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  • Carole Conn

19th Century Blues

I admit it. I LOVE blue. It has always been my favorite color.

The blue shades that appear on American country antiques of the 1800s are special in so many ways. Collecting a variety of them on all kinds of wares creates a serene and often dramatic look. Why are they so appealing?? And why are they different from today's blues?

Natural Dyes on Natural Surfaces

I think the appeal is the unmistakable softness and purity of the natural as opposed to synthetic colors.

Until the Industrial Revolution dyes were created using plants and minerals found in the earth. These dyes worked well with natural fabrics - cotton, hemp, wool, linen and were not very successful with later synthetic fabrics. Blue dyes were derived from the indigo plant which grew around the world.

Cobalt, a natural chemical element mineral has been used since the 12th century in China to add blue color to porcelain, and is the reason for the amazing blues of our stoneware, earthenware, transfer ware, spatterware and flow blue.

Synthetic Dyes and Paints

Starting in about the 1870s synthetic dyes were being applied using a variety of chemicals, allowing the colors to adhere better to synthetic fabrics. The result is often harsh compared to the softness of the natural dyes.

Paints also changed from the ubiquitous soft milk paints seen in the earlier 1800s to chemical based paints capable of a wider variety of colors, shines, and metallic effects.

These changes made a big difference in the "look" of 19th century blues.


Contrary to intuition, milk paint is amazingly durable. Lime was added to the milk base, adding longevity to the painted surface. If it shines, it's not milk paint unless someone has waxed or shellacked it to preserve it - never a good idea. Look for a variety of blues, aquas, teals, navies, light and dark, all coming from plant based dyes. There's nothing like them.


Natural dyes of all colors were used to dye homespun fabrics in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indigo was the primary source of blue dyes.

The downside, is that they fade easily if left in sunlight, or otherwise exposed to the elements over a period of time. A little fading here and there can add charm to a piece- a much more natural look than the extremely even synthetic colors. But they need to be taken care of to look their best.

Natural dye colors, not just blues, tend to be soft and, well, "natural" looking - not shiny, very bright, metallic or stiff. Very pleasing to the eye. And unlike synthetic dyes, nearly all natural dyes look good together, no matter what the color - (my opinion!).

Stoneware and Earthenware

Cobalt blues are often seen on good early crocks, jugs, tableware, and other utensils. Other colors also are to be found on these wares, but blues are the most usual and the most durable.

Minerals were made into oxides to provide the decoration, and colors other than blue often lost their vibrancy when fired. Blues just stayed blue. Cobalt oxide was also the cheapest and most readily available color.

Slip decoration baked into crocks and jugs can be OH! so charming - birds, flowers, dates, people, -- whatever appealed to the potter. Even a baked on blue ring in a stoneware jar gives it character.

Transfer printed earthenware is my all-time favorite - intricate patterns were transferred using copper plates onto raw earthenware, creating fascinating and beautiful designs. Flow Blue is similar, but the patterns are not as crisp, so I'm not a fan. Blue transfer ware, often just referred to as "Staffordshire" comes in every shade from deep cobalt to pale sky blue. Patterns are endless. They enhance any blue scheme.

Spatterware, sponge ware, mocha ware and even yellow ware often have touches of blue , or an overall blue pattern - all coming from baked on cobalt oxide.

What to Look For

It goes without saying that you should only buy what sings to you. That said, there are some pretty "fakes" out there, so here's a general view of how not to be fooled into buying something that's not antique.

Blue and White Quilts, Homespun, Coverlets and other Textiles

These basic fabrics - cotton, linen, and wool are all natural- no synthetic threads at all. Finished pieces are usually hand stitched or stitched on a treadle machine - which looks like machine stitching, but is usually a bit uneven. (Quilts from the 1930s and beyond, while beautiful, usually have synthetic dyes, often synthetic fabrics, and usually machine stitching.) Look for quirkiness in the designs and warp and weft of the fabrics - indicating that they were made by hand. Shiny fabrics are not natural in the 19th century ( cotton sateen being an exception). Expect some fading where the fabrics were exposed to the elements.

Transferware, Stoneware, Spongeware, Spatterware

The blue designs are baked in - not painted on. Look for makers' marks - often incised or printed on the bottom, or on the front of jugs and crocks. These can often identify the date and place of manufacture. Condition is important - cracks, chips, hairlines all diminish the value, but they can still display well.

Painted Treen or Woodenware

This is the toughest! There is so much fake paint out there. My advice is to deal with only sellers you trust, who guarantee what they sell. Having said that, there are a few give-aways:

Milk paint is pretty sturdy. It fades, peels sometimes, but is not shiny unless someone has made it shiny. Neither is it "chalky"- the latest "old paint" craze. It is mellow. There are often multiple layers of milk paint on a piece, and the paint may have been applied later in the life of a piece, but if it's honest, it retains that soft, mellow look without shine or the thickness that is sometimes seen in later paints.

Notice if there is fake "wear" - crackly areas which don't make sense, rubs in the wrong place. You should see wear only in areas that make sense as to the way the piece was used - on handles, at edges, etc.

Blues on boxes, firkins, bowls, shelves, furniture, - anything made of wood - can range from deep cobalt to pale robin's egg, with aquas, teals and turquoise thrown in. All are beautiful. A good piece will be hand made - if you see machine cut dovetails or lots of round nails, it's probably not 19th century. It could still have milk paint, since it continued to be used in rural areas well into the 20th century and may therefore have great appeal.

How to Use the Blues

Mix them, match them, spread them around - especially in the summer when they bring a crisp, cool feel to a room. You don't need to have a blue scheme in your room - blue looks good with bittersweet, yellows, greens and browns. You just have too see what appeals to you.

I use my blue transferware for everyday dishes. They are made of earthenware, so they are relatively sturdy, and if I get a chip here and there it doesn't bother me. I leave the rare patterns on the shelf.

I found this marked 1845 vegetable dish at a flea market for $40 - no chips or cracks - I even put it through the dishwasher! Since it was a one-off piece - not part of a set - it was so cheap. But I find that all the patterns go together, so you don't need matching!

Crocks and jugs make great flower containers - or containers for storing anything, really. If you fill them with water, put a plate under them or the moisture may seep onto your table.

What's prettier than a crisp blue and white quilt folded across a bed or chair? Just watch out for sun damage. And blue and white scraps of homespun look good as table runners or just folded in a stack on a shelf.

Use your boxes, firkins, pantry boxes, measures, bowls and shelves for storage, especially in the kitchen, - practical and pretty.

So get the blues! - Not sad ones, 19th century ones!

Carole Conn

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