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 .

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