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.
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.|
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).
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.
|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.
|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.
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.
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.