One man’s trash: Tepco Beach
By Kirsti Scott
Tepco Beach by Dawn Kiernan
While Dawn Kiernan was on vacation in San Francisco, California, for the holidays—taking a break from a frigid winter in Wisconsin—she decided to check out a beach that’s filled with sea pottery that she had heard about. Dawn is terrified of bridges, but braved a trip over the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge to check out “Tepco Beach.”
Tepco Beach and finds by Dawn Kiernan
The 30-minute trip from San Francisco was well worth the effort. “The beach is very easy to find,” says Dawn. “We were the only ones there. The beach is very small, however it has layers and layers of broken china from the old Tepco factory.” In some areas, the tiles are eight to ten feet deep along the shore.
Dawn recommends heading to the beach at low tide and wearing shoes that can get muddy, as the beach is rough and the tides bring in mud and algae that cover the beach. “Go during daylight,” she adds. “There is no outdoor lighting in the area, and it’s very dark after the sun goes down.“
Tepco, the Technical Porcelain and China Ware Company, was founded by John Pagliero, an Italian immigrant. Tepco made sturdy dishware in their factory in nearby El Cerrito from 1930 to 1968. Tepco produced their decorative, durable pieces for diners, restaurants, hotels, and the U.S. Navy, Army, and Veterans Administration. Local coffee shops and diners, as well as well-known restaurants, such as Trader Vic’s and Bob’s Big Boy, purchased durable Tepco dishware for their tables.
At its height, the 200 employees in the Tepco factory produced 30,000 pieces a day. Most of the work was done by hand, including forming the plates, bowls, and cups using molds, attaching handles to cups, applying the designs, and glazing the finished pieces. “The factory would truck their less-than-perfect and broken pieces and dump them onto the beach along San Francisco Bay through the years,” explains Dawn. Over the years, the tides and waves of San Francisco Bay have begun to wear down the pieces of pottery, though the edges are still mostly rough and large, and almost-complete dishes, cups, and saucers can still be found on the beach.
Tepco designs ranged from simple solid-colored or striped pieces to intricate and custom designs. Every piece was available in sold Celeste Blue, Pin, White, and Sunglow, but an art department could customize any order with handpainted and transferware designs.
Simple designs were handpainted and more intricate pieces were created by printing a decal on flexible tissue paper, adhering it to fired pottery, then dipping the piece in water until the tissue floated away and left the decal design behind. Tepco’s distinctive airbrushing technique was used on designs from desert scenes to their “Confucius” pieces, which featured stylized pagodas and bridges. Designs are said to number in the hundreds of thousands.
Western themes (including cacti, cowboys, and wagon wheels) were sold to diners and restaurants across the western U.S. One style was called “Branding Iron” (above left), where the branding irons spell T-E-P-C-O on the rim. Tropical pieces with bamboo (above right) and Hawaiian themes were popular mid-century designs. Scenes from nature and plants were available, along with custom designs created for individual restaurants. Designs for the Navy included sets for officers and others for enlisted seamen.
Tepco Western Traveler pattern platter and shard found by Kirsti Scott.
Which pattern is it?
Identifying your pottery shards is straightforward when they were likely produced by a single manufacturer. And, with an engaged collector community, it’s even easier. Tepco china is highly collectible today, with mid-century design enthusiasts and lovers of these restaurant pieces sharing photos and information on them online.
Above, clockwise from top left: Tepco Gray Floral pattern platter and shard found by Dawn Kiernan. Tepco U.S. Navy Mess plate and shard found by Kirsti Scott. Tepco Modoc Red plate and shard found by Kirsti Scott.
Is it beach Pottery from homes or from a pottery factory?
While you might find a lot of pottery on your beach, there are a couple of ways to determine whether your beach was a dump with household refuse or an industrial dump. One hint that it’s a factory dump is finding a lot of the same colors and designs over and over. Another is finding the little pieces used in firing the pottery called “kiln furniture.” These tiny ceramic pieces are used to hold plates and jars decorated with slip or glaze while they are being fired so that they don’t stick to the kiln shelves or each other.
Above, left: Kiln furniture from Tepco Beach. Above right: Kiln furniture from beaches near pottery factories in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Kirsti Scott
“I love to collect sea glass and pottery,” says Dawn. “I have read articles that if you find a piece of china with the Tepco name on it, it’s the needle in the haystack.” She was lucky to find a few with the Tepco name, plus some geometric and decorative shards. “Since they made diner dishes, everything is thick! The pieces range from the size of a quarter to almost a full teacup.”
Dawn loves to beachcomb to relax from her draining job as a coroner in a rural county in Wisconsin. “I collect sea glass, pottery, driftwood, and Lake Michigan beach pebbles.” Lake Michigan is a 90-minute drive. “I love to go in the spring right after the ice melts or late in the fall.” Her favorite pieces are UV pieces. “If it glows, it’s extra special to me.” She makes nice pieces into jewelry or wall art.
After her trip to Tepco beach, Dawn headed up to Fort Bragg to visit Glass Beach. There, she found one of her favorite pieces ever: an abalone shell. Other favorite pieces in her collection are an orange and white marble and deep teal pieces of beach glass.
Dawn headed back to Wisconsin with memories and a few pieces from her beachcombing adventures. “One man’s trash is our treasure,” she says. “Cleaning up beaches—aka beachcombing—is so relaxing.”
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2022 issue.