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amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: ironstone + cleaning & care

by Amy Azzarito


illustration by julia rothman (a very limited edition of prints are available in the julia rotham shop)

Spring is in the air (this week, at least!), which means one thing – flea market season!  Here on the East Coast, most flea markets pack up for the winter and dealers go off to restock, but then resume with force in the spring.  The d*s team will be heading up to Brimfield in May and I’m already making my wish list and saving my pennies. White ironstone makes my list each and every flea market trip – I just can’t get enough!


collection of stoneware from 1840-1870 via 1st dibs

Ironstone is a type of stoneware that was first produced in Staffordshire, England by 19th century potters looking for a cheap alternative to porcelain that could be easily mass-produced in English factories. Most of this early ironstone was decorated to imitate Chinese porcelain.


the masons ironstone china factory is on the right in victoria square, fenton – the square also housed a drinking fountain (center) and a public urinal. photo c.1915 via thepotteries.org

The name ‘ironstone’ was patented by Charles Mason of Staffordshire in 1813. Many Staffordshire potteries had similar products known by a variety of names – semiporcelain, opaque porcelain, English porcelain, stone china, new stone – but all referring to essentially the same thing. Mason’s patent ran out quickly and other Staffordshire factories adopted the name ‘ironstone.’


white ironstone and flowers from Sprout Home

White ironstone has definitely become highly collectible so you might have to hunt for a bargain. Don’t shy away from a piece with a little staining – see below for cleaning tips!

CLICK HERE for more ironstone!


ironstone pitcher from 1840-1870 via 1st dibs

In the 1840s, undecorated white stoneware items were exported to the North American, European and Australian markets. (In fact, very little of the white ironstone stayed in England, most of it was made for export) It was a smash hit. The durable and affordable white stoneware was particularly attractive to rural American families. In order to be even more appealing in the lucrative U.S. market, patterns were often given American names such as New York, Virginia, Potomac and Atlantic.


collection of 7 19th century ironstone pitchers, $1400

These ironstone products were thick and heavy so their shape was extremely important. In addition to the maker’s marker, it is possible to date early ironstone by looking at the patterns and shapes. (Older ironstone has a bluish tint, while later ironstone has a creamy color.)

  • 1830s to 1840s – these earliest pieces called gothic have hexagonal or octagonal shapes
  • 1850s – leaves were popular
  • 1860s – more rounded forms – the emergence of the harvest patterns decorated with fruit, nuts, grain or sheaves of wheat
  • 1860 – 1880 – more elaborate decorations
  • after 1880 – a return to simpler forms


ironstone-laden table in norman rockwell’s iconic “freedom from want”

It wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that American potters began to manufacture their own white dinnerware – called “granite ware.” In attempt to boost sales, many American potters produced unmarked goods or used marks that resembled the English imports.


a collection of french ironstone and creamware found at flea markets in belgium and france from the home of red chair antiques owner jocie sinauer (see more ironstone in jocie’s sneak peek!)

For years, ironstone, as a plain everyday item, was  overlooked in vintage stores and thrift shops – Martha Stewart, an avid ironstone collection, changed that in the 1990s when ironstone began appearing in her magazine and on the television show. Although white ironstone is highly collectible, it is still certainly possible to find bargains.

Facts to Know

  1. There is no iron in ironstone. Why the misnomer? It could have been a way for Mason to throw off competitors or merely a show of marketing genius (iron and china = durable and desirable)
  2. crazing – is the fine crackling found on the oldest glazed pottery. You should not be able to feel anything when your run your finger over the piece.

Books to Read

  1. A Closer Look at Antiques by Judith Miller – filled with pictures and details about a variety of antiques from furniture and ceramics to glass and silver. Definitely a go-to resource for any flea market fiend!
  2. White Ironstone China Association Resources – The Association produces a number of resources to help with identification

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Ironstone Cleaning and Care

Stain Removal
Materials Needed

  • plastic container with lid – large enough to completely submerge ironstone
  • hydrogen peroxide

I found these beauties on our last Brimfield trip in September. The brown staining underneath the crazing didn’t really bother me, but I thought it would be fun to see what I could do about it.


One of the safest ways to attempt to remove brown stains underneath the crazing is by soaking the ironstone in 3% hydrogen peroxide. This is just the regular hydrogen peroxide that you can get from the drugstore. (I don’t even want to know what the cashier thought when I bought all that hydrogen peroxide.) Put the lid on the plastic tub and soak for about two days.


This is the clean mug and some dirty, dirty hydrogen peroxide! After soaking, I left my mugs out in the sun for a few days so that the hydrogen peroxide would vaporize. If you have an electric oven, you can bake the ironstone at a very low temperature. (Note: Don’t put the hydrogen peroxide-soaked ironstone in a gas oven – it can cause an explosion!)


The newly cleaned mugs! (I put them in the same order as the first photo! Amazing difference!)


flowers from Sprout Home
Clean ironstone! Yay!

Additional Ironstone Care Tips

  1. Hand wash – As with any antique dinnerware, a little care can go a long way. I have accidentally stuck my ironstone in the dishwasher without any harm, but to insure longevity it’s best to hand wash. If you have a ceramic sink, you could take the extra precaution of lining the sink bottom with a rubber mat or towels.
  2. Drying – Dry your dishes with a soft towel rather than air drying.
  3. Never use chlorine bleach – The bleach can penetrate the glaze, crystallize and cause the glaze to dissolve and eventually ruin the clay body.
  4. If your silverware leaves a gray mark, you can use a soft cloth to rub on a little toothpaste.

Note: Any piece of great value – sentimental or monetary – should be handled by a professional

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Comments

  • What a lovely post. I hardly need another artwork for my walls, but the Julia Rothman print is irresistible. Thanks!

  • gadzooks! that made such a difference! i’ve got some ironware pieces i inherited from my grandmother with some staining i thought i couldn’t do anything about! thanks so much for this info!

  • Great tips! I love your ironstone cups (in the before and after) I have a big serving piece…will have to try the same!! I love the simple silhouette of ironstone! ~Chris Ann

  • Hi Amy! I love ironstone thanks to Martha Stewart. Now to find a piece! Thanks for all the valuable information. And hello from Siloam…

  • what a great post! love the illustration, but then all the info and the cleaning tip, i’m ready to reconsider some pieces i had given up on. thanks!

  • I’ve been slowly collecting the local NZ produced styles, along with Sylvac – generally from the 40s-60s. Not sure if it qualifies as ironstone but it often comes stained like yours so I’m really keen to try soaking it in hydrogen peroxide! If it works it opens up a whole new (and cheaper) pool to choose from :)

  • Thanks for this post, I’m from Staffordshire and I always enjoy seeing it get some credit it deserves. Seems like a lot of people in London havn’t even heard of the county some times!

  • Is this peroxide solution good for other antique dishes as well? I have a pitcher that is from the 1800’s. It is similar to ironstone but has an embossed coppery purple grapes and leaves pattern on it. It needs some cleaning but I don’t know what to do other than soap and water.

  • Woohoo! I just picked up my first piece of ironstone – Johnson Bros – at Goodwill last wk. 0.99 for a large platter. Looks like I have to pick up some hydrogen peroxide as well. Thanks so much for this!

  • I can hardly wait to do this! Most of my collection are fine but a few are disgusting. I will let you know how this works for me!!!!

    • PLEASE NO I have learned the hard way. Old 1860’s plate I inherited from my mother in law who collected these. I don’t know exactly why but the plate began to have small blisters. I stopped the microwave immediately and let the plate cool. Use a pyrex pie plate or something similar size for microwave use.

  • There is a comment here that says to use lemon juice – I have been told NOT to use lemon juice as the acid can harm the glaze.

  • Hi! I just tried the Microwave safe test on a piece of Homer Laughlin White Heritage Ironstone…..mfg 1965-1985 or so. It tested just fine! I also know these dishes to be dishwasher safe. As for Antique Ironstone?? I don’t know!

    11-06-14

  • Thank you so much! I will try the hydrogen peroxide method on the old butter dish I found at a flea market. I am so glad I found your post before I tried bleach!

  • Hi
    I have an old Wood & Sons Vitrox Ironstone milk jug that I picked up in an op’ shop some years ago. I started using it as a water jug in the fridge and it very quickly discoloured – a greyish brown colour, dark at the top, gradually getting lighter towards to bottom, similar to the cup further up this page, so I stopped using it. Some time later I ‘refound’ it at the back of the cupboard and it was once again white. So I used it again for water and the same happened. This time I ignored the disclouration and continued using it in the fridge. With constant use, the jug has now started ‘weeping’ dark brown mottled moisture while in use. The mottling can be wiped off, but the original staining remains as long as I keep using the jug. If I stop using it, it dries out and stops weeping.

    Have you ever heard of this happening? I’ve searched and can find nothing like it, except the staining that you mention and is the same sort of stain. I can only think that there might be some minute crazing of the inside glaze and our heavily chlorinated water here in NZ accounts for the ‘weeping’. I wonder what the brown stuff is. It has no smell.

    • hi lorna

      to me it sounds like the ironstone has become more porous or that there’s a crack in the glaze somewhere. to me, that’s the only explanation for why it would essentially go back to normal after being in a dry cupboard for a while. do you have a good repair shop nearby? perhaps they could re-seal it.

      grace

  • Thank you for your reply, Grace. No, there’s no repair shop anywhere near me. I live ‘out in the sticks’ of New Zealand and I really don’t think it’s worth the trouble. I’ll keep using it and wiping it down each time I remove it from the fridge. If it eventually gives up the ghost, I will have had some good use out of it!

  • Thank you for your advice. The stained “Before” appear lustrous while the two “After” in front appear flat. Does the hydro per remove the luster or is it the photo or another factor?Thank you.

  • I put some cream colored Old Chelsea plates and tea cups that I received from my mother in the dishwasher to clean them fromthe newspaper wrapping. I don’t kno wif it’s my imagination, but they seem to be a darker colore now – almost tuape or tan – was that due to the dishwasher soap or heat? Do you think the hydrogen peroxide treatment would work on them, and I should only hand wash?
    Heather

  • I can’wait to try the hydrogen peroxide. My Gram had a complete service for 8 or 12 including coffee cups, tea cups square ice cream plates creamers & sugers and a large milk picher, serving trays & platters. The design is brown leaves w/ soft colored wild flowers & berries all pieces are trimmed in gold. Will send a picture of the redults. Gram2

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