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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Breakable Treasures: American Ceramics in the 19th Century

Earthenware, porcelain, transferware, soft paste, feather edge, redware, stoneware, yellowware, ironstone, mochaware, spatterware, spongeware, - all were potteries common in the 19th century in America.

How are they similar or different? How old are they? How were they used?

This website, and my interests, focus on the late 18th century and early 19th century, prior to the industrial revolution which began after the end of the Civil War (1870). Ceramics owned and used by Americans during this period of time is the focus of this blog.

American Made Ceramics

The main thing to remember is that, with rare exceptions, all ceramics, except for stoneware and redware, were imported, primarily from England, and to a lesser extent from China, France and the Netherlands, before the Industrial Revolution, (1870). Since production of these wares did not occur in America until after that date, ( - with a few exceptions), they are not technically American antiques. However, their use was ubiquitous in early households in this country because of the vast amounts that were imported.

The only ceramics made in America before the Revolution were redware, and to a lesser extent, stoneware. These were rough, utilitarian vessels made for food storage and plating. (See Blog posts on each). The War of 1812 caused Congress to ban all imports of British goods, creating opportunities for Americans to attempt to replace fine English wares with their own potteries. They mostly failed due to the lack of suitable clay, and experience. When the embargoes were lifted the demand for British ceramics was high and resumed.

Stoneware crock on the left, redware jug on the right.

Imported Ceramics 1775- 1860

All ceramics are considered to be earthenware - because their source materials have come from the earth.

Porcelain is the finest quality of all earthenwares. It is made from kaolin alabaster and fired at an extremely high temperature. It is thin, fine, and can be almost translucent. It was originally made in Asia and not perfected in Europe until the 1800s. Porcelain was not produced in America with much success due to the lack of suitable clay and the high volume of imports which were readily available to purchase here. Wealthy homes owned porcelain imported from the Far East, from England, Holland and France.

The "china" used by the settlers in New England was primarily white clay pottery, known as "ironstone", and transfer printed white clay, "transferware", not porcelain. It is known as "soft paste" china, made of mixtures of clay, and fired at a lower temperature than porcelain, making it softer, more porous, heavier, and of lesser quality. This resulted from failed attempts to create porcelain. It was produced in huge quantities by the English potters and imported.

Ironstone is unprinted soft paste pottery and not made in this country until the 1860's. It had no iron in it. Its name came about because it was tough and durable.

The most famous producer of ironstone was Mason's, first produced by C.J. Mason & Co in 1813 in England. Practical New Englanders appreciated the crisp white appearance of the plates, which were relatively inexpensive.

Ironstone was the basis for many other types of ceramics which became popular in the 1800s in America, the most important being transferware. The colors and scenes printed on the wares reminded Americans of the more expensive porcelain pieces owned by the wealthy in cities.

Transferware is soft paste china with underglaze printed scenes in blue, mullbury, brown and green, often referred to as Staffordshire because of the location of the potteries in England. Most of it was made in England or Asia and printed with designs by transferring them from an engraved metal plate onto paper, and then pressing into the soft paste pottery. Think Staffordshire, Blue Willow, Flow Blue. It was imported into America, primarily from England, and eventually produced here.

The transferware shown at left was made in England for the American market in the 1820-35 period. Americans preferred cobalt blue designs to paler blue designs. Many had American scenes and themes. Blue Willow refers to a particular type of pattern made by the transfer printing process and produced in England and China. Flow Blue was produced in England specifically for the American market. Its printed designs have a smudged or blurred appearance.

Feather Edge, often referred to as "Leeds", is whiteware pottery with shell shaped edges transfer printed with a color, usually cobalt.

Much of it was made by the Leeds potteries in England, (thus the name), and its base is the same as ironstone or transferware.

Spongeware is also soft paste pottery. The name refers to the type of decoration applied to it, rather than to the type of pottery. It evolved out of a type of decoration called "spatterware" which started being made in England in the 18th century. Spatterware was decorated by hand with brushes, whereas spongeware patterns were applied with small cut sponges dipped in color.

By the 1840s spongeware was being imported into America in large quantities. American potteries started producing it at around the turn of the century, particularly in the mid west and Ohio and continued until the 1930s.

It is highly collectible today, particularly those in cobalt blues on white. Multicolored spongeware was also very popular. Much of it had symmetrical designs rather than an all-over pattern. These are often referred to as "stick-spatter" or "stick-sponge".

Mochaware originated in England in the late 1700s. Earthenware was slip decorated with colored bands and then decorated with moss agate, imported in large quantities to London from Arabia. When cut, moss agate showed tree like patterns. The English called moss agate "mocha stone" because it was imported from the port of Mocha in Yemen, where they also got their coffee. France also mochaware.

The British made a great deal of mochaware specifically for the American market. Large quantities were imported and it was quite inexpensive - very affordable for the average American. American potters started to make mocha ware in the 1850s, almost always on yellowware bodies, banded in black and white. There were American makers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. American made goods with thicker and heavier, with murkier designs.

Dating mochaware is difficult because it was never marked by its makers. It continued to be made in this country until the 1930s. It was often used in pubs and common dining establishments. Today it is prized for its unique and highly graphic designs. It is relatively rare and expensive in today's market.

Yellowware is pottery made of yellow clay. It was very inexpensive to buy, and it is very durable. The yellow clay was baked at a high temperature and glazed with a clear alkaline glaze. It was developed in Scotland and northern England at the end of the 18th century.

Production of yellowware started as early as the 1830s in America where there were good supplies of yellow clay. Very little was made in New England, most being produced in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

It was made between about 1830 until 1930. Much of what you see in antiques shops today is early 20th century. It tends to be very hard to date because it was rarely marked with a maker's name. The earliest American pieces were thick bodied and heavy. Apple green glazes are 20th century and were made until about 1940.

"Rockingham" is a type of yellowware that is spattered with a dark brown manganese glaze. This was made in quantity in the early 20th century, particularly in Bennington VT (also known as "Bennington pottery") and in East Liverpool, Ohio.

Yellowware is a common kitchen collectible and can be acquired inexpensively in today's market. However, the less expensive items are 20th century and would not have been found in the 19th century kitchen.


The Rural American Kitchen Through the Ages

1650 -1750: wooden plates and bowls, redware for storage and food consumption, pewter in some households toward the later dates, wooden noggins for liquids

1750-1820: redware plates and bowls, pewter plates and bowls, wooden pieces were still being used. Drinking vessels were wood or pewter.

1820-1860: redware and stoneware for storage, ironstone, transferware, feather edge, mochaware, and in the later years, spatterware and spongeware. Glassware started to be imported in large quantities.

1860- 1900: stoneware for storage, ironstone, yellowware, spatterware, glass, and locally made potteries.


My advice to collectors is the same, no matter what the object of desire: buy the best you can afford with as little damage as possible.

That said, ceramics are easily damaged and often show wear. If you are collecting pieces for daily use consider later, 20th century pieces. Ironstone and yellowware are readily available, and can be quite affordable.

If your primary interest is in decorating with authentic pieces, buy nicely decorated stoneware, redware with good glazes, transferware in dark blue on white, mochaware of any age - if you can find it - spatterware and spongeware. Daily use risks damage which decreases values immensely.

The primitive home is most likely to have redware and stoneware as its principal ceramics because they are the truest American potteries.

Happy collecting!



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