Last winter when I caught up with my friend Laura, she whipped out the then-current issue of Country Living Magazine, with a feature on white ironstone. “Is it called ironstone because there is iron in the clay?” she asked.
Hmmm, I thought. This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I had named my blog Ivy & Ironstone, talked briefly about my white ironstone collection, and now at least one person thought I really knew something about it.
I didn’t think there was iron in the clay, but I had to go back to some of my initial research to confirm my suspicions. And, I was right. “Ironstone” simply refers to the durable nature of this particular pottery. And I can see why; despite cracking and crazing and chipping, it survived daily domestic life in the nineteenth century. These pieces were the family’s plates, water pitchers, meat platters, gravy boats, and more.
Ironstone was first made in the early 1800’s in Staffordshire, England, as an affordable alternative to the pricier porcelains popular at the time. In fact many of the shapes and details like handles and spouts were designed to mimic more expensive dishes. Although much of this pottery was decorated with the transferware patterns I discussed in a previous post, what we commonly refer to as ironstone today is usually thought of as these white pieces. Charles James Mason acquired the first patent in 1813, but a number of other china producers also made copious amounts of ironstone. I have pieces identified as Wedgwood, Johnson Brothers, Mason, and Meakin to name just a few.
These nineteenth-century pottery pieces can be chunky (like the large bowl at the left) or delicate (like the brown-stained pitcher), detailed or simple. Some pieces retain their glazed finish, others are crazed and stained. Ironstone lovers accept those imperfections as part of the package.
My collection began with pitchers.
Like many collectors, I had this vision of a long line of white pitchers marching across a shelf (or shelves). And then there were my decorating muses, like Mary Emmerling (remember my post here?) who also embraced white ironstone, often using it to contain other goods, like towels or cutlery. But once I started looking for the pitchers, I found all these other great pieces. A square, fluted bowl to hold apples or berries. Pitchers, of course, for flowers, but also sugar bowls and a charming sauce tureen. And then there are the platters, in graduated sizes, ovals and rectangles. I purposely collected them to add to my entertaining gear. They are my serving go-to for everything from cheese and veggies to dessert. (Yes, I really do use this stuff. Why not?)
Because I can’t imagine an “end” to the collection (although I may get pickier at what I actually bring home with me), I tend to totally zero in on displays in antique shops. Look at this great collection. Who knows what I may discover here?
In its heyday, ironstone was both popular and affordable and, therefore, abundant. The combination of mass production and its sturdy nature undoubtedly contribute to its wide availability today. It simply outlasted a lot of other, more delicate pieces. Thanks to its popularity, it’s also been widely reproduced. Although I prefer antiques, some collectors are happy to include more contemporary pieces.
Antique pieces invariably show signs of wear on the bottom, around the top lip of a pitcher or bowl, or the edge of plate. The glaze wears off in places where it was repeatedly handled, maybe set down on a rough surface or pushed aside on a shelf. So those areas feel rougher, and sometimes discolor or even chip. Antique pieces also have a distinct, softer luster. I always check new finds for a manufacturer’s mark on the bottom. (Full disclosure: I do this with all kinds of dishware, a throwback to my days as a giftware buyer.) The mark identifies the maker and often the city and/or country of origin. Contemporary marks are just that — much more modern.
One of the things I have come to appreciate about my ironstone is the amount of detail and design incorporated into what initially seems like simple white pieces. Look at the detail on this sugar bowl on the left, above. The overall shape is rectangular, and although it’s hard to see here, the “corners” have a subtle ribbed look. I love the “collar” around the top and the shape of the handles. The details on the handles of these two pitchers are just as charming. Who needs color when you can play with shape and and scallops like this?
Mine is certainly not a large or discerning collection, but it’s fun. There’s a lot to be said for the “thrill of the hunt.” I’m always on the lookout because I love finding a new piece. I also use these pieces all the time. As I write this there is a small bowl cradling a gerbera plant by the kitchen sink and one of my tallest pitchers has been recruited to hold flowers on the island. If you follow me on Instagram, you saw one of my favorite pitchers filled with flowers on my Easter table. I used the square bowl pictured above with apples for dyed eggs.
There really is never enough ironstone or a limit to using and enjoying it.
See you next time!