Transferware is the closest thing to printed pottery – earthenware, porcelain, ironstone or bone china. Developed in Staffordshire, England in around 1760, the process permitted transferring an etching onto pottery, using copper plates and tissue, then dipping the piece in water to float off the paper, and then glazing and re-firing it. It successfully eliminated hand painting upon which Spode and Wedgewood capitalized, and enabled potters to produce tremendous quantities of ware in little time. Transferware became one of the most successful early forms of mass production.
Although it is highly collectible and often highly valuable, when it first appeared in the late 18th century, transferware was the cheap alternative to more expensive imports from China. At first, it included extremely utilitarian pieces like tea and coffee sets, wash sets, smoker sets, vases, cheese wheels, etc. Later, the potters of North Staffordshire became the first to offer, on a large scale, full sets of dinnerware, expanding the range of pieces available. With this important development, England began its domination of the tableware industry and was destined to become the world’s pottery center at the time.
Readily available and moderately priced, transferware magically transformed the daily life of ordinary households, in England and around the world. Since The earliest transferware designs were based on Chinese motifs and were typically blue against a white background. Before 1828, cobalt blue had been the color most often produced in volume since only blue cobalt could withstand the intense heat of the glost ovens. As early as 1776, blue and white was the mainstay of transfer printing, remaining primary until 1828 and, this color scheme’s great popularity has never waned
During this early period in transferware, patterns such as Blue Willow were introduced and quickly became entrenched in the form’s visual vocabulary.
The Blue Willow pattern did not originate in China, however, but was a 19th-century merchandising scheme created in England, primarily for the American market. A great many families moving west, carried their carefully wrapped Blue Willow dishes with them across the plains. An estimated 90 percent of older Blue Willow was made in Staffordshire County, but after 1930 a great many pieces were made in Japan and various other parts of the world.
Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a trade boom and British and European scenes and subjects became the fashion. Views were taken from the popular books of topographical prints of England, Italy, India and other countries and from popular art works and print sources.
Then, after the War of 1812, Staffordshire potteries produced imagery calculated to appeal to American customers. A number of the major tableware firms produced goods exclusively for the American market. Although more blue was produced than other colors, colored transferware became popular in America in the 1830s. Green was the first of the “other” transferware color, appearing in 1828, followed by black, light blue (1845), brown (1852), flow-blue, mulberry, purple, sepia, yellow and others including English Pink in 1830. In some cases, specific colors, in particular pink and very dark blue, were exclusively produced for export to this country. It seemed that domestic American potters simply could not produce wares that could compete with the pottery of Mother England.
Obtaining suitable clay and coal was a challenge to the production of transferware in early America. In fact, an English potter of dubious reputation tried to set up shop in Louisville, Kentucky in 1836. He decided that suitable raw materials were available, but only on public lands at Troy, Indiana, a few miles down the Ohio River. He petitioned Congress, stating that in order to produce transferware at a profit he must have access to the raw materials to be found only on public lands. The petition was turned down and he sailed home with his wife and children in 1841.
By about 1830, some potteries were pushing the limits of blue on white by adding lime or ammonia to a kiln during firing, which made the blue glaze run or flow. By World War I, U.S. potteries were producing most of what came to be know as Flow Blue for the domestic market, causing English potters like Wedgewood, Blue Danube, classic Willow and Idris to exit the business, which had never been popular in the U.K. to begin with.
As for the objects themselves, they ranged from teapots and dinnerware to platters and vases. Even dog bowls were produced in flow blue. The desirability of the ware waned in both countries between the wars, but interest picked up again in the U.S. in the 1960s. Since large amounts of 19th-century flow blue had been shipped to, or manufactured in, the U.S., flow blue remains fairly reasonable to collect.
Another way to determine an authentic, antique piece is to look for faint lines that almost look like cracks through them that come from the paper transfer decal.
Transferware is some of the most beautiful china available. Single plates and serving pieces are great for display. Whether you collect a china cabinet full of transferware to actually use (I do) or just a few pieces, transferware is an attractive, nostalgic, and useful collectible that will bring you pleasure for years to come.
Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, on Main Street in Washington. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.