I started collecting transferware around 30 years ago, when I had no money and it was cheap. I loved the look of those underglazed engravings, and I always felt I was getting away with something when I could pick them up for practically nothing.
I don’t remember which one was my very first piece, and before I started writing this article, I honestly wasn’t aware of how many pieces I actually had around here. I haven’t counted them but I’m guessing it’s upwards of 100. I have about 50 pieces of Johnson Bros. “Friendly Village” alone, and the rest are single pieces.
(The “Friendly Village” set was handed down to me by my mother-in-law, bless her heart. She had been collecting them for years and had a full service for 18, plus a multitude of extras. There were no surprises when she received gifts, because she kept a list of the pieces she still needed, and friends and family alike clamored to keep up.)
Johnson Bros. Friendly Village
I found this explanation of transferware at a website called The Transcollectors Club
. They charge an annual fee to get into their gallery and archives, but they were willing to share this bit of information:
What is Transferware?
Transferware is the term given to pottery that has had a pattern applied by transferring the print from a copper plate to a specially sized paper and finally to the pottery body. While produced primarily on earthenware, transfer prints are also found on ironstone, porcelain and bone china. Ultimately, many thousands of patterns were produced on tens of millions of pieces. The process was developed in the second half of the 18th century in response to the need of the newly emerging English middle class for less expensive tableware. Many factories claim responsibility for the origin of the process, but, in fact, it was probably a combination of men and materials that came together in the English county of Staffordshire, where there had been pottery making since the 16th century. A combination of raw materials, men of science such as Spode and Wedgwood, cheap labor and new canals that connected Staffordshire to the major ports of Liverpool and London, made the transferware production possible and profitable.
At first, the transfer patterns were copied from the blue and white Chinese designs found on the hand-painted porcelain that was popular in the 18th century. At the turn of the 19th century, while potters were still using Chinese patterns as their primary source for inspiration, they began to incorporate European features into these designs. By the 1820s, arguably the golden age of transfer printed pottery, the number of potteries grew and thousands of patterns were printed to tempt any available market. The English may have lost the War of 1812, but their potters were ready to sell pottery with patterns lauding the new American nation to the American market. Important buildings, landscapes and war heroes are just a few of the patterns that appealed to Americans. There were many foreign markets, as well as the home market, to keep the potters busy.
A good description of the transfer process comes from Pamela Wiggins in an article called “Transferware, a Timeless Decorative Art"
Wiggins says, “Transfer printing as a decorative technique was developed in England in the mid-1750s, particularly in the Staffordshire region. The process began when a flat copper plate was engraved with a desired pattern in much the same way as the plates used to make paper engravings were produced.
Once the plate was inked with a ceramic coloring, the design was impressed on a thin sheet of tissue paper. This inked impression was then transferred onto the surface of the ceramic object.
After it was inked, the object made its way into a low-temperature kiln to fix the pattern. The printing could be done either under or over the glaze on a ceramic piece, but since the ink tended to wear off on overprinted pieces, the underprinting method became more popular going forward.
When examining a transferware decorative object, you can distinguish it by the fine lines produced through the engraving process on the original plate. If you’ve ever seen an old book filled with engraved images, it’s much the same look only on a plate or tureen instead of a piece of paper.”
So now that you know what transferware is, I’ll show you some of the pieces from my collection:
This is an early piece of Spode Copeland. The pattern is "Spodes Tower", introduced in 1814, but I don't know when this particular piece was issued. Notice that parts of the transfer are fuzzy. The early transfers came out like this often. Below is a later piece of Spode Copeland, called "Mandarin". The etching transfer is sharper and clearer:
The most popular early English transferware came in blue and white. (Some people call the early pieces "Flow blue" because of the fuzziness, but that's a misnomer.) Then later red and white, brown and white, green and white and "Polychrome", which is hand-painted coloring on the transfer. (The Friendly Village plate is an example of polychrome. Every piece has hand-painted highlights and none are exactly the same.)
Brown and white were the least popular until dinnerware patterns called "Aesthetic" came into vogue. Now they're highly sought after for their wonderful cartouches and geometric patterns.
This is an example of Aesthetic brown transferware. Below you'll see a closeup of a cartouche or picture within the pattern.
Aesthetic Cartouche. Registry mark: 1883
Not all aesthetic transferware had cartouches. The geometric pattern on this Wedgwood Beatrice soup bowl places it in the Victorian era Aesthetic movement:
The English Registry mark on the back dates it to 1880:
As you can see, I taped the date on the back after I figured out what it was. To date registry marks, you can go here
Below is an example of mulberry or purple transferware. It's Johnson Bros. "Enchanted Garden" and is typical of the Oriental motifs mimicking the early Chinese patterns sent around the world by the ship-loads. Barrels full of that inexpensive dinnerware were often used as ballast, but Wedgwood, Spode, Johnson Bros. and other English potteries saw the beauty in them and made them their own.
The British potters made transferware for the American market also. Johnson Bros. produced a series called "Historic America". Below is a plate depicting Sacramento Harbor.
This is an example of an atypical transferware design. Notice the rather messy cobalt and gold paint dabs. Some people call this "Gaudy ware", but I just consider it handpainted transferware. The paint on this plate was applied after the glaze firing, and has worn off in places.
English transferware is easily recognized when you know what you're looking for. There is also American transferware, but I chose to concentrate on early wares here. To see some more examples of transferware, including American souvenir plates, you can visit my blog here
Here you can see where the transfers were connected. If you look closely at the above brown and white cartouche closeup, you'll see a transfer split near the upper right. Those of us with way too much time on our hands take magnifier in hand and make a game of finding the transfer seams. On some of the plates it's almost impossible, but almost all of them have a flaw of some kind in the designs. (The purple plate shows a transfer that covers the entire plate instead of being done in pieces, as most of them are. No seams there.)
And last, be aware of what is and isn't transferware. The plate below is actually decal or decalcomania. If you hold these plates to the light you can see where the decals begin and end.
If you have comments, questions or additions to this discussion, I would love to hear from you!