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Secret Life of Antiques: Collecting Ironstone

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White Ironstone was originally potted in England  in the early 1800’s. The Ironstone blanks were decorated with colorful patterns and were an immediate success in England, it had lasting weight and strength, and became a very popular form of pottery. James Edwards (1805-1867) of the Dalehall Pottery in Staffordshire, William Turner of Longton, are amongst the potters credited as ironstone pioneers. Some sources also attribute the invention of ironstone to Josiah Spode who is known to have been producing ironstone ware by 1805, he exported immense quantities to France and other countries. The popularity of Spode’s ironstone actually surpassed the traditional faience pottery in France.

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Ironstone, the name and its formula, containing the mineral feldspar, were patented in 1813 by the British potter Charles James Mason in 1813. There is no iron in ironstone. Many believe that Mason used this name to to confuse his competitors or that it was marketing genius maintaining that iron and china = durable and desirable. His father, Miles Mason {1752-1822} married the daughter of Richard Farrar, who imported Oriental porcelain in London.

Mason continued this business, but after the East India Company ceased the importation of Oriental porcelain in 1791 he began to manufacture his own wares. His first manufacturing venture was a partnership with Thomas Wolfe and John Lucock in Liverpool, and he later formed a partnership with George Wolfe to manufacture pottery in Staffordshire. Mason wanted to produce an inexpensive alternative to porcelain that could be easily mass-produced in English factories. Most of this early ironstone was decorated with transfer patterns or hand painting to imitate Chinese porcelain.

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Many Staffordshire potteries had similar products known by a variety of names ~ new stone, semi porcelain, opaque porcelain, English porcelain, stone china, but all referring to essentially the same thing. Mason’s patent lasted only fourteen years, and by 1827 other Staffordshire factories adopted the name ironstone.

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In the 1840’s, the undecorated white stoneware items were exported to the North American, European and Australian markets. (Very little of the all white ironstone stayed in England, most of it was made for export) The durable and affordable white stoneware was particularly attractive to rural American families and used by settlers who needed sturdy china and chamber sets. British potters recognized a huge potential market among rural American families buying china for the first time. They put together services of all white ironstone, hoping that the simple style and great price point would appeal to the American country people and farmers. These pieces, given names such as graniteware, stoneware, pearl china, or feldspar china, are now all considered ironstone. In order to be even more appealing in the lucrative U.S. market, patterns were often given American names such as New York, Virginia, Potomac and Atlantic.

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During the mid-19th century, the United States made up  most of the export market for Staffordshire’s potteries. In the 1860s, British manufacturers began adding embossed agricultural motifs, such as wheat and flowers, to their products to appeal to Americans. These patterns became known as “farmers’ china” or “threshers’ china”.

 

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Fantastic set of antique French Ironstone Plates:FrenchGardenHouse.com

In the 1870’s and 1880’s American potters began to manufacture their own white ware, they called it “granite ware.” In attempt to boost sales, many American potters produced unmarked goods or used marks that resembled the English imports. Regions in New Jersey and Ohio (and later New York) that had high quality clay sources and well-developed transportation networks became the centers of American ironstone dinnerware production.  Before the Ironstone production, the United States had a limited pottery industry, mostly producing bricks, tiles, redware and stoneware. The great popularity of plain white dinnerware in the mid 1800’s grew this industry, American potters did not need to be expert at decoration (which they were not) in order to make and sell the graniteware pieces. These ironstone products were thick and heavy so their shape was extremely important. In addition to the maker’s marker, it is possible to date early ironstone by looking at the patterns and shapes.

 

  • 1830’s to 1840’s:  the earliest pieces {gothic} are hexagonal or octagonal in shape.
  • 1850’s:  leaves were popular embellishments.
  • 1860s – 1880’s:  more rounded forms – the harvest patterns decorated designs with fruit, berries, nuts, grain or sheaves of wheat.
  • after 1880: a return to simpler forms, with decoration very plain and only on the handles or finials.

The color of pieces will vary from place to place depending on the clay that was used,  but most American pieces tend to be a white to cream color,  the English are white/blue or white/gray. When buying ironstone, look for a back stamp on the bottom of the piece, either printed on or impressed. Crackling or crazing in the clear overglaze is not uncommon in old pieces, and is considered more than acceptable, even desirable to some collectors.  Once very affordable, the ironstone is now highly collectible and coveted by collectors.  You can expect to pay 350.00for a teapot, over 1000.00 for a rare pedestal or cake stand, and 200.00 for a soap dish in good condition.  AntiqueFrenchIronstonePedestalCakePlate2FrenchGardenHouse

Incredibly rare French Ironstone Cake Pedestal from FrenchGardenHouse.com

 

All the edges should be un repaired and free of chips if possible.  A collection of quality antique ironstone adds history and decorative beauty to your home, and the pieces are still very usable! That is the best part of these strong white dishes, they can still be used every day or on holidays, they earn their keep.

Right now there are a few amazing pieces of ironstone available on the website at FrenchGardenHouse. I hope you will love them as much as I do, and add one or more to your personal collection.

Shop for the best in French Antiques, furniture with the patina of age, vintage accessories to delight you and your family & friends, and French Country utilitarian pieces. Treasures that make your home fresh, beautiful, inspirational and uniquely yours.Visit our shop FrenchGardenHouse.com.

14 Responses to Secret Life of Antiques: Collecting Ironstone

  1. Thank you Dori. I love all antique ironstone. It’s timeless and classic, and always makes food look beautiful!

  2. I loved learning about ironstone. I love your blog, it teaches me something new each time, thank you so much for so generously sharing all your knowledge about antiques. Janey

  3. We love the huge pitcher we bought from you a few years back, and are adding that other pitcher to our collection. Can’t wait to use that one too, these are real workhorses here at the farm, we use for flowers, but also this summer for a huge amount of lemonade!

  4. Brett, I hope that you will love the pitcher, it’s a great size, and the handle is so very beautiful.

  5. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment, Caroline. So glad that you enjoyed this post.

  6. Great post! Thank you for all this information. We have a small collection and love adding a few pieces every year. Will look at your latest acquisitions to see if there is anything our collection needs. 🙂

  7. Lidy, I always enjoy articles on ironstone, and I learned yet another tidbit of info regarding the timeline and common shapes of those eras – thank you. I just picked up a couple of pudding molds on a recent trip for my collection, with shapes of wheat and artichoke, and I now know they are likely from around the 1860s. Your cake pedestal is beautiful. I am one of the collectors who loves the crazing and cream/brown discoloration of the antique ironstone.

  8. Thanks for the visit, Rita! As a fellow lover of ironstone, I’m so happy you found pieces with artichoke! Those are not that easy to find these days. I bet you have a stellar collection.

  9. I also love the ironstone and had just bought a white cinderella pumpkin so will put it with the ironstone as you did. thanks, Kay

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