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Collecting Mania: Yellow Ware Bowls

Updated on March 20, 2011

These simple, sturdy vessels have served country cooks and attracted admirers for more than 200 years. When shipments of English yellowware crossed the Atlantic early in the 19th century, Americans eagerly made room in their cupboards. More durable than redware and less cumbersome than stoneware, the newfangled goods were handsome to behold and inexpensive to buy.

Potters in England developed yellowware late in the 18th century. Working with buff-colored clay that gives the ware its name, they made useful forms and fired them at high temperatures. By the mid-19th century, a thriving American industry was under way. Potteries in Ohio, New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South churned out pudding molds, canisters, and colanders - but the deep, easy-to-handle mixing bowls became the enduring favorite. Made well into the 1930's and beyond, these simple vessels have been used by cooks to serve up countless batches of biscuits, cookies, and bread dough.

Early bowls were unadorned but later examples featured bands of colored slip or liquid clay that were applied by the potter as the bowl turned on a wheel. White, blue, and brown were the most popular colors. Yellowware pieces with a deep-yellow or orange appearance are generally more valuable than paler examples.
Today's collectors value yellowware bowls for the warm color they bring to a room. Yellowware really enhances a setting. It can make any cupboard come to life. Dating a piece of yellowware becomes easier if you brush up on a few key characteristics:

  • The first bowls were thrown by hand on a potter's wheel, but the majority of yellowware from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was produced with the use of molds.
  • Molds led to a variety of embossed and impressed designs with floral, geometric, and scenic motifs.
  • The lip on a bowl also hints at the age: Nineteenth-century pieces often feature rolled lips, while 20th-century examples tend to have a less-rounded lip or a wide-collared rim.
  • American potteries seldom marked their goods, making the origin of some bowls hard to pinpoint. Many potters hoped that their wares would be taken for English exports.

Many seasoned collectors focus their energies on finding graduated sizes of the same pattern for nesting. Not only do they enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but sets of bowls also bring more money than individual ones. Though bowls are commonly seen in nests of 5, many were actually produced in 8 to 12 different sizes, ranging from about 4 inches in diameter up to 17 inches or more. The most valuable pieces generally fall at the extreme ends of the size spectrum.

Period yellowware bowls with slip bands or embossed decoration range from about $25 to $200 apiece. As in almost everything else in the online auction age, it is advisable to be extremely careful when purchasing expensive collector's yellowware from ebay or similar sites. There are many instances of counterfeit and worthless copies of yellowware circulating around and you could easily be out a couple of hundred dollars in exchange for a piece of Chinese manufactured junk.


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