Whenever Oneida flatware, china, or crystal graces one's table, the awe inspiring effect created from this classic product is nothing short of breathtaking. The story of Oneida silverware begins over 150 years ago when John Humphrey Noyes founded the "Oneida Community" in upstate New York in 1848. Noyes based his "community" on the theology of "Perfectionism". The "Perfectionism" ideology of this time was based on Christianity, and held two core values: self-perfection and communalism. Perfectionism required that each member share in all aspects of daily life. No property, be it physical or intellectual, would be "owned" by an individual; and the "community" was to be consulted in all matters, from simple daily tasks to marriages. Constructing an enormous factory and estate,
the Oneida "community" flourished in upstate New York and was
utterly self-sufficient. Women bore the same duties as the men, and all had varying responsibilities from day to day. This progressive group would be responsible for creating one of the world's most recognizable and durable products, Oneida stainless steel flatware.
constant rotation of roles injected creativity in the endeavors of the group. Many amazing inventions were developed at Oneida during this time. For over thirty years the Oneida "community" received significant recognition (and profit) from development in multiple areas of manufacturing including animal traps, silk, chains, and, eventually, silverware knives, forks, and spoons. Conflict erupted in 1879 causing the group to splinter into factions. Eventually, the implementation of member voting transformed the community and the business into a joint stock venture. Each member, male or female, was awarded a certain number of shares based on their tenure in the Oneida "community" and their contributions to the business results. In a move considered very controversial for that time, female Harriet Joslyn was given a position on the board of directors, and the title of superintendent of the silk mill!
This time of change was difficult for Oneida. The company received some negative publicity and had to deal with financial problems for nearly fifteen years.
Pierrepont Burt Noyes (P.B. Noyes), son of John H. Noyes,
assumed leadership of the company in early 1894. P.B. Noyes, who had significant experience in the business world apart from the "community," quickly began displaying significant leadership abilities. He recognized many factors that were hindering Oneida's success, namely board members who clung to outdated business strategies. He implemented a major change in strategic plan, revamping plants and raising quality standards.
Soon after, Oneida announced the largest profit margin in its history.
P.B. quickly rose to the position of General Manger, and acquired control of all Oneida divisions. He
firmly believed in maintaining a solid and trusting relationship between labor and management. A result of this policy is that Oneida has never had a labor strike! Many other changes were ahead for Oneida. First, the metal chain business was sold in 1912, followed by the liquidation of the silk plant and the canning division. Finally, the trap business was eliminated in 1925. With these and other major strategic initiatives having been implemented (including recruiting fresh faces to replace older, stoic directors), Oneida poured additional resources into marketing and began a relentless advertising and branding campaign. They advertised to mostly female audiences, and became
one of the first companies to use celebrity spokespeople to pitch their product. The first of this group of famous celebrities was the trend-setting dancer-debutante Irene Castle.
1918 saw the major powers of the world at war. When the United States entered World War I, Oneida quickly swung into action by producing ammunition clips, lead-plated shells, combat knives and surgical instruments. The onset of World War II and the Korean War saw Oneida providing even more assistance to the military. Oneida manufactured silverware for the Army and Navy, surgical instruments, rifle sights, parachute releases, hand grenades, shells, survival guns, bayonets, aircraft fuel tanks, and chemical bombs. In addition, it purchased a separate factory to make jet engine parts, aircraft survival kits, and even army trucks! Oneida has
a history of significant and invaluable contributions to United States defense needs.
In 1926, Noyes turned over control of the company to his son-in-law, Miles E. Robertson. Although Noyes relinquished control of the company, he maintained his title of President. Noyes was the omniscient advisor, and Robertson was the person with conviction and contemporary vision. Robertson steered the company
through the Great Depression, emerging as
the only silverware manufacturer to maintain a profit margin. During this time Oneida built factories in several foreign markets as well. After the Depression, Oneida, which had through all this time maintained its "community" roots, began to change with the times. Most of the founding members were gone, and Oneida's corporate culture began to change. Oneida changed its name to Oneida, Ltd. in an effort to distinguish itself from its smaller divisions including Wm. A. Rogers.
1960 saw Oneida, Ltd. post its first operating loss. Several times in Oneida's history, the company cut its board members' salaries to assist in maintaining the financial health of the company. When similar cuts were made in 1960, Oneida's employees did not view them as a management commitment to company health but as sign of potential trouble for the company. This view was reinforced when the government stopped renewing some of the military contracts on which the company had come to rely very heavily. For the first time in company history, silverware was Oneida's sole source of income. That same year, Pierrepont Trowbridge Noyes took the President's seat from his father, P.B. "Pete", as P.B.'s son was known, instituted another round of organizational structure changes. Pete Noyes' plan enabled Oneida to experience a new period of prosperity.
Sterling silver and silverplate had traditionally been the staple products of the flatware industry. A few years before, a new metal alloy, "stainless steel", had been introduced. It did not make an immediate impression on the flatware industry and was thought of in most cases as an obscure experiment. Oneida, Ltd. was about to change that. Under Pete Noyes' guidance,
Oneida made a commitment to stainless steel flatware. The company went so far as to shift the focus from silver to stainless flatware. This was
a rather risky move that turned out to be a stroke of genius for the Oneida flatware business.
Strong research and development greatly improved the quality of stainless steel as a dinnerware material, and allowed Oneida to use it to successfully create "luxury" stainless steel patterns.
Chateau is an Oneida stainless pattern that was very successful in this new product segment. Several more innovative stainless silverware pattern designs followed, including pierced and modern designs.
The popularity of stainless silverware quickly spread thanks to its affordable price, convenient "no hassle" care, and the fact that fine department stores began to stock the patterns. Stainless steel would soon replace traditional sterling silver and silverplate as the most popular flatware product segment, and
Oneida, Ltd. would become
the leading seller of stainless flatware.
In recent years, Oneida, Ltd. has expanded its product line to include
pottery, china, and even
crystal. In another organizational change, Oneida, Ltd. formed Oneida International, Inc. to create a joint venture with its international subsidiaries. Oneida, Ltd. has managed to maintain an edge over foreign competition by keeping worker loyalty very high while continuously improving facilities and production methods. Through all this change, Oneida has maintained its "community" roots. Employees are considered family and the commitment to the product remains strong. This focus on continuous improvement of processes and product, along with a commitment to its employee family, has Oneida well positioned to continue to be a leader in the tableware industry for generations to come.
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