SIC 3261

This industry classification consists of establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing vitreous china plumbing fixtures and china and earthenware fittings and bathroom accessories. Items manufactured in this industry include flush tanks, lavatories, bidets, urinals, toilet fixtures, closet bowls, drinking fountains, and sinks. Other items include vitreous china and earthenware bolt caps, bathroom accessories, faucet handles, soap dishes, and towel bar holders.

NAICS Code(s)

327111 (Vitreous China Plumbing Fixture and China and Earthenware Fitting and Bathroom Accessories Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

Manufacturers of vitreous china plumbing products function in the larger plumbing industry. The industry imposes strict standards that regulate everything from the width of pipe holes to the number of gallons used in each toilet flush. The manufacture of U.S. plumbing products benefited from the economic boom of the late 1990s. As a result, shipments of vitreous china plumbing products increased from $1.18 billion in 1999 to $1.23 billion in 2000.

Vitreous china is a ceramic product made primarily with specially treated clays and other chemicals including feldspar and silica, then glazed and fired at high temperatures in a kiln. The vitreous product lasts forever and does not absorb water or other materials; it has changed plumbing throughout the world.

Organization and Structure

The vitreous china plumbing industry is driven by trends in construction spending. Therefore, when the housing starts and remodeling trends plummeted in the 1980s, the industry suffered tremendously. Since vitreous china plumbing products are needed in residential and commercial settings, both construction industries affect the industry. Foreign-trade conditions also affect the manufacturers since imports still provide much of the plumbing ware in the United States.

Many manufacturers sell their wares only to distributors, who in turn sell the products to contractors and plumbers. Home centers, which have begun to change the way many Americans furnish or remodel their homes and businesses, have had an effect on the vitreous plumbing industry as well. For example, one large manufacturer, American Standard Inc., sells to independent wholesalers who sell to the trade. The company allows their wholesalers to sell American Standard products to home centers and other retailers. Their new line is actually being manufactured in Thailand to be sold in the United States.

Conversely, another major U.S. manufacturer, Kohler Company, still insists on selling its products only through distributors. Many manufacturers have begun to sell their wares directly to the home centers to prevent competitors from gaining too much market share.

Background and Development

From the time civilization reached the point when populations were centralized, plumbing has been an important concern. Typhoid fever and dysentery spread during the Industrial Revolution when sewage systems were still combined with systems for drinking water. Once separate systems were designed, different plumbing fixtures were used to deliver drinking water and to remove waste materials from buildings.

Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, or water closet as it was known in England, in 1884. The mechanism he designed—with its float, valves, and arms that regulate the water in the flush tank—has remained virtually unchanged to the present. The early toilets as well as the earliest bathtubs, washbasins, and drinking fountains, were made from enameled cast iron. Vitreous china plumbing products were not introduced for several more decades.

By 1927, Walter Kohler was making vitreous china lavatories and toilets in his Wisconsin pottery operation, which emerged at that time as the third largest plumbing products company in the United States. As consumers began to customize their bathrooms, Kohler created vitreous china plumbing products in colors that matched the enameled cast iron bathtubs and accessories. In 1964, Kohler began manufacturing a self-rimming lavatory that eliminated the need for a metal frame or rim on the counter.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the American attitude toward the bathroom changed. People were spending more time there and were using the bathroom not just for hygiene purposes, but also as a bastion of relaxation. Manufacturers also thrived as a result of the increasing numbers of bathrooms being placed in each residential setting.

Current Conditions

Between 1997 and 2000, the value of U.S. shipments of vitreous china plumbing fixtures increased from $1.10 billion to $1.23 billion in 2000. Over the same time period, the cost of materials increased only slightly from $287 million to $289 million, and employment decreased from 9,222 to 8,601.

Competition from Abroad. Imports of foreign vitreous plumbing fixtures have had a harmful impact on U.S.-made products. The value of U.S. imports of vitreous china fixtures jumped nearly 35 percent in the late 1990s, while U.S. exports declined. The U.S. Bureau of the Census measures apparent U.S. consumption of vitreous plumbing fixtures by subtracting exports of U.S.-produced fixtures from the total of imports plus U.S. manufacturers' shipments. In the late 1990s, this apparent consumption rose to $886 million, and the percentage of imports to apparent consumption rose to 7.7 percent.

Competition from Other Materials. The vitreous china plumbing fixtures industry also experienced stiff competition from plastics and fiberglass. In the late 1990s the value of vitreous china fixtures, totaling $883.7 million, had slipped to just over 51 percent that of plastic fixtures, which came in at about $1.7 billion. Although vitreous china has retained much of the toilet bowl market, it has lost ground to plastics in the manufacture of lavatory sinks and toilet water tanks. Included within the plastics category are cultured marble and fiberglassreinforced plastics (FRP).

Environmental Consciousness. Water conservation became an important issue in the industry beginning in the 1970s. Most flush toilets used an average of 3.5 gallons per flush (gpf). A federal bill known as the National Plumbing Products Efficiency Act (NPPEA) was signed into law at the end of 1992 as part of the Comprehensive National Energy Policy Act. The bill regulated the amount of water required per flush of a toilet or urinal. It also regulated the flow rate of showerheads and faucets. The American Society of Plumbing Engineers Research Foundation conducted field studies in the early 1990s to explore the possibility of replacing 3.5 gpf toilets with 1.6 gpf fixtures. Despite the fact that they found more clogging in the low-flow fixtures, environmental concerns overrode their criticisms, and the new U.S. code was enacted.

Manufacturers of vitreous plumbing fixtures worked with other plumbing industry advisors to coordinate lowflow products, as well as other new products that were developed in response to consumer concerns. One group of these products featured so-called universal design. These plumbing fixtures were equally accessible by wheelchair-bound and elderly consumers. Another recent trend was the development of lead-free plumbing. New requirements for plumbing systems came as a response to several lawsuits involving faucets. California's 1986 law, known as Proposition 65, specified toxic substances that were prohibited from being discharged into drinking water. These changes, which required implementation of lead-free plumbing, meant that entire plumbing systems had to be reworked.

Because of intense competition, from within the United States and abroad, manufacturers have had to expand their product lines, innovate with new technology, cut production costs, and improve their relationships with distributors. Advertising costs had risen, and consumers exhibited a greater interest in the plumbing fixtures they bought.

Industry Leaders

The two biggest players in the vitreous china plumbing fixtures market are Kohler and American Standards. Kohler, headquartered in Kohler, Wisconsin, is family-owned and sells its vitreous fixtures under the Kohler and Sterling brand names. Because it is privately owned, Kohler is not required to publicly disclose its financial results. However, industry estimates indicate that the company generated total revenue of $2.4 billion in 1998, an increase of 8.6 percent over the previous year. Founded by John Kohler and partner Charles Silberzahn in 1873, the company was originally known as Kohler & Silberzahn. Charles Silberzahn left the company seven years after its founding. It was not until the mid-1920s that Kohler added vitreous china lavatory sinks and toilets to its product line. Operating more than 44 manufacturing facilities worldwide, Kohler employs a total of 18,000 people.

The 1990s were not particularly kind to American Standards, which lost money for most of the decade. In 1998, the company reported a net loss of $16 million on revenue of $6.7 billion. Despite its financial difficulties during the 1990s, the company remains a major manufacturer of vitreous china plumbing fixtures in the United States. The company was created in 1929 when American Radiator and Standard Sanitary merged to form American Radiator & Standard Sanitary, a name shortened to American Sanitary in 1967. For a time during the 1960s, American Standard was the world's leading manufacturer of plumbing fixtures. Headquartered in Piscataway, New Jersey, the company operates 116 manufacturing facilities in 33 countries and employs more than 57,000 people worldwide.

Other key manufacturers of vitreous china plumbing products in the United States include Eljer Industries of Dallas, Texas; Briggs Industries Inc. of Tampa, Florida; Gerber Plumbing Fixtures Corp. of Chicago; and Universal-Rundle Corp. of New Castle, Pennsylvania. During the economic downturn of the 1980s, several manufacturers in the industry were forced out; the industry saw many mergers and acquisitions.


Average hourly earnings for workers in the vitreous plumbing fixtures industry, most of whom are involved in actual production, rose from $11.96 in 1990 to an estimated $15.13 in 2000. Many of the plants where vitreous china plumbing products are manufactured are unionized. Some belong to the Glass Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union (GPPAW), while some factories are part of the local United Auto Workers (UAW). The GPPAW publishes a health and safety manual that identifies potential workplace hazards for manufacturers of vitreous china products. Unions also negotiate wages, certain workplace standards, vacation time, and other benefits for their members.

Many workers in this industry spend their entire careers perfecting one job. Each job in production is unique, from the creation of the special clay mixture (called slip) to the packaging of the final products.

Some plants have a sliphouse where there are machine operators and mixers who bring the raw materials to exactly the right consistency before it is cast. Casters pour the slip into plaster of Paris molds, where it dries. Finishers remove coarse edges and seams. Glazing is done manually or with glazing machines before fixtures are taken to be fired in kilns. Kiln operators must deal with the intense heat needed to meld glazes and ceramics. Kilns reach temperatures of up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Inspectors and selectors check the finished products, sending some to packaging, others to be reground, reglazed, or refired.

America and the World

The manufacture of vitreous plumbing fixtures is a labor-intensive business. Costs for U.S. manufacturers have risen dramatically over the past decades, and foreign competition has increased, in part because of the low labor costs that foreign companies incur.

The value of U.S. imports of vitreous plumbing fixtures in 1991 was $64.4 million, in which range it generally remained through 1994. By 1995, it had gone up to $71.2 million, just shy of the high of $72.6 million in 1989. Imports slipped to $64.8 million in 1996 and then fell sharply in 1997 to $50.5 million. However, imports jumped dramatically in 1998, rising to $68.0 million. The value of exports in 1991 was $46.1 million, rising to $61.1 million in 1995 and $65.7 million in 1998.

Research and Technology

Vitreous china materials and basic toilet designs have not changed significantly in the past half century. Much of the industry's research efforts have concentrated on perfecting current manufacturing methodologies. Quick-dry glazes, for instance, enable manufacturers to upgrade their rate of production. Many experiments in plumbing fixtures have gone by the wayside, while others are constantly being introduced. For example, Kohler recently introduced the Rosario Lite toilet, which flushes automatically when the user closes the lid.

Several foreign companies have proven adept in their aggressive efforts to improve their product line. Toto, one of Japan's largest plumbing products manufacturers, has introduced several new features, not yet available in the United States, for plumbing fixtures. The company's Washlet toilet features hot-water cleaning and hot-air drying. Toto's Sound Princess, developed in response to the practice of many Japanese women of flushing repeatedly during one sitting, plays a recording of flushing water so that the user does not feel compelled to flush to mask obtrusive noises. Japanese manufacturers also have produced toilets that send urine for medical tests. Another new product features an armrest that can simultaneously measure one's blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. As the population ages in the United States, these features might be requested more often, and local manufacturers may begin producing them.

Further Reading

Darnay, Arsen J., ed. Manufacturing USA. 5th ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

United States Census Bureau. Current Industrial Reports. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1998.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

U.S. Department of Commerce. U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1995 Annual Survey of Manufactures. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1997.

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