Nobody is going to look back on the enormous toll of 2020 — the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the vanished jobs, the businesses that close and never re-open — and think, “What really stung was losing the Home + Housewares Show.”
Most Chicagoans barely noticed when it was scrapped in early March. Heck, few notice when the show is held. Which is why I go. The Chicago Auto Show, a month before, draws the big media circus. I seldom go to that.
Why? Cars are easy; sponge mops are hard. Six hours trudging past McCormick Place booths crammed with cutting boards and blenders, travel cups and bath mats, hand soap and slicers, and I’m in my groove. And, yes, there are celebrities: I once ran into Ron Popeil. We talked about his Veg-O-Matic.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to read something that isn’t about the vaporous death that cannot be lied away.
So, I hatched a plan: present my own little virtual Home + Housewares Show; call a few companies and try to find out what new kind of vegetable brush got lost in the general conflagration.
That plan got as far as Matt Roberts and Greg Owens, co-owners of Liberty Tabletop.
“Matt and I worked for Oneida,” Owens said. “We both worked for them, running the factory.”
Oneida made silverware in Upstate New York for 125 years. But this was in the early 2000s, and China was beginning to not only eat our lunch but make the cutlery to do it.
“In the early 1980s, China made no flatware,” Owens said. “What is a fork? Stainless steel shaped and polished. If you could buy metal subsidized by your government, you’re going to gobble up business. That’s what happened. Oneida could literally buy the finished product cheaper than they could buy stainless steel to make it.”
More than a factory was imperiled. There was the town around it.
“Sherrill, New York, is the smallest city in New York state,” Roberts said. “Twenty-five hundred inhabitants. The closest thing to Mayberry in existence. It was built by the Oneida community, begun in 1848. Very industrious. They’ve made flatware continuously since the 1870s.”
Oneida closed its Sherrill factory on March 21, 2005. Roberts and Owens opened Sherrill Manufacturing March 22, 2005.
At first, they focused on doing what the Chinese couldn’t. “Certain intricate patterns, they couldn’t figure out how to manufacture,” Owens said.
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