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Fire Away: Western industry goes into the kiln!

For the week of Monday, June 13, 2016

On June 17, 1985, Medalta Potteries Ltd. was designated a national historic site. It was the first company to ship manufactured goods out of Alberta, a milestone in the industrial history of Western Canada.

A typical red clay pot from Medalta
© Canadian Museum of History

Medalta Potteries takes its name from Medicine Hat, Alberta, which was both the company's home city and the industrial heartland of Alberta in the twentieth century due to its extensive rail networks. Medicine Hat’s clay district is the oldest industrial site in Western Canada. The region’s abundance of high quality clay was ideal for creating everything from bricks and pipes, to plates and teacups. There were abundant reserves of natural gas that provided heat, light, and power at a fraction of the cost of wood or coal. Cheaper energy was particularly useful for pottery production, which required a constant source of high heat to fire the kilns that turned clay into ceramic.

The Medalta factory was established in 1912 by the Medicine Hat Pottery Company. In 1915, it was purchased by Medalta Stoneware Ltd. The company first shipped products to eastern Canada in 1921. Renamed Medalta Potteries in 1924, production peaked from the 1920s to the 1950s. During that time, Medalta was responsible for 67 percent of Canada’s total pottery production. In the 1940s it enjoyed a near monopoly on the production of hospitality ware, namely plates and cups used by Canadian hotels.

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Workers in front of Medalta's beehive kiln, 1929
© Courtesy of Medalta Museum

Medalta primarily made practical crockery. During more than 40 years of operation, the company produced 700 different types of ceramic products. These included earthenware bricks, and stoneware beer bottles, cooking pots, plates, and cups. Fine porcelain cups, dishes, and decorative pieces were also made. The company’s products were so durable that, in 1928, they came with a 3,000 year warranty! It is not uncommon to still find Medalta pottery in Canadian kitchens today.

Medalta went into decline in the 1950s when protective tariffs were removed, allowing a flood of inexpensive imports from the United Kingdom and Japan. Also, the increasing use of steel, glass, and plastics reduced the demand for ceramics. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1958. Today the site is operated as a living museum which still produces some pottery using original methods.

For their role in developing Albertan industry, the Medicine Hat Clay Industries are a designated national historic event. For more stories about developing the West read Into the Great Wide Open, The Cattle King of the West, John Ware: the Cowboy, the Legend , and The West is big, but this is Biggar in the This Week in History archives.

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