WAYNESBORO – Perhaps the greatest American brass company of the 20th century was Virginia Metalcrafters.
The company started as a stove manufacturer, early on making, of all things, the Hotpoint brand. Begun by William J. Loth as the Waynesboro Stove Company, it was born at a time when there were many regional iron foundries and stove makers. As electric appliances took over, most of these companies shut down, unable to adapt. However, Virginia Metalcrafters figured out a way to survive. In 1936, it became Virginia Metalcrafters, selling unique household items to that new, sensational American tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg.
At right, a photo of its trivets, placed in a modern decorating scheme, from the 1982 Williamsburg Reproductions catalog. Also pictured, its brass items as seen among the other reproductions in a Colonial Williamsburg catalog.
The company closed almost a decade ago. Last month, however, the Commonwealth of Virginia awarded the foundry on Waynesboro’s East Main Street a $600,000 grant from the state’s industrial revitalization fund to turn the factory into a new hub of businesses. The award, announced through Gov. Terry McAuliff’s office, went to VM Acquisitions Waynesboro LLC. It apparently not be an actual foundry, with restaurant, farmer’s market and other hipster haven features at the site instead.
Through most of the rest of the 20th century, Virginia Metalcrafters did a booming business in tasteful metal goods. The company worked closely with Colonial Williamsburg to produce reproductions of the items that the “Restoration” was digging up and finding, including trivets, candlesticks, irons and trays.
All of the items made by Virginia Metalcrafters were of the highest quality, whether Williamsburg or not. It was truly a company living in the William Morris craft tradition, and as the Williamsburg program grew, other historic areas copied the reproductions program.
There were different categories of items, including Reproductions and Adaptations. Reproductions were exact copies of items that were in existence in Colonial Virginia, and adaptations were items that were styled after the era. In addition, there were items unknown to Virginians of the 18th century, such as hostess bells in the shape of a colonial woman in hoopskirts and ashtrays in the shape of leaves.
Virginia Metalcrafters was but one of dozens of Willliamsburg reproduction manufacturers, all showcased at the Craft House, a special Colonial gallery near the Williamsburg Inn. For instance, in 1971, the list of reproduction licensees included Josiah Wedgewood (china), Doulton & Company (figurines), Harvin Company (fireplace equipment, that too was in Waynesboro), Kittinger Company (furniture), Martin-Senour paints, Royal Leerdam glass, Williamsburg Pottery, Dietz Press prints, Eaton Paper (stationary), Katzenbach & Warren (wallpaper), Messrs. Oud Delft of Nijmegen (Deftware), Chelsea Clock Company (clocks) and Stieff Company (silver and pewter).
Over the decades, the licensee list at Williamsburg evolved, new items were added and slow sellers dropped. Perhaps the zenith was the U.S. Bicentennial, when millions visited the great houses and history of America. However, by the end of the 20th century, Williamsburg deteriorated in popularity, and the overall operation suffered. Restaurants, which had been operated at the highest Rockefeller standards, dropped in quality, a result of many factors, including demand. In spite of innovations like the History Channel, Americans knew far less about history, and did not seek out Williamsburg.
The deterioration was also partly self inflicted, and could be seen in the reproductions program itself. By the end of the 20th century, Williamsburg’s reproductions began to sell cheaper items, and license their products in places like Lowe’s.
The spinoff for manufacturers was hard. Williamsburg was the idea generator and the overall design consciousness, and it operated like a luxury goods company as astute and nimble as LVMH or Tiffany.
But back to Waynesboro, which suffered greatly with the closing of Virginia Metalcrafters. The city was blessed with the company, not only because it provided good paying jobs. The company also had a design and creative side, a retail operation and marketing functions, all of which brought prestige to the city. A connection with a high-end brand like Colonial Williamsburg also helped Williamsburg, as Virginia Metalcrafters was listed among the official licensees of Williamsburg at the reception door of the Craft House at the five star Williamsburg Inn.
In May of 2013, three businessmen purchased the site of the foundry, not with the intention of reviving the whole company, but of using part of it. The group was VM Acquisition Waynesboro, named as John Hall, Christopher Mast and Paul Cline. Unfortunately for the actual Virginia Metalcrafters brand, the Facebook page is dead, however, and has not been posted to since 2012. And the domain vametalcrafters.com is defunct. However, the Virginia Metal Spinners brand, using Millwork Lighting, seems to be sort of keeping things going.