The most sought-after and ubiquitous eating vessels of the early 1800s in America were transfer printed earthenwares produced by the British, often referred to as "Staffordshire". If you collect American country antiques you need to have it in your collections.
Why? It's English! We didn't make it here. It's not "American Country".
Oh, but it is.
We tried to make it ourselves, - but just could not compete with the volume of cheap wares imported from Britain. The British knew this and cleverly produced pieces with American historical and pictorial scenes on them.
Only the wealthiest families had art of any kind on their walls. Transfer printed plates were pretty, colorful and fanciful - meeting a need for "pretty" as well a practical.
By 1800 most households, even the most rural ones, enjoyed tea. They had long since stopped eating family style out of wooden trenchers and pewter basins, and had "china" plates and cups for each member of the family. Other than locally produced, rather crude by comparison red ware, transferware was the only choice, unless you were very wealthy and could afford imported porcelain.
What's not early transferware:
Let's be clear here - we're not talking about Flow Blue. That became popular much later in the century. This blog focuses on the crisp, clean images on transfer printed white earthenware, extremely popular here from 1800 until about 1860.
Note the blurry images on this flow blue plate - transferware images are clear and crisp. Flow blue was made in America in abundance in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.
We are also not talking about the later mass produced printed products of the 20th century, made by china manufacturers.
These have a manufacturer's name printed on the back and are all identical to others in their patterns.
How early transferware was made:
Transfer printed plates began being produced in England in the 1700s. The process involved etching a print or scene onto a copper plate. These copper plates took a minimum of 6 weeks to produce. Colors, made from natural minerals were pressed onto the copper plate and then "transferred" to plain white earthenware via a type of tissue paper. This was hand pressed and smoothed onto the earthenware.
One telltale way to know that a piece is transferware is that you can sometimes see creases in the design and areas where the print did not take or is unevenly applied. The assembly line that produced these wares was all hand work, - no machines involved.
We mostly think of transferware as being blue. But there were many colors produced, especially in the 1830s and 1840s - pink, green, red, brown, and later, multiple colors on a single plate.
The patterns created number into the thousands. The earliest ones mimicked those found on fine porcelain imported from the far east. Later, all kinds of historical and pastoral scenes were depicted. The Transferware Collectors Club (www.transcollectorsclub.org) has identified over 15,000 patterns found on English transferware.
I have collected transferware for many years. I find the variety of patterns intriguing and the search for the maker and pattern name is fun. Some early transferware has a maker's mark, sometimes a scene name, sometimes the place where it was made. If it says "Made in...." it is not old. There are many reference books and data bases which help identify patterns, their makers, and their age.
Made for America
I remember shopping for transferware in England with English friends some years ago. I kept going for the dark blue prints, which they thought were ugly. They preferred the lighter blues. I found out later that American settlers preferred the dark blue plates, so the British made them for the American market only. I guess it was is my American genes!
So if you find a dark blue printed transferware plate, it was always used here - not in England.
How to tell if it's early transferware:
Maker's mark - there are many references identifying where and when a maker worked.
Pattern name- sometimes printed on the back. There are databases identifying who made various patterns and when they were made.
Uneven application- look for gaps, creases, and seams that don't match in the printed patterns
Uneven glaze - drips or gaps in the glazing over the pattern
No "Made in" or other modern manufacturer marking.
Weight - Later, mass produced plates were usually heavier and clunkier.
What to Look For:
Patterns and scenes that appeal to you. One of the great joys of collecting transferware is the nearly infinite number of patterns available in the market place.
Good condition - no cracks, chips or hairlines. No stains that won't come out.
Dark blue color - indicates that the item was made for the American market and has probably been here since shortly after it was made.
Sets- collect a pattern you love. Some are available in different colors, and by different makers. It is sometimes possible to find a whole tea set or a child's play set.
Pieces you will use - transferware is amazingly durable. Unless very fragile, I use my dishes and platters for special meals.
Price- the market for transferware has declined in recent years, as it has for many categories of antiques. You can find a nice plate for under $70. Rare pieces go for hundreds. Buy what you like and can afford.
There are many reference books which are useful in learning more about transferware, including:
Staffordshire Potters, R.K. Henrywood
Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery, A. W. Coysh and R. K. Henrywood
Miller's Encyclopedia of British Transfer-Printed Pottery Paterns, Gillian Neale
American Patriotic and Political China, Marian Klamkin
A wonderful online source is The Transferware Collectors Club, www.transcollectorsclub.org.
Transferware was very much a part of the lives of our early settlers starting in the 1820s and continuing through the 19th century. Add a few pieces to your collections and see how it enhances everything. Happy collecting!