I absolutely love the look and feel of Ironstone China, especially the simple white utilitarian pieces so popular with vintage farmhouse fans. It’s hefty, tactile, and serviceable. The fact that I can add pieces to my collection without breaking the bank is major as well. Spoiler alert: I have been known to mingle old pieces with new, and just occasionally you might catch a piece of old white porcelain mingling amongst my favorites.
First a little History:
Ironstone china, Ironstone ware or most commonly just Ironstone, is a type of vitreous pottery first made in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. It is often classed as earthenware although in appearance and properties it is similar to fine stoneware. It was developed in the 19th century by potters in Staffordshire, England as a cheaper, mass-produced alternative for porcelain. The result of their experiments was a dense, hard, durable stoneware that with the addition of cobalt was able to be the coveted “porcelain white”. Later pieces of ironstone tend to be less blue and more cream colored. This new ceramic came to be known by several names—e.g., semi porcelain, opaque porcelain, English porcelain, stone china , new stone—all of which were used to describe essentially the same product.
The brilliant term ‘Ironstone’ was coined by the Mason family partnership when Charles James Mason registered their ‘Patent Ironstone China’ in July 1813. However, Mason’s material was in fact not new.
The Turner family of Lane End, Staffordshire, had, thirteen years previously, taken out a patent for ‘a new method, or methods of manufacturing porcelain and earthenware’ (1800). Dubbed ‘Turner’s Patent’, the name appears inscribed in full on Turner’s new Stone China. However, with the bankruptcy and termination of the Turner partnership in 1806, it is believed that the patent may have passed to Josiah Spode. Certainly Spode was soon to produce some of the technically finest specimens of stone china of the 19th century – and indeed he may already have been doing so by 1813, the year in which Charles James Mason registered the patent cementing the name ‘ironstone’ for the next two centuries.
In short, though he did not invent the material, Charles Mason invented a name which perfectly described the product. Ironstone’s resistance to chipping made it a popular material for pitchers and other everyday tableware in the 19th century. Although the simple sturdy white ware was popular with frugal householders, in Europe and England by the 1830s the plain and versions began to be replaced with more decorative transfer ware and molded motifs.
In the States:
In the United States, Ironstone ware was being manufactured from the 1850s onward. Before this, White Ironstone ware was imported to the United States from England, beginning in the 1840s. Undecorated tableware was most popular in the United States, and British potteries produced white ironstone ware, known as “White Ironstone” or “White Granite” ware, for the American market. During the mid-19th century it was the largest export market for Staffordshire’s potteries. In the 1860s, British manufacturers began adding agricultural motifs, such as wheat, to their products to appeal to the American market. These patterns became known as “farmers’ china” or “threshers’ china”. Plain white ironstone ware was widely marketed in the United States until the end of the 19th century.
The very durability of the ironstone itself is what enables us to collect some really great old pieces. There is a lot of it still around. Whether you prefer the pristine or the well worn and crazed there are plenty of pieces to be found and most at an affordable price point. Especially, if like me, you don’t mind mixing old and new together. I enjoy using my Ironstone as well as displaying it. I’m not a purist. If it is ironstone, and has that wonderful heft, style and simple shape that I like, I’m going to add it to my collection. I like to mix it in with my blue willow transfer dishes when entertaining. Like a little black dress it goes with everything. You can dress it up or dress it down.
Where to find it:
First and Foremost on our list is your local thrift shop and neighborhood yard sale. White Ironstone is still findable and usually priced fairly decently. I generally look for pieces that I can display easily as well as use, such as pitchers, bowls, jugs, and gravy boats. Large serving platters will cause me to do a happy dance, as will a tureen. Remember, unless you are trying to build a valuable, shan’t use it collection, feel free to mix new pieces in. As long as they have the hallmark sheen and Lustre and feel extravagantly hefty I give you permission to add them and enjoy
Flea markets and antique stores are also a good source but be prepared to pay a little more for your treasures. Learn to buy only what you truly love and display. Don’t succumb to the pressure of grabbing every bit you can get your hands on. Remember sometimes less really is more in life and your collection is no different. Although I must admit you really can stack pieces up on a hutch shelf and have it look divine.
Picking a niche:
If you are overwhelmed or space is limited pick a niche within the various types of Ironstone. You can choose a certain maker, country of origin, restaurant ware, (one of my favorites) or maybe choose a type of piece such as pitchers, gravy boats, tureens, etc. the possibilities are endless. Remember although “farm house” white is quite popular you could go for brightly colored transfer ware, or focus on the heavily embossed versions.
You can limit yourself to only marked pieces, turning them upside down to show the proof of their origin or like me you can embrace every piece that calls to you no matter what it’s history or questionable bloodline might be.
The thrill is in the hunt:
The best thing about collecting Ironstone is that it gives you something to look for while traveling. It’s like a marvelous treasure hunt. Nosing about in quaint little nooks and crannies. You can usually tuck a small piece or two in your luggage wrapped in your lingerie.
Displaying your Ironstone:
This is really where the fun begins. Ideally of course, according to Pinterest you will need at least one large open front hutch. There you can stack and cluster your treasure trove. Open shelves in the farmhouse style kitchen beg for a piece or two, making your collection useful as well as ornamental.
- Ironstone serving platters make nice trays to hold bathroom items
- Group small like items together to save counter clutter in the kitchen, office, and entryway
- Small saucers make great soap dishes.
- Large platters make wonderful chargers under transfer ware dishes
- Pitchers and tureens make terrific floral displays