Ceramics In America –
The Federal Period 1790-1835
Beginning in the late 1700s, wealth began to accumulate in American households as businesses prospered. More people were able to afford the finer things in life, and this included their ceramics. Generally, there were three sources for the ceramics: Europe, China, and America. In this article, I will restrict my discussion to more formal wares and those that were specifically made for the American Federal market.
Delftware had been imported from Holland into the Americas for at least a hundred years prior to the Federal period. Fragments of delft pieces from as early as the 1750s, have been excavated at Williamsburg. Although it is not porcelain, it is beautiful and of the period so that it works well with many Federal pieces. The problem is that it is almost impossible to find delftware that was specifically made for the American market.
Delft tobacco jar
Holland, circa 1800)
This Dutch delft tobacco jar is part of a pair that is in our collection. It was probably made around 1800 for a Virginia tobacco merchant to display tobaccos for sale. We are aware of only a few other delft pieces that can be said to have been made for the American market.
From Sevres to Old Paris, the finest porcelains in Europe were made in France during the Federal period. All would beautifully grace our Federal furniture, especially the later, more elegant classical pieces, but very little French porcelain was made for export to America. Although all of the early White House Presidential dinner services were French made, they are quite difficult to find and expensive when they come up at auction. We have had an occasional plate embellished with an American flag. A nice illustrated section with many choice examples can be found in Anglo-American Ceramics (pp. 247 to 258). One of the examples illustrated is this rare circa 1830 transfer decorated plate showing Lafayette in uniform.
(P & H Choisy, France)
The English were great merchants, so as soon as war ended, they began shipping us every manufactured good that we would buy. Although the ceramics the English exported to America were usually creamware and pearlware and not the finer porcelains such as Wedgwood, because they are so American, we rightly prize them highly and show them off on our Federal furniture.
Three views of a creamware pitcher (Liverpool, England, 1790-1810)
This pitcher was made in Liverpool, England, in the 1790-1810 period. It is an example of transferware. The decorations were printed on thin tissue-like paper, placed on the body of the pitcher, and fired. The paper burned off, leaving the decoration behind. Ceramic merchants would have these in their shops waiting for the American captains and businessmen. If requested, they could personalize them with their names. Besides eagles, ships with American flags, and symbols of our republic, these pitchers were decorated with images of the American presidents, noted military men, and famous American historical events. A great many examples are shown in Arman’s book.
Beginning in the 1810s and continuing through the 1830s, the main export activity shifted to the many Staffordshire factories, where enormous quantities of blue transferware-decorated pieces were made and shipped to America. They were decorated with dozens of different American scenes to appeal to the many different American markets. Because they were inexpensive they captured a huge part of the American market making it difficult for American factories to compete.
The forms vary from plates to platters to soup bowls and every kind of serving piece imaginable. The transfers are very collectible. Probably the most popular is the “Landing of Lafayette” used on this platter. It shows the parade of ships traveling up the Hudson River to Castle Garden in 1824 to greet the war hero Lafayette on his triumphal return to America in 1824.
Diminutive creamware pitcher
(Staffordshire, England, 1824)
(Staffordshire, England, 1820s)
“The Capitol, Washington”, vegetable bowl
(Staffordshire, England, 1820s)
“The Landing of Lafayette”
(Staffordshire, England, 1824)
The Chinese were the first to master the art of manufacturing fine porcelains. For hundreds of years, no other country had that ability. Some of these pieces reached America through British intermediaries so that only the very wealthy could afford them. Finally, in 1784-5, the ship Empress of China sailed from New York City and became the first American ship to trade directly with China. Ginseng from the Adirondacks in upstate New York was sent to China, and a variety of goods were brought back, including porcelain dinnerware. In subsequent years, hundreds, if not thousands, of sets of China were brought to America. Many can be identified by the gilt initials and crests of families that were added to them on request. Two of the many books available to decipher these family crests and initials are Schiffer's China for America and Chinese Export Porcelain in North America by Jean McClure Mudge.
More interesting to us are those pieces of porcelain dinnerware that were made specifically for export to the American market.
These pieces are embellished with American eagles:
Collection of Chinese Export dinnerware with eagle decoration (China, circa 1790s)
Chinese Export tea pot
Chinese Export vase
Or with the arms of New York:
Collection of Chinese Export dinnerware with “Arms of New York” decoration (China, 1790s)
Close-up of “Arms of New York”
decoration on a plate.
The eagles and coats of arms are hand painted, and it is truly amazing how creative the Chinese were in depicting them. Examples from different sets differ dramatically in their depictions. Although large numbers of these wares were produced, because of their fragile nature, relatively few have survived and are highly sought after.
Kaolin clay suitable for the manufacture of porcelain was discovered in a bed at Clay Creek just south of Philadelphia, and the first successful attempt at making porcelain in America was carried out in 1769 in Philadelphia by Gousse Bonin and Anthony Morris. Their venture lasted only until 1772, when it went bankrupt. At present, there are thirteen known pieces of Bonin and Morris porcelain. They were exhibited together several years ago at the Philadelphia Antiques Show. An excellent book on American porcelain from this early period through the 19th century is American Porcelain: 1770-1920 by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen.
After a few minor attempts at starting another porcelain manufactory, in New York and elsewhere, the Tucker factory was established in Philadelphia by William Ellis Tucker around 1826. Although its products were quite beautiful, because of poor management and a bad economy, it went out of business in 1838. It was the only manufacturer of porcelain items in the country until the late 1840s. So Tucker is the earliest American porcelain that one can collect.
Tucker perfectly complements our Federal furniture. Tucker pieces are usually adorned with beautiful hand painted flowers or classical scenes and gilt ornamentation. Although the factory must have produced a large quantity of pieces in its twelve years, little has survived the rigors of almost 200 years. This presents us with two problems. First, it is rare and only a handful of pieces come on the market in any given year. Second, the pieces are never signed so that, because they are very similar to many Old Paris porcelain pieces, identification is very difficult.
We love Tucker. We think you will also, when you see it.
Flower pot, Tucker Factory (Philadelphia, 1826-38)
Spill vase, Tucker Factory (Philadelphia, 1826-38)
Pitcher, Tucker Factory (Philadelphia, 1826-38)
American Porcelain: 1770-1920, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Abrams, NY, 1989. Excellent on all American porcelain from Bonin & Morris to Tucker.
Tucker China: 1825-1838, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1957. The only Tucker exhibition ever.
China For America, Schiffer, Exton,PA, 1980. Chinese export for the American market.
Chinese Export Porcelain in North America, Jean McClure Mudge, Clarkson Potter, NY, 1986. Good color illustrations.
Anglo-American Ceramics, Part I, David & Linda Arman, Oakland Press, Portsmouth, RI, 1998. Excellent on English and French transferware.
Historical Staffordshire: American Patriots & Views, Jeffrey Snyder, Schiffer, Atglen,PA, 1995. Excellent on historical blue Staffordshire.
Creamware for the American Market, Robert Teitelman, Antique Collectors' Club, England, 2010. Superb collection of Liverpool pitchers.
Official White House China: 1789 to the Present, Margaret Klapthor, Abrams, NY, 1999. efinitive.