Antiques: Porcelain & earthenware


Ever since a few Americans began collecting antiques nearly a century ago, china has run a close second to furniture. This is understandable, since these products of the potter's wheel offer a wider variety than any other group of antiques. What one may expect to find in a well-stocked antique shop may be taken as a cross section. It will probably range from crude crocks made by our native "jugtown" potteries to sophisticated tablewares and decorative accessories from the best kilns of Europe and China. These date from about 1750 to the height of the Victorian style, or as late as 1870.

The quantity and quality of dishes possessed by colonial American families varied according to the family's prosperity. All china being fragile, comparatively little dating before 1800 has survived. Moreover, since few American potteries making the finer things for household use produced wares in sufficient quantity to satisfy the demand, most china owned by American families came from abroad, and much of it was made especially for the American market. Some of it, like the historic blue and white Staffordshire and the export china from Canton, was decorated with American views or symbols.

Therefore, when the collector goes in search of old china he may expect to be offered pieces from the potteries of England, France, Holland, China, Germany, what was once the Austrian Empire and, to a lesser degree, Spain and Italy.

As regards material, china is divided into two kindsearthenware and porcelain. In earthenware, the body is formed from one or another of the ordinary clays, similar to those used in brickmaking, over which a dense glaze is applied before firing. Porcelains, whether of Chinese, European or American provenance, are either of kaolin clay or some artificial substitute with a practically transparent glaze.

English design marks

When in doubt as to whether an old piece of china is porcelain or earthenware, hold it over a strong electric-light bulb. If no light shines through, it is earthenware; if it is translucent, it is porcelain. Transparency varies from that of thin milk-white glass to that where only a trace of light can be seen. This variation depends on the composition of the body material and its thickness. Also the greenish, brownish, bluish or other tone of translucence is of great aid in identifying unmarked porcelain pieces.

There are three types of porcelains-hard paste, soft paste and bone. All hard-paste porcelains are made of kaolin clay and glazed with a felspar solution. Pieces of it are cold to the touch; the glaze does not scratch; and the colors of underglaze decoration are not absorbed into the bisque. When a piece is chipped, which can happen all too easily, the breaks have a cleavage like those to be seen on flint arrowheads, and the pieces are seldom found with food stains, such as tea or the like.

These hard-paste porcelains were fired at very high temperatures, above 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Body and glaze were completely fused, as can be seen if one examines a broken piece. This type of porcelain was made by the Chinese from very early times, and when examples, especially those with cobalt blue underglaze decoration, reached Europe in quantity, early in the seventeenth century, they were admired and eagerly sought after. Soon efforts were made to imitate the Chinese porcelain. These started with the Medici china, produced in Italy during the sixteenth century, and continued with that made at Meissen in 1713, at various French porcelain factories during the eighteenth century, and from about 1745 by such English potteries as Bow, Chelsea, Derby and Worcester.

Practically all of these were soft-paste porcelains with slightly varying artificial compounds of white clay and powdered "frit" (pulverized glass) substituted for the natural kaolin used by the Chinese. The term, soft paste, is used to designate the European attempts to simulate Chinese porcelain; pieces made of it are warmer to the touch, scratch fairly easily, and are slightly porous, and if it is chipped the fractures are not as flakelike as in hard-paste porcelains. Also, in soft-paste porcelains the colors of any underglaze decoration tend to be absorbed into the bisque.

Soft-paste porcelains were fired twice, first unglazed and then after being coated with whatever glazing was used at a particular pottery. Temperatures for firing were about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit. These porcelains were made in increasing quantities by Continental and English potteries until after discoveries of sizable deposits of kaolin in Saxony, in the south of France and in Cornwall, which took place about 1770. After this, potters gradually changed to the making of hard-paste porcelain.

Bone china, the third type of porcelain, was an English development. It was perfected about 1800 in Staffordshire by Josiah Spode 11, son of the founder of the Spode pottery. To the mixture of white clay and felspar he added burned cattle bones. This resulted in a body that was halfway between the hard paste of Chinese origin and the soft paste developed in Europe, and it required but one firing. It was such a practical and economical solution of the porcelain-formula problem that within ten years bone china had become standard with all English potteries. It is translucent, its glaze is free from the hard, glasslike quality of the Chinese product, and it does not chip as easily as either of the other two kinds of porcelain.

The first commercially successful effort to make porcelain in the United States was started in Philadelphia in 1825 by William Ellis Tucker, and was continued after his death in 1832 by his successor, judge Joseph Hemphill, who carried on the business until 1838. Known as Tucker china, this porcelain, in general appearance as well as in the shape of the pieces, closely resembled the French porcelains of that time. Indeed, this resemblance is so close that a good proportion of the unmarked Tucker pieces have been mistakenly classed as early nineteenth-century French porcelain. Fluted dishes decorated in gold of the design popularly called "wedding band" were one of the standard products of the pottery. Large ornamental vases and handsome pitchers and jugs decorated with sepia landscapes and birds and flowers in natural colors were also made there. The antique vases option can make a mantelpiece look less empty.

After this short-lived native venture, porcelains sold in the United States were imported for many years. One of the most successful in capturing the American market was Charles Haviland, who established a porcelain factory at Limoges, France, in 1840. With him and his successors, manufacturing porcelains for sale in America was a primary objective. The reputation of Limoges china became so high in this country that for over sixty years more Haviland porcelains were sold here than those of all other European makers combined.

On fine porcelain tablewares, the colored and gilt decorations were applied after the pieces had acquired their glaze. A second firing at a lesser heat then followed, to fix the decoration. This is known as overglaze decoration and explains why the gold-leaf ornamentation has partially disappeared on many old porcelain dishes. The second firing did not fuse it into the body glaze, so through the years this gold has been washed away.

Porcelain dinner services and large pieces from 1760 on were all decorated by artists who made china painting their life work. Some of the best of these decorators even marked the pieces they ornamented with their names or individual ciphers. Such signed pieces are most desirable.

Beginning about 1875, for greater output and lower cost, porcelain factories used the decalcomania process. Colored decorations lightly printed on paper were dampened and pressed by hand on the surface of the pieces. After the moisture had loosened the design from the paper, the paper was removed and the porcelains were given a second quick firing. Pieces so decorated are, of course, not as fine as the older hand-painted ones. This decalcomania decoration can sometimes be felt if the fingertips are passed over it lightly.

Antique porcelain tablewares and ornamental pieces, except those of Chinese origin, usually bear the mark of the pottery or factory where they were made. Many books that give the individual marks have been written about porcelains. Some are exhaustive works in several volumes, with much more detailed information than the average collector needs or can readily understand. On the reference shelves of most public libraries one or another of the books of marks can be found. Most of them include historical data about each of the potteries or factories.

In collecting pieces of porcelain, the beginner should study each item carefully. The pottery mark, if present, will help. But not everything was marked, as, for example, the purple luster teasets made in Staffordshire about 1810 and often decorated with flowers or berries done in color. In time, however, one becomes familiar enough with these unmarked porcelains so that it is possible to recognize the work of the different potteries by the difference in amount and tint of translucence. Defects to be observed are chips, age cracks (the darker lines where a piece is partially cracked but still whole) and breaks that have been repaired. Pieces with chips, with age cracks that are not too bad, or those where the decoration has partially disappeared are worth collecting, though naturally they are less valuable than the same ones in mint condition.

In the case of broken pieces that have been mended with cement or rivets, circumstances must govern. For example, a repaired teapot lid does not condemn an otherwise perfect teaset. A Chinese porcelain plate decorated with the emblem of the Order of the Cincinnati that has been repaired with rivets is worth acquiring and will probably cost a hundred dollars or more. Such an item is for the collector's cabinet, but as a rule single pieces of porcelain, badly damaged or broken, are not things to collect or cherish. This is particularly true of tableware, which should be in good enough condition for occasional use at least.

Sometimes a piece of porcelain is found in which someone-and I suspect it was one of the ladies who painted china as an avocation back in the 1890's-disguised a break or crack with additional free-hand decoration. Such camouflage is not hard to recognize, since the added decoration differs in style and technique from the original. Also, the line of a concealed break or crack can be easily seen by looking at the back of a plate or inside a teapot, cream pitcher or sugar bowl.

In practically all pieces of porcelain repaired by even skilled professionals, what has been done will stand out clearly when the piece is held before a strong electric light. This test will also disclose spots where "china filler" has been used to replace missing bits or chips, for such filler is opaque. Spouts and handles of teapots, coffeepots and cream pitchers; handles and knobs of sugar bowls and covered dishes; and minor parts, especially hands of figurines, should be well examined for repairs of this sort.

Although reputable dealers try to check for repairs of this kind all pieces of porcelain they handle, and sell the china accordingly, now and again a minor restoration or an unusually well-done repair can be overlooked. Therefore the collector should make his own inspection also. If anything is found that looks as if it might be a repair or restoration, do not hesitate to point it out to the dealer and ask his opinion.

In figurines and large ornamental pieces, small breaks, such as a missing finger, are not too bad blemishes; but a missing arm or a shattered and restored base certainly does not enhance the value of such pieces. The collector should make his own inspection and, realizing what toll the years have taken, buy accordingly.

Although porcelain was always the finer material, many beautiful and highly desirable examples of old china were of earthenware. These are always opaque, since they were made of a native dense clay, but don't discard a piece just because it is not translucent. Josiah Wedgwood, England's greatest potter, never made any porcelain, although the Wedgwood pottery did so for a brief time after his death. All of his beautiful and much sought-after basalt and jasperware ornamental pieces and his fine queen's ware dinner services were earthenware of fine grade and were fashioned with great skill and artistic merit.

The basalt and jasperware that he began making about 1770 at his Etruria pottery in Staffordshire are among the ceramic objects that have long appealed to collectors. The restrained classic beauty of the basalt pieces and the exquisite modeling of white relief figures and groups on jasperware, many of them modeled by the able English artist, John Flaxman, make these old Wedgwood pieces true works of art as well as original antiques.

Specimens of both wares are available, since they were produced in surprising quantities. Each bears an incised mark on base or back that makes identification easy and sure. Until 1780, the year his London partner, Thomas Bentley died, the mark was WEDGWOOD AND BENTLEY, and after that just WEDGWOOD. Over a generation ago the Wedgwood potteries (still owned by descendants of its founder) revived the making of both basalt and jasperware, using the old dies and molds. These new pieces bear the incised mark, WEDGWOOD, and when exported to the United States "MADE IN ENGLAND" is likewise incised.

None of these products of Wedgwood's Etruria pottery should be confused with copies, especially in jasperware, made in Germany in the late 1920's. These can be detected through the colors of the background. Usually light blue or a pale olive green, they are pale and washed out when compared with a Wedgwood original. Also the outlines of the white figures in low relief are blurred, never sharp as they are on real Wedgwood. That they are late and poor copies will be confirmed by the absence of the incised Wedgwood mark. Yet I have found neophyte collectors in some sections of the Middle West who were mistakenly collecting these copies of German origin.

Highly desirable are the Toby jugs by Whieldon and the historical figures by Ralph Wood. The same is true of the American historic blue and white dishes made in Staffordshire by a number of potters from about 1815 to 1850, or the much earlier blue and white plates, vases and tiles produced in the Netherlands at Delft.

1868-1883 English design  registry Some collectors refer to china made of the native clays as faience. The history of its making in England and on the Continent goes back a long way. It received great stimulus when the first explorers and East India merchants began to bring back blue and white dishes from China. Efforts to copy them resulted in the faience pieces made in England and on the Continent from about 1700 with decorations that simulated the Chinese, done in a dense white glaze. Other colors were also used, and some of the pieces were made of one or another type of stoneware. Most of the books dealing with china made of native clays are limited to consideration of the work of one country, one locality or individual potteries. Beginning well before 1815 and continuing until about 1860, English potters, especially those of Staffordshire, came close to having a monopoly on earthenware table dishes, toilet sets and decorative items supplied to the people of the United States. Many books have been published in the past fifty years or so regarding these potters and what they made for the American market, and scarcely any public library is without one or more. Almost any one of them will provide a good working knowledge of this kind of antique English china.

In many ways the most attractive to the average collector, as well as the most easily recognized, is the historic blue and white. It was a transfer ware, that is, the decorations were transferred from engraved copper plates by printing them on sheets of paper and then pressing them on the dry but unglazed unfired clay. After the clay had absorbed the design the paper was removed, and each piece was dipped in a glazing solution and then fired. The under-glaze-decorated pieces that are of a rich indigo blue with the design impression sharp and clear are the most desirable. Those in a "flowing" blue or a pale shade about that of "baby blue" are later and less collectible. Blue, however, was not the only color used by Staffordshire potters. Pieces of same age can be found in pink, sepia, black, purple, green, gray, mulberry and brown. Some are even in two colors.

After the vogue for blue and white china passed, its place was taken by a number of different designs or by white undecorated ironstone. Much of this ware bears the mark of its originator and reads: "Mason's Patent Ironstone China." A considerable quantity was also made by other English potters and marked Ironstone, either with or without their names. Ironstone was a heavier ware, the shapes were in the Victorian style and the knobs of covers were frequently in the shapes of fruits or vegetables of the melon sort. Platters and covered dishes were usually oval; teapots and larger pitchers were sometimes eight-sided and flared downward. Until recently ironstone did not have much appeal for collectors because of its thickness and weight, but it is now popular for use in country homes or those furnished in the Victorian style. As a result, prices for ironstone have risen sharply.

Along with this tableware, small Staffordshire pieces, Victorian in flavor, such as figurines, larger mantel pieces shaped to represent romantic castles or sentimentally appealing cottages, men and women on horseback, and a wide variety of dogs, especially primly sitting spaniels, are very popular with collectors.

In acquiring earthenware pieces, one should watch for about the same repairs and restorations as with porcelains, but they are not as easily seen, since the ware is opaque. So far as I know, there have been no counterfeits of these dishes produced in quantity. This cannot be said for the Staffordshire figurines and larger ornamental pieces. A few years ago, faking them was a standard business with some of the smaller potteries in Czechoslovakia, and many of these copies still crop up in second-hand stores and shops of less experienced antique dealers. The Japanese also made their share of these fakes, favoring the smaller figurines. Most of these counterfeits can be recognized by the poor quality of the modeling and the carelessness with which colors were applied, as well as by the inferiority of the glaze. In the larger human figures and the dogs, modeling was much less distinct and the colors were not handled with the same directness. It is a good rule to question any of these ornamental pieces that are not clear cut, are of poor colors or have rough and crude glaze.

On some of these figurine fakes, the country-of-origin mark can be found imprinted beneath the glaze on the under side of the base. More frequently it has been removed by grinding on an emery wheel or by some other abrasive. This also removes the glaze and leaves a telltale rough spot. Sometimes an effort to conceal this has been made by touching the rough spot with a colorless varnish or lacquer, but this can also be seen if one looks closely enough. Where fake figurines are decorated with gold, silver or purple luster stripes or other touches, the work is much brighter than that on the genuine.

The native American pottery pieces of interest to collectors are mostly crocks, pickle jars and jugs, made in many small potteries that flourished in various parts of the country from a little after 1800 to 1880. These homely items were mostly of redware, the glaze of which often had decorative black splotches, of brown glazed wares, and of stonewares in gray and black. Some bore hastily done slip decorations, but a few pieces had intricate and carefully incised ornamentation that included names and dates.

There were also some potteries, such as those at Bennington, Vermont, East Liverpool, Ohio, and South Amboy, New Jersey, that produced fine pieces in a brown mottled glaze, generally known as Rockingham. These potteries also made some very fine animal figures, especially deer, lions and barnyard cattle, which are rarities now.

Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, there was a long line of skilled potters who made about everything from pie plates to delightful, small animal figures and graffito examples, in which the decoration was achieved by scratching through the lighter colored slip glaze to the dark red of the body. Sometimes an additional slip of another color was used for contrast. Some of the Pennsylvania potters worked until about 1930, but their late pieces generally lack the directness of earlier examples.

There have been a few scattered efforts to make duplicates of these early American potteries in quantity for the gift-shop trade. Luckily what was produced so faintly resembles the originals that anyone with any feeling for antiques will not be deceived.

Basic antiques

Finding antique

American fireplace
American mirrors
Baltimore furniture
Common clocks
Queen Anne furniture
Romantic furniture
Sanderson & Salem
Secret drawers
Small sideboards

Glass American
Glass knobs
Sandwich salt dishes
Vermont glass company

Look of antique

Metal wares
Antique Andirons
Birmingham brass
Pewter, Brass, Copper

Chinese influence
Penny banks

Porcelain, Earthenware
Adam Caire
Antique dishes (Dutch)
Yang Stai

Prints & Paintings
Advertising lithographs
Robert Fulton
Samuel F.B. Morse

Drawers & Beds
Furniture hardware
Pewter, Silver, China
Tables & Chairs

Silver & Imitations
Huguenot silversmiths
Silver towns
Women silversmith

Textiles & Needlework
Pennsylvania panels
Quilting bee
Rugs hooking