Transferware Pottery Transformed an Industry

The invention of the transfer printing technique brought the look of expensive, hand painted pottery to the middle class in the 1750′s and collectors still treasure it.

As early as the 13th Century, the Chinese began hand painting decorations on porcelain that featured landscapes, flowers, and animals among other decorative motifs. This blue and white ware became popular in Europe and the United States in the 18th century, although the nature of the labor intensive, hand painted decorations made it prohibitively expensive except for the wealthiest customers.

Transfer Printing: A Pottery Industry Breakthrough
Where demand for products exists, canny manufacturers strive to fulfill those needs. This was as true in the mid 18th century as it is today, and in the mid 1750s, the Worcester factory in England brought blue and white dinnerware to the middle classes through a method of transfer printing elaborate and intricate patterns onto unglazed pottery bodies.

In this process, a flat copper plate was engraved with the desired pattern. The copper plate was inked, and pressed, or transferred, to a fine sheet of tissue paper that was then applied to the ceramic form. The piece was then fired at a low temperature which fused the ink onto the body. A final, protective clear glaze was applied, and the items was fired a second time at a higher temperature. The copper plates were reused, and intricately patterned wares were produced in a fraction of the time and cost of their hand decorated counterparts.

Early Blue & White Transferware
The earliest blue and white ware was patterned in the popular Chinoiserie style depicting subjects of the mysterious Orient. Most famous of all Chinese influenced patterns was the Blue Willow, a pattern that was copied and produced by hundreds of potteries, including those in Staffordshire. Supposedly based on an ancient fable concerning doomed lovers Koon-see and Chang, who, while fleeing their oppressors, are turned into doves, the pattern was actually developed in Britain. According to Judith Miller, (Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia c1998 Reed Consumer Books Ltd.), “this ancient fable has long delighted owners of willow service, but in fact was invented in Britain in order to sell Staffordshire dinner service.” Based on hand painted Chinese porcelain, it is unclear who made the first Blue Willow pattern. Experts disagree, some attributing the pattern to Spode, others to Thomas Minton for Caughley.

Transferware for the American Market
By 1830, British manufacturers were producing ware strictly for export to the US, and had created designs exclusively for the American Market. The decorations on American dinner service included portraits of heroic Americans such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin. American buildings often graced the pottery along with scenes of railroads and steamships.

-By p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer

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