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.
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.
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
- 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)
- 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
- 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!
- White Ironstone China Association Resources – The Association produces a number of resources to help with identification
Ironstone Cleaning and Care
- 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
- 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.
- Drying – Dry your dishes with a soft towel rather than air drying.
- Never use chlorine bleach – The bleach can penetrate the glaze, crystallize and cause the glaze to dissolve and eventually ruin the clay body.
- 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