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Made For America

May 2024
2min read

Distant lands supplied patriotic tableware to the new Republic

No artifacts of the early days of the Republic possesses, to many eyes, more antique charm than the decorated chinaware which graced the shelves and tables and lined the wainscottings of the newly prosperous Americans. Strangely enough, nearly all of them were fabricated abroad, in far places like China or in the potteries of our then recent enemies in England. Foreign merchants and manufacturers were quick to grasp the opportunity presented by a new market, beset with a craving for household luxuries but unable to satisfy it from local American sources. Little ceramic tableware was produced here, either in the colonial or in the early republican eras. And thus the foreign potters, many of them exquisite craftsmen, decorated their products with many a patriotic scene or personage they had never beheld with their own eyes. It was a skill well calculated to fill the need and excite the taste of the Americans, and the wares they made have been copied and avidly collected for over a century.

American ships engaged in the China trade brought back among their exotic merchandise great quantities of porcelain—the “real china” our ancestors were so proud to display. Ordered through local dealers in Canton, this fragile freight had to he carried hundreds of miles overland from the ancient potting center of Ching-te-Chen. Most of it reached the Cantonese agents already decorated with painting under the transparent glaze, but undecorated white wares were also sent, to be painted in Canton to the purchaser’s special order or to some Chinese merchant’s idea of what he could sell the foreigners. In some cases designs were copied with great care from a given model. In others, we can only guess what the Chinese artist had to work from—a United States coin, the seal on a ship’s papers, or a client’s rough sketch—but the results, with their faint oriental charm, make a lively commentary on American history.

That narrow strip of northern Staffordshire that is known throughout England simply as “The Potteries” began sending fine earthenware to America early in the Eighteenth Century. After the War of 1812 this trade grew phenomenally in volume as a result of deliberate efforts to attract the American buyer. Transfer printing from copper, plates, a process invented about 1755, replaced the slow and expensive hand methods of decoration; the publication, in portfolio or as book illustrations, of views of America by a number of able artists as well as portraits of American notables and representations of American naval victories afforded plentiful subjects. Some 700 designs, attributable to about thirty different potters, are recognized by today’s enthusiastic collectors of this “historical Staffordshire.” Up to 1830 or so the American wares were printed in a rich, dark blue, attractive and practical to produce; later other colors were introduced. Before the end of the Civil War the vogue for such decorations had almost entirely passed.

If patriotic sentiments are wanted

In the Eighteenth Century the seaport of Liverpool was thriving on its pottery industry, which went back to the Middle Ages, and its role as a port of call in the slave trade. American vessels which began to sail to all parts of Europe soon after i 783 put in there regularly, and the officers and crews were so many prospective customers to trade-minded Liverpool. In their bid for business with the new Republic, Liverpool potters produced quantities of fine cream-colored earthenware decorated with transfer-printed designs calculated to appeal to the patriotic sentiments of Americans.

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