The Great Potter
Prof. Joseph Kirkham was the founder and superintendent of the Kirkham Tile & Pottery Company at Barberton, Ohio. He was born at Staffordshire, England, May 14, 1845. It was there he learned the pottery business and worked under Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, famed potters of Etruria. Despite guaranteed success in England due to his masterful skill, Kirkham left England to build his fortunes in America.
Joseph Kirkham’s American Dream
Kirkham’s American adventure began as a partner in the Providential Tile Works of Trenton, New Jersey along with artisans James Robinson and C. Lewis Whitehead. Unsatisfied with the operations, and confident that he could do better on his own, Kirkham sold his interest in Providential and began searching for investors a new home. Ultimately, he selected Barberton, Ohio, where, with the help of Barberton’s founders the Kirkham Tile & Pottery Works were constructed.
Return to England
In 1889, Prof. Kirkham returned to visit England. He brought with him goods produced in his Art Tile factory. The samples were considered by English connoisseurs of ceramics to be among the best they had seen. A testament to the extreme quality of the Kirkham Art Tile products.
Prof. Kirkham married Miss Elizabeth Ball and together raised an adopted boy.
The great Kirkham fire of 1893
Kirkham’s tile factory was destroyed by a fire in 1893. The economic devastation caused to the community lead to changes in the way Barberton responded to fires. Although there was considerable talk of rebuilding the tile works, in 1885 it became clear that Kirkham Art Tile was no more when the company officially dissolved.
After the fire
After the devastating 1883 fire at the Art Tile works, Kirkham was faced with the difficult decision of rebuilding at Barberton or finding a new site to begin again.
In 1900, Kirkham’s decision was clear. With the encouragement and backing of Col. G.J. Griffith along with several investors, Kirkham made plans to construct a new plant on a 43 acre site in Tropico, California, near Los Angles. The site was positioned near an abundance of raw materials, many of which Kirkham didn’t have access to when his Barberton factory was in operation.
The new Pacific Art Tile Company, as it was called, was one of the largest ornamental tile manufactures on the Pacific Coast. The main building alone was a 570 x 185 ft ornamental structure of pressed brick, three stories high, designed in the style of Rockwood pottery, near Cincinnati. The new works were equipped with the latest state of the art machinery for the production of tiles. The site included one of the largest tile furnaces in operation. Kirkham employed nearly 800 people and a third of these were women.
Pacific Art TIle produced sewer pipe, architectural terra-cotta, and ceramic tiles.