Antiques: Historical Staffordshire
As the old saying goes, “Everyone loves a winner.” In America, that’s doubly so: Our love affair with winning extends far beyond sports rivalries or business success. Being a winner is part of our national identity–who we are as Americans.We loudly celebrate our victories, glorify our heroes, and revel in our many accomplishments–so much so that sometimes even those we’ve beaten are forced to swallow their pride and hop aboard our victory bandwagon. Think of the British, for it happened to them some 200 years ago.
During the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812, trade between England and its former colonies ceased. Since America was one of the mother country’s largest export markets, English merchants suffered terribly. After their dual defeat, the British desire for commerce won out over national pride: Merchants and government recognized that to win the favor and business of their former enemy, they’d have to tailor their goods and services to suit American tastes.
One of the biggest exports to America at that time was pottery made in Staffordshire, a county in the western Midlands and the center of English ceramics production during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Staffordshire potters appealed to American patriotism and began mass-producing inexpensive transferware adorned with portraits of American heroes and depicting important battle scenes, sailing ships, historic events, public buildings and monuments, and American scenic views. Today, we call these wares “Historical Staffordshire,” and though originally made in England, they’re also all-American, with many designs quintessentially New England. Historical Staffordshire ranks among the most consistently popular collectibles in American antiques.
Staffordshire wares were produced by Enoch Wood, Adams, Clews, Stevenson, Stubbs, Kent, Mayer, Aynsley, Ridgway, and other English potters. Highly decorative yet affordable, they were gobbled up by middle-class Americans from around 1820 until about 1860. Pieces included dinner plates, cups, saucers, bowls, tea sets, fruit baskets, gravy boats, platters, compotes, tureens, and chamber sets.
Inked decorations, applied to white stoneware through transfer-printed tissue, then glazed, were first produced in a deep cobalt blue. Sometimes referred to as “historical blue,” this original color remains the most sought-after today. Later examples were created in pink, brown, purple, mulberry, gray, light blue, and green.
Ware designs were often copied from paintings, engravings, or prints. Revolutionary-era heroes Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Lafayette were all memorialized. In some cases, artists were commissioned to sketch country and city scenes. Views were labeled, giving pieces a picture-postcard appeal. Massachusetts scenes, especially those depicting sites around its capital, are plentiful: vignettes of the State House, Boston Common, the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Almshouse, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, and the city as seen from Chelsea Heights. Other popular subjects were Harvard University, the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth, the North Shore’s Nahant Hotel, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the USS Constitution, the Wadsworth Tower in Avon, Connecticut, and the state arms of both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“Sometimes views of no historical importance were depicted; they were simply chosen for their bucolic beauty,” notes Stephen Fletcher, director of Americana at Skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers. Two of his favorites are views of a church and a winter scene, both in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Although makers often pirated other firms’ designs, each company produced its own unique border and often a distinguishing mark on the reverse, making it easy to identify pieces today. Historical Staffordshire is typically sold individually or in small sets at auction or in antiques stores. Prices are strong, and range from a few hundred dollars for small items to well into the thousands, even tens of thousands, for large platters, tureens, and multiple-piece sets. The more saturated the color and the clearer the image, the higher the price, with deep cobalt blue besting all other colors. Important figures and historical scenes also fetch more. As with all ceramics, look for examples with no chips, cracks, staining, or obvious signs of repair.
I’m a patriotic person, though sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by America’s tendency toward national chest pounding and our winner-take-all attitude. Still, I take delight in American heroes and history rendered in brilliant blue on a bed of English china. It’s a winning combination–and, after all, “everyone loves a winner.”