay in Eastend, Saskatchewan.
Medalta 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 Eatons and
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-Mills
position rapidly deteriorated, with them ultimately admitting defeat on
October 24, 1947.
As workers gradually returned to their posts, Medaltas
owners scrambled to find ways to remedy a struggling industry and
duplicate the companys 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
Mr. Medalta David Jamieson by Angela Stubbs
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