Imagine that your country lost a war a few decades ago, is about to lose another war to the same country; yet you, the owner of a well-established pottery business, decide to sell dishes featuring images of your enemy’s victorious battles!
As archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume writes, ” to put pots before principle ” was an old habit in Staffordshire, a center of pottery in England long before the War of 1812.
Why weren’t American potters creating these patriotic pots’ It wasn’t until after the Civil War that America could compete with more industrialized England. In Historical Staffordshire Jeffrey Snyder writes, “So successful were the English potters that American colonial governments instituted aggressive ‘Buy American’ plans, but to no avail.”
One notable attempt at creating an American pottery business took place in Philadelphia in 1770 when Gousse Bonnin and George Morris produced tea wares with transfer-printed Chinoiserie designs in blue underglaze. In The Porcelain of Bonnin and Morris, an article in Antiques and the Arts, Regina Kolbe writes, “The English producers Bow, Worcester, and Wedgewood had by this time captured much of the American market. So it is easy to see how two astute businessmen could envision the potential for a luxury market in domestic porcelain wares.”
The partners built a factory on what is now called the “Navy Yard,” transporting white clay from Delaware. Despite the “pre-revolutionary fervor for independence from English goods and a strong economy,” Bonnin and Morris’ costs were high, as they had to import expensive English master workers.
When the Townshend Acts were repealed and imported goods were no longer taxed, Bonnin and Morris could not compete with the low prices of English goods and folded in 1772.
While Bonnin and Morris created porcelain, most transferware was affordable earthenware and sold as everyday china. According to Snyder, both English merchants and American consumers chaffed under the shortage of wares from Staffordshire during the Revolution and again during the War of 1812 when “industrious British engravers espoused the cause of American freedom with near-treasonable anti-government images” – which they smuggled into America.
Placed on a hard, white earthenware called pearlware, and later on Mason’s Ironstone and other white wares, china with these engraved transfer printed images is called “transferware.”
Benjamin Franklin may have first developed the idea of transferware, without ever creating it. In The Burlington Magazine, Wendy Erich wrote that in a 1773 letter to a Liverpool engraver, Franklin claimed to have pursued the idea of transfer-printed china 20 years earlier, only to be laughed at by the English pottery trade. Piecing together information from letters, Erich argues that Franklin (once a printer) was probably the first to think of transferring images onto flat tile, but not onto earthenware.
Regardless, when English potters Sadler and Green first transfer-printed onto earthenware tiles in 1756 it was an idea whose time had come, allowing potters to quickly duplicate a pattern by transferring it from a copper plate. Erich writes, “To transfer-print on pottery, inked tissue paper is pressed onto the earthenware with a stiff brush and removed with a soapy solution, leaving behind only the permanently transfer-printed ink.”
At first these images were mainly Chinese designs such as the willow pattern; prints of English and foreign landscapes, surrounded by wide, often floral borders, became popular in the early 18th century. Different companies each developed their own characteristic border designs. While these borders were rarely copied, the central patterns often were.
English companies created patterns (and borders) specifically for the American market, including patriotic scenes like “The Battle of Bunker Hill” and tearjerkers like Lafayette mourning at Franklin’s or Washington’s grave.
Around 1810 landscapes began to appear frequently on Staffordshire wares in addition to the patriotic scenes, according to Snyder. Images of important buildings and municipal projects also became popular. Local examples include the Philadelphia Water Works, the Upper Ferry Bridge over the Schuylkill, the U.S. Hotel in Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania Hospital.
“These wares were not made for souvenirs,” writes Frank Stefano in Pictorial Souvenirs and Commemoratives of North America. Transferware was created when most people rarely traveled; they liked to buy familiar images. Transferware was inexpensive, everyday china yet it became collectible as early as the 1870s. In Historical Staffordshire: An Illustrated Check List, David & Linda Arman write, “Historical Staffordshire China is one of the earliest forms of collected Americana.”
No wonder; dishes with pictures on them encourage personalized collections. “Some collect borders and some collect churches,” transferware dealer Bill Kurau, of Lampeter, Pa., says. “In this area, shells and ships are common in collections.” He adds that two Philadelphia dealers specialize in Philadelphia views.
While condition is important to collectors, rarity of the image plays an important role. “Some pieces are worth buying under almost any conditions,” Kurau says. Relative scarcity of images also makes historical Staffordshire available at a wide range of prices. For example, widely available “Fairmount Park” runs around $250 – $300 for a small plate, whereas “Masonic Hall” of Philadelphia, even with a repaired hairline, sold for $7,000.
Early transferware was printed in dark blue, which remained popular with Americans and is still highly sought after by American collectors, according to expert Patricia Halfpenny. Halfpenny, herself from Staffordshire, adds, “You don’t see it in England.”
See the Transferware Collector’s Club’s online exhibition called “Patriotic America” that Halfpenny worked on. Go to: www.transcollectorsclub.org