Collecting Mania: Ironstone Pitchers

Appreciated as much for their graceful lines as for their straightforward practicality, these sturdy ceramic jugs find a welcome place in our homes today. The pitcher numbers among the most practical household devices ever produced. In the second half of the 19th century the pitcher of choice for many Americans was made of ironstone, a refined white earthenware produced by Staffordshire potteries in England. White ironstone suited the American way of life, as it was attractive, durable, and most of all it was inexpensive.

In 1813 English potter Charles Mason secured a patent for a new ceramic formula containing iron slag. Heralded as being more affordable and less subject to chipping and cracking than the porcelain, bone china, and creamware of the day, Mason's Patent Ironstone China enjoyed immediate success and was widely copied by English and American potters in the decades that followed. The wide array of forms produced included pitchers in all shapes and sizes, from diminutive creamers to large milk jugs and slender ewers.

Although English consumers favored pieces decorated with colorful Chinese- and Japanese-inspired motifs, Americans demonstrated a marked preference for the simplicity of plain white ironstone, so millions of gleaming white pieces were shipped to these shores. In a way - because the simple pieces were more widely used here - plain white ironstone is almost more American than it is English.

White ironstone enjoyed its height of popularity in this country from the 1840s until the turn of the 20th century. Early pitcher designs showcased handsome Gothic forms, characterized by flattened hexagonal and octagonal panels. The mid-1850s saw the rise in popularity of embossed patterns and naturalistic motifs - such as wheat, fruit, and foliage. Starkly simple designs, sometimes called "farmer's china," became popular in the 1870's and for some time later.

Today, whether holding a bouquet, kitchen utensils, or an ice-cold beverage, these hardworking wares are just as appealing as they were when first produced. You can either fill all the shelves in your house with white ironstone or you can place one great piece on a sideboard to finish off a room. These pitchers have always been useful, and they will always be useful. They will never go out of style.

Period ironstone pitchers range from $75 for an unadorned creamer to $200 or more for a large decorative piece. Bargains still exist, however. One keen-eyed collector spotted a dusty late-1800s batter pitcher at a flea market for $15.

Not all pieces of ironstone are marked - picking up the piece to feel its weight and inspect its color is one of the best ways to identify ironstone. The potter's mark reveals both a pitcher's age and origin. Coded marks on diamond shapes divulge when the original design was filed with the English Patent Office. There are a variety of books and online guides which will allow you to look up the coded marks to determine the age and rarity of any particular item. These factors will have a considerable sway on the price and collectability of the item.

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