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Staffordshire Carries The History of America
On a warm June day in 1850 a man drove out on old Table Rock at Niagara Falls which the Indians had told Champlain were "higher than the tallest pine tree." The man unhooked his horses and started to wash his omnibus. A cracking sound sent fear through him. He rushed his horses up the bank. A roar behind made him turn. Niagara's Table Rock had gone forever.
But deep blue Staffordshire dishes carry the picture of old Table Rock, printed from an engraving made after a description by Father Hennepin who saw it with La Salle. Indeed pictorial Staffordshire, developed by British potters to recapture trade lost by the Revolution and the War of 1812, has preserved many a long gone American scene and building.
Few pioneer housewives could travel beyond the nearest settlement. Newspapers did not carry pictures. For that matter, only the privileged few got newspapers. Books were rarer. So Staffordshire picture dishes which cost little more than a newspaper and told bright and colorful stories from shelf, cupboard or mantel, were welcomed by the lonely housewife and family of pioneer days.
DISHES PRINTED FROM COPPER ENGRAVINGS
Until the mid-18th century all dishes had been decorated by hand. But the new transfer printing from copper engravings, begun then by Battersea, Liverpool and Worcester potters, gave decorated dishes to the masses. Maybe John Saddler and Guy Green of Liverpool did get the idea from seeing children stick bits of paper to earthenware. They did plan a patent in 1756.
But Robert Hancock engraved paper patterns of figures and gardens and his famous Tea Party for Worcester before then. And his teacher. Simon Ravenet who came earlier from France to engrave Hogarth's paintings, also engraved flowers, scrolls and shells, landscapes and portraits on Battersea's porcelains, as well as trained apprentices there through the mid-18th century. Ravenet is generally credited with widening the pattern grooves in the copper plate so they would hold the color mixed with printer's ink which made printing on china satisfactory.
Tissue paper, still wet from its soap and water bath, was drawn onto a cylindrical press, run over the "inked" copper pattern, and "scissored" to fit the dish. Then, while the inked pattern was still wet, it was smoothed onto the biscuit ware with a firm roll of flannel. The ink stuck. The paper pattern was washed away. The dish was glazed and put in the kiln to fuse the glaze, locking the pattern forever on the china.
DISHES PRINTED FIRST IN BLACK, LATER IN BLUE
England's earliest printed dishes were done in black over the glaze. Then light blue under the glaze printing was done. But America "went" for deep cobalt blue. That suited Staffordshire potters. Deep cobalt blue cost little, went on easily, and was intense enough to hide flaws of the chinaware, glaze, and sometimes even the stilt marks-those triangles of rough dots left by the prongs which held the dish in the kiln. The bottoms of old platters and bowls, or the face rims of plates have these marks which can be seen or felt.
Now the Staffordshire potters tried to keep secret their mix and printing processes by locking up the special workmen. But the printing started there soon became general. Patterns were taken from paintings, sketches, engravings and book illustrations. Potters sent artists abroad to sketch. Many came to America to sketch famous scenery, city and college buildings, historic events and persons. These sketches were often pirated. But the borders designed for each firm were seldom if ever pirated. Today these borders help the collector identify the potter who made his Staffordshire dish.
Famous borders include Enoch Wood's "Shells," Ridgway's "Roses in Medallion," Stubb's "Eagles, Scrolls and Flowers," Adam's "Baskets of Roses and Shells"-or are the "shells" actually fans? Equally prized are Andrew Stevenson's "Vine Leaves," Jackson's "Banded Floral," Mayer's "Vine and Trumpet Flower," Godwin's "Nasturtium and Morning Glory," and Meigh's "Chickenweed" or "Moss and Flowers." Some people collect borders.
DISHES WERE PRINTED WITH HEROES, SCENES AND STORIES
Staffordshire pictures are literary, religious, historical and scenic. The travels of Rowlandson's little Dr. Syntax; the adventures of Don Quixote; the paintings of simple Scotch life by Wilkie; a Bible reference or two; the Utica and the Constitution plates, are samples.
But the Staffordshire dishes America really went for were those with American scenes. Niagara, the Catskills, the cities series of Detroit and Sandusky, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chillicothe, and Louisville, and the Eastern "greats" including New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, carried many a "back home" picture along with the West bound pioneer.
"New York from Weehawk," and "New York from Brooklyn Heights;" "Battery Walk and old Fort Clinton ;" "Park Theatre" that knew Booth and his Shakespeare; "City Hotel" where Lafayette stayed, and the Hudson River Scenes-these America wanted to see if only on printed dishes. "Boston from Chelsea Heights," "Boston State House," and "Boston Commons" on "old blue" comforted many a homesick pioneer. So did Philadelphia's "Faire Mount Park," "Waterworks," and "Library;" Baltimore's "Exchange," "Battle Monument," and "View of the City."
Churches of America present New York's old "St. Patrick's," the "Church on Murray Street," and "St. Paul's Chapel." Boston has her "New South Church," and "St. Paul's." Philadelphia shows "Staughton's Church." Albany saved for us the picture of "Old Dutch Church," gone since 1806.
College views included Harvard, Columbia, West Point, Yale, and the University of Maryland. Among the homes sketched are the Lawrence Mansion, the Hancock house, the White House, Mount Vernon, the Stevens' house, Jordan's house, and Harrison's Log Cabin.
PRINTED HISTORY ON DEEP BLUE AND PALE COLORED STAFFORDSHIRE
History is recorded in "The Landing of Columbus," "The Landing of the Pilgrims," "Penn's Treaty with the Indians," and the "Battle of Bunker Hill" on old Staffordshire. The "Baltimore and Ohio Railroad," "Scenes Along the Erie Canal," and the "Pennsylvania Steamboat at Pittsburgh" pictured industrial progress. Mayer's "Arms of the States" thrilled local pride. And Franklin's "Maxims" taught their lessons from mugs, teapots and plates.
America went cupboard deep in blue Staffordshire from 1810 to 1830. But by 1840 lithography cut the cost of printing on pottery. The market was soon flooded with "old blue." Moreover Staffordshire potters had Bennington and other American potters to compete with. So England promptly began promoting the pale colors of pink, light blue, brown, mulberry, purple, gray and green on her Staffordshire. These rode West in many a covered wagon.
Dish shapes changed. Drinking from the saucer went out of fashion which did away with cup plates. The pale colors faded into white which held vogue till the Philadelphia Centennial, in 1876, brought back the colorful Staffordshire partly because visitors favored the bright colored souvenir plates.
Today those whose pioneer ancestors went West and got through with their dishes unbroken, prize their rich old Staffordshire. Once it graced great grandma's cabin or soddy. Today it decorates the modern mantel or rests safe in the collector's cabinet or is shown on the antique sideboard.