Friday, May 7, 2021

Colonial Ceramics in Pennsylvania: Pearlware, 1780-1840

Continuing with our discussion of colonial ceramics and their value in the archaeological record, we are sharing a post on a familiar form of earthenware known as pearlware. In the last part of the 18th century, English potters recognized the public’s desire for a change from the popular cream-colored wares of the period to a ceramic with a whiter appearance. Although Josiah Wedgwood is credited with popularizing a light-bodied ceramic with a blue tinted glaze, the production of pearlwares was soon taken up by many other British manufacturers.


Pearlware ceramics are categorized by their type of decoration. Each of these varieties has a slightly different period of manufacture, a useful diagnostic tool for archaeologists attempting to determine the age of an object. Determining the period of manufacture and length of use, is important in assigning a time-period for an event or an archaeological site’s occupation. Within each category, variations in vessel shape, paste, and decoration can help further narrow the date of production due to the evolving nature of ceramic technology.  The following examples are just a few of the many designs employed by potters in decorating this refined earthenware of the 18th and 19th centuries.


Edged pearlware 1780-1830 

This style first appeared on creamware ceramics just before the advent of pearlwares, and it was one of the earliest and most popular forms of decoration during the 18th century on this ceramic type. There were several slight variations of the edge motif over the course of its production. Molded rims included scalloped, embossed, plain, and shell-edged.  Shell-edged wares were inspired by Rococo designs which mimicked the scalloped edges of seashells. Edges of these vessels were commonly coated in cobalt blue or green glaze.  

Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania

                           Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania
This green feather-edged pearlware plate, may have been made by J. Heath Hanley c.1780-1800. Variations in the design of the edge-wares can help archaeologists identify their manufacturer.

Hand-painted pearlware 1790-1840 

Before the invention of transfer-printing, ceramic designs were hand-painted onto the vessels by skilled artisans. Following the development of transfer-printing, hand-painted ceramics become less common.

Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

This pearlware punch bowl features a hand-painted design in cobalt blue. Drinking punch was a social affair, and the mixture may have contained curdled milk, lemon, sugar, water, and several pints of liquor, such as brandy (B. Franklin to J. Bowden, 11 October 1763, from the Bowden-Temple papers in the Winthrop family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston)

Annular Pearlware 1790-1820
Annular pearlware was known for its bold stripes in brown, yellow, and blue slip. Slip is a liquified clay with added compounds for pigment. These designs featured prominently on tankards, mugs, pitchers, and bowls. Annular designs were a versatile decoration that could be used to frame or backdrop other decorative elements. 

Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

 The annular, or banded, designs on this pitcher were created by filling a groove that was created on a wheel or lathe with slip (Hume 2001, p.131). 

Mocha pearlware 1795-1840 

These vessels exhibit a distinctive branching or dendritic design applied to a vessel, sometimes with banded designs. It was inspired by moss agate which was popular in England during this time. They were created by applying a foul concoction of tobacco in stale urine and turpentine to the slip of a vessel (according to one recipe mentioned in Rickard and Barker 2006, p. 51). This acidic mixture reacted with the alkaline slip and created the dendritic designs through capillary action. The potter applied drops of the mixture at the vessel base, then inverted the vessel to allow the concoction to flow downwards towards the rim, providing the tree-like design when up righted.  These designs were named for the Yemeni port bearing the same name through which large amounts of coffee and considerable quantities of moss agate were exported. 

                           Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
The dendritic designs of this mocha ware bowl were applied over a slip which was first applied to the bowl.

Transfer-printed pearlware 1795-1840 

Transfer-printing is a technique of transferring an image from an engraved plate onto a piece of tissue paper and then onto a bisque fired (fired once, but unglazed) ceramic vessel. Transfer-printing allowed for the mass-production of ceramic vessels bearing detailed and uniform images. This technique is still used today by some artisan potters.

                            Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania. 
This transfer printed pearlware saucer features a popular Asiatic design known as blue willow.

Each of the vessels featured in this blog was recovered from archaeological deposits in wells dating to the 17th and 18th centuries at what was once 121-123 (old# 37-39) Market Street in Philadelphia. During colonial times, this part of Philadelphia was at the center of commerce with several governmental buildings, markets, and prominent gathering places located nearby. These artifacts were recovered in 1976 as part of the archaeology conducted prior to the construction of the Market Street ramp for I-95.


The colonial ceramics recovered at various sites across the Commonwealth are an important tool for studying our past. They reflect consumer behavior, ethnic choices and in the case of those wares later produced in Philadelphia, the beginning of manufacturing in our state. Those industrious individuals that produced wares from local clays in a similar manner as they had in England, created an industry that would see Pennsylvania become a leader in manufacturing of durable goods for decades to come. We invite you to view additional examples of colonial ceramics on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s on-line collections


This image, dated 1800 from Birch’s Views of Philadelphia, looks North on Second Street at Market Street. It shows the old courthouse and the steeple of Christ Church. The structure from which these ceramics were recovered was located a few doors from the right-most building shown here.             
(Image: Library of Congress)


Godden, Geoffrey A.

1970 Encyclopedia of British pottery and porcelain marks. London: Barrie and Jenkins


Hume, I. N.

2001 A guide to the artifacts of colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sussman, L.

1977 Changes in pearlware dinnerware, 1780–1830. Historical Archaeology, 11(1), 105-111. 


Rickard, Jonathan, foreword by D. Barker, and photography Gavin Ashworth.  

2006 Mocha and related dipped wares, 1770-1939. Hanover: Published by University Press of New England.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Colonial Ceramic Series – Tin-glazed earthenware

This week we go back to our series on early historic ceramics often recovered on archaeological sites and their significance in the historic and archaeological record. Past posts have discussed Jackfield (1745-1790), Scratch blue (1744-1775), Slipware (1675-1770) and Creamware (1762-1820) ceramics. Colonial ceramics of the 17th and 18th centuries are typically divided into three categories: Earthenware, Stoneware, and Porcelain. These categories are derived from the clays used in manufacture as well as the firing techniques.

 Tin-glazed ceramics, often called delftware, are a soft-bodied earthenware ceramic first produced in northern Europe in the early 1600’s. Found earlier in other locations, tin-glazed ceramics represent attempts throughout the Middle East and Europe to copy porcelains produced in China during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were also the first white, painted pottery produced in England (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland). Known as tin-glazed due to the addition of tin-oxide to the lead glaze, these ceramics have a thick white glaze referred to as tin enamel, readily identified by its eggshell appearance. 

Tin-glazed earthenware salt dish, found at the Byrd Leibhart site (36Yo170). Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Tin-glazed earthenware bowl, found at the Market Street site (36Ph1). Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

As with most types of ceramics, tin-glazed earthenwares were decorated using various techniques, each coming and going in and out of popularity at various times. Since the date range when each of these techniques was used can be identified, they are a useful tool for dating archaeological sites and features. Though there are a number of different design methods used on tin-glazed earthenwares, a few of the more common styles found on Pennsylvania sites include the following. 

Sponge decorated tin-glazed earthenware fragments, found at Fort Hunter (36Da159), 2020. Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Sponge decorations are created by the application of a cobalt oxide using a sponging technique. This decoration looked like blue sponging after the vessel was fired and dates between 1708 and 1786. A similar looking decoration called powdering occurred when the vessels are powdered in manganese, which results in a purple-sponge decoration after firing. Powdering decoration was used on tin-glazed ceramics between the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  

Oriental landscape motif tin-glazed earthenware mending fragments, found at Fort Hunter (36Da159), 2020. Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Another type of decoration identified is the oriental landscape motif, which was also done with cobalt oxide and resulted in a blue landscape decoration on the fired vessel. This form of decoration was most commonly produced circa 1720’s - 1780.

Fazackerly decorated tin-glazed earthenware fragment, found at Fort Hunter (36Da159), 2020. Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

A less common decoration style is the Fazackerly style of decoration, a distinct style with floral motifs and multiple colors including greens, yellows, purples, reds, and blues. This style of decoration dates circa 1760-1770. Due to this limited production date range, ceramics found with this style of decoration can be especially useful in narrowing down the age of a site or feature. 

Blue circular floral motif on tin-glazed earthenware, found at Fort Hunter (36Da159), 2020. Photo from the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Finally, one of the most common decorations found on tin-glazed earthenware on Pennsylvania archaeological sites is the blue circular floral motif. Again, this decoration was produced by using a cobalt oxide to create a blue floral design on the fired vessel. This form of decoration dates circa 1650-1770.

These are just a few of the different decoration styles found on tin-glazed earthenwares, but they each are useful for archaeologists in identifying site function and time period. By the mid-18th century, creamware was in production and as a more refined and durable earthenware this began to replace tin-glazed earthenwares. By the late 18th century, production of tin-glazed earthenwares were in significant decline.

We hope you will continue to follow our blog to learn more about the incredible ceramics that have been recovered by archaeologists from across the Commonwealth. The preservation of these objects provides a personal glimpse into the lives of early colonists and of the potters who produced them. German and English immigrants who became potters in Philadelphia, Lancaster and York developed their methods and refined the clay available locally to produce ceramics that would replace those from Europe and led the way for many artisan crafts throughout the colony.

Advancements in science have allowed archaeologists to analyze clay sources and trace them to regions and in some cases potters.  Archaeologists have the unique ability of finding the stories of everyday life through the evidence of the past, even if it is only a broken piece of pottery.


Hume, Ivor Noel

1969      A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (reprint)

Diagnostics Artifacts in Maryland: Accessed April 19, 2021.

Britannica Tin-glazed Earthenware: Accessed April 19, 2021.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Uncovering the History of Cuff Links

Although cuff links are still used today, they are typically not part of everyday attire.  Beginning in the 17th century changes in the tunics and shirts that men wore brought about the use of cuff links.  Prior to this time, shirts were held together by strings or ribbons.  Shirts were worn next to the skin and often under an over coat or cloak.  The visible parts of the shirt, namely the collar and cuffs, became places for ornamentation.  

Attribution: Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the 1600’s, tailors added stitched holes in the cuffs of shirts which enabled two small “buttons” attached by a chain link to close the cuffs and hold them in place.  These “sleeve” buttons or cuff links came in a variety of shapes and materials that were often a mark of status for the wearer and they were commonly used by members of the upper class as well as military officers.  As a result of general trends in design, the shape of the button can suggest a relative time period but not an exact date.  For example, octagonal shaped buttons were popular in the early part of the 18th century however, by about 1760 they were replaced by a round or oval shape.  

The shape of the link can also offer clues, from the late 1600’s through the first half of the 1700’s a flattened U-shape link was popular while the pyramid shape and circular eye shanks generally date to after the 1750’s.

As many of our followers are aware, The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Archaeology has been conducting archaeological excavations at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park (36DA0159) in Dauphin County for 14 years. This was the location of a French and Indian War era fort in the 1750’s and evolved into the affluent estate of Mr. McAllister in the 1780s.  As mentioned previously, cuff links were and continue to be a status symbol generally worn by men of the upper class including military officers.  Perhaps it is not surprising that our excavations have recovered several impressive cuff links from either the Fort period and/or Mr. McAllister’s occupation. Currently, we are conducting a detailed analysis of these objects to refine their dating.  All the cuff links pictured in this blog were recovered during our excavations at Fort Hunter.  

Although they look like they could be emeralds, the above cuff link insets are made of glass.

Beautifully hand painted enamel decoration

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of the small and often overlooked history of cuff links and some of the beautiful examples that have been recovered from our excavations.

We often use the expression “History is just beneath our feet.”  These small artifacts are examples of an object that many would perhaps overlook in the historic record and find insignificant, thus missing the larger picture of the people who wore these objects. Social status, consumer behavior and the tangible evidence of daily life are preserved in these artifacts. Preserving the archaeological record includes all evidence from the past and reflects our cultural heritage. Please help us in continuing to preserve and protect the archaeological record. 


White, Carolyn L.
2005 American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820: A Guide to Identification and Interpretation AltaMira Press. Toronto

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .