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( Originally Published 1963 )
Silversmiths, blacksmiths, and other metalworkers made many things of which no more could be said than that they were plain, practical, and necessary. But they also made bowls, candlesticks, and other household articles of unsurpassed beauty. This also was true of cabinetmakers and glassblowers. On the other hand, the first small potteries established in the Colonies made only the most utilitarian wares.
Clay suitable for making pottery and porcelain was found in many different areas. As a matter of fact, Indians all over the continent had long been producing their own pottery with their own style of decoration, however crude it might have seemed to the white settlers. Undeniably utilitarian as the Indian pottery was, it was more distinctive than that made by the colonists. The mugs, bowls, platters, and plates produced in their potteries were exceedingly plain and were not all important in the kitchen let alone the dining room. Woodenware and pewter were used fully as much, at least on the table for eating.
Throughout the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, both everyday earthenware dishes and company porcelain were largely imported, chiefly from England. It was not until 1825, when William Ellis Tucker opened his factory in Philadelphia, that the first porcelain was produced here. By 1850, a considerable variety of earthenware products was being manufactured in the United States, not only along the East Coast where suitable clays existed but also in Ohio and the Midwest.
No strictly new type of china ever has been originated in this country, but characteristic styles were developed in many kinds of pottery. The stoneware jugs, crocks, and bottles for which Pennsylvania and New York State became famous are only one example.
Few people can bear to throw away old crockery or porcelain. Probably more houses have a half-dozen or so odds and ends of old china standing unused now in cupboards than any other kind of antique household furnishings. A platter, plate, or pitcher prized by grandmother or great-grandmother, who brought it with her from her homeland, may still be displayed proudly by her descendants. Old tableware and ornamental china almost always have an interesting history, whether a piece was brought to this country by its original owner or was purchased here from a merchant who had imported it from England or Europe or who bought his stock from local pottery factories.
Before deciding that grandmother's platter no longer blends with your dining-room decor, or that this spring the cupboard is really going to be cleared out thoroughly, you owe it to yourself to find out what kind of old pottery or porcelain you have. If it's possible to identify the maker from a potter's mark on the underside, or the span of years during which a dish was made by means of such clues as shape, coloring, and decoration, you may find that you have some fairly valuable pieces. There is general interest today in old china, and new uses have been found for pieces that are no longer made. Then, too, collectors always are searching for worthwhile or unusual pieces, and less valuable ones appeal to people who must run a household on a limited budget and, therefore, are willing to buy broken lots of tableware.
No other field of antiques seems to be quite so confusing as this one. Certainly anyone whose knowledge of pottery and porcelain has gone no further than shopping for kitchen and diningroom dishes can be excused for thinking that the remnants of her grandmother's creamware dinner set are porcelain instead of earthenware. (Creamware is a valuable earthenware to be prized as much as some porcelain.)
"China" has become a general term referring to all kinds of dishes used on the table and to ornamental and useful objects such as vases, doorknobs, lamps, and candlesticks. Specifically, it should be the common name for porcelain wares, for the word "china" was borrowed from the country of that name 300 years ago, to describe the porcelain that was brought from there to Europe and England. This was the first porcelain Westerners had ever seen.
Porcelain is hard, white, thin, lightweight, and vitreous. Most important, it is translucent when held up to the light. The decoration is usually fine. Bone china, which was not made before 1800, is a type of porcelain with an admixture of bone ash from bones calcined in air.
The term "pottery" has a much broader meaning, for it refers to all articles made from clay and hardened by fire. Until Westerners saw the porcelain made by the Chinese and finally learned how to produce a similar ware, their products had been limited to earthenwares and stonewares, both of which are coarser than porcelain. Compared to porcelain, earthenware is opaque and soft. It has a porosity that stoneware lacks, but stoneware is much harder. "Crockery" refers to articles for domestic use, made of glazed earthenware or stoneware.
The basis of both porcelain and pottery is clay. Very little of the great amount of clay to be found around the world is unsuitable for making pottery of some kind. However, fine wares can be made only from certain types of clay that are prepared and mixed with the proper substances. Exposure to high temperatures of different degrees brings about physical changes (in color, hardness, etc.). Firing makes clay articles among the most durable in the world.
Glaze is a thin, glasslike substance that is poured molten over a clay vessel. It fuses at high temperature to make the clay impervious to liquids. Earthenware, for example, may be unglazed as in the case of bricks and flowerpots, or glazed as in creamware and Delft. The makeup of glaze varies and, according to the type used, so do the texture and appearance of the finished piece. Of the many different kinds of glaze, one is best suited to each major type of pottery. It was discovered long ago that the application of a glaze could change the color of clay when it was fired, and both clear and colored glazes have been used for centuries. Often more than one glaze was applied, each at a different stage of the firing.
Decoration, or at least color, has been common on pottery and porcelain ever since it was first made. The glaze itself is a decoration. This is particularly true on hard-paste porcelain, which does not require a glaze to prevent absorption of liquids, and on earthenwares, to which colored glazes were applied. Other decoration sometimes was done under the glaze, in which case it never wore off no matter how much a piece was handled and used. However, underglaze decoration was limited in colors. Overglaze decoration was not practical for everyday china, even though the resulting colors really were glasslike or vitreous enamels.
An early type of decoration, usually done under a glaze, was slip. This was potter's clay or paste reduced to a liquid (it could be white or colored). It was sometimes trailed on a piece in a quite elaborate, if crude, pattern. When a design was incised through the slip to show the contrasting color of the clay body, the decoration was called scratched or sgraffito.
Painting became the most widely employed decoration. Colored clays, an early method of decoration, are still applied as underglaze painting to some kinds of earthenware and stoneware. Enamels were used on porcelain, and both enameling and painting often were embellished with gold. The use of metallic pigments for luster decoration, which was so popular during the nineteenth century, can be traced back thousands of years to Persia.
About 1753, transfer-printing was originated in England. This process, developed by an engraver, made possible the mass production of a single design (it was fixed under a glaze). It was so much used by English potteries, particularly during the nineteenth century, that it is considered peculiarly English. It was not done to any extent in other countries.
Applied or modeled decoration was used at certain times, especially by German factories. Flowers and fruits are considered much more typical of Meissen than they actually are. The little pink roses and blue forget-me-nots belong to Dresden rather than only to Meissen, and are more often than not twentieth-century embellishments of ornaments.
Highly influential on the decoration of both the pottery and porcelain produced in Europe and England was the porcelain imported from China. This Chinese porcelain, a much finer clay product than any that had ever been made in Western countries, was so admired that both its coloring and its decoration were copied generally. This imitation of Chinese designs began about 1700, probably in France, since it is known as chinoiserie. The finest porcelain factories, and later potteries, in Europe and England decorated their wares with chinoiserie patterns and modeled chinoiserie figures during the eighteenth century. AIthough a few artists are known to have worked from authentic Oriental pieces, little of the Western chinoiserie looks Chinese. Figures often had European faces, landscapes were fanciful, and often pagodas or latticework in the background merely suggested an Oriental atmosphere. Perhaps because chinoiserie was so imaginative and gay, eighteenth-century pieces are as appealing today as when they were made.
The nineteenth century found a great variety of pottery and porcelain available to Americans, and it is examples of these wares that are most likely to be found here today. Most of them were made in England, but all of the methods worked out during the eighteenth century for Western porcelain and different kinds of earthenware and stoneware were represented, for porcelain and pottery of fine quality were made on the Continent, too. In fact, England and the leading countries in Europe each are noted for more than one distinctive type of pottery and some kind of porcelain. A certain amount of authentic Oriental ware also is to be found in the United States.
EARTHENWARE is perhaps the most common kind of pottery. It is considered coarse in comparison to porcelain and most stoneware. Yet earthenware can be made almost as thin as porcelain and, when it is, usually is called china. However, earthenware is both opaque and porous under the glaze in contrast to porcelain, which is translucent and nonporous. Because many techniques were developed for making, glazing, and decorating earthenware, there are many different types that often are known under names that indicate their place of origin.