By Donald-Brian Johnson
Durability: When introduced in the early 1800s, that was ironstone china's major selling point. Durability also accounts for the still-ready availability of vintage ironstone china, literally centuries after it first captivated consumers. Unlike its fragile porcelain contemporaries, this utilitarian earthenware's origins speak to withstanding the ravages of time—and it did.
Ironstone Formula Delivers on Promise of Reliability
Ironstone owes its inherent sturdiness to a formula incorporating iron slag with the clay. Cobalt, added to the mix, eliminated the yellowish tinge that plagued earlier attempts at white china. The earliest form of this opaque dinnerware made its debut in 1800 England, patented by potters William and John Turner. However, by 1806 the Turner firm was bankrupt. Ironstone first blush with popularity dates to 1813 when Charles Mason first offered for sale his “Patent Ironstone China.” Mason’s white ironstone was an immediate hit, providing vessels for a wide variety of household uses, from teapots and tureens to wash bowls and pitchers.
Although the inexpensive simplicity of white ironstone proved popular with frugal householders, by the 1830s in-mold and transfer patterns were providing a dose of visual variety. Among the decorative favorites: Oriental motifs, and homey images such as grains, fruits, and flowers.
Mason’s patented formula for white ironstone lasted for 14 years. Upon its expiration, numerous other potteries jumped into the fray. By the 1840s, white ironstone found its way across the ocean, enjoying the same success in the United States and Canada as it had in England. By the 1880s, however, the appeal of white ware began to fade. Its successor, soon overtaking the original, was ironstone’s most enduring incarnation: “Tea Leaf.”
Tea Leaf Motif Creates Complimenting Factions Between Makers
First marketed as “Lustre Band and Sprig,” the “Tea Leaf Lustreware” motif is attributed to Anthony Shaw of Burslem; his ironstone pieces of the 1880s featured hand-painted copper lustre bands and leaves. “Tea Leaf” was, however, a decorative style, rather than a particular product line. Since the design was not patented, potteries throughout England and the United States soon introduced their versions. Design modifications were minor; today, collectors can assemble entire sets of ironstone in the “Tea Leaf” pattern from the output of different manufacturers. Although independently produced, the pieces easily complement each other.
During the late 1800s, ironstone tea sets were so ubiquitous that ornamenting them with a tea leaf was a logical choice.The appeal of this simple, nature-themed visual on a field of white is without question. Their interest quickly translated into a bumper crop of “Tea Leaf”-themed ironstone pieces. Soon, the “Tea Leaf” adorned objects with absolutely no relation whatsoever to tea. Among them: gravy boats, salt-and-peppers, ladles, and even toothbrush holders and soap dishes.
Rhyme and Reason for 'Tea Leaf' Motif
There are, of course, more romantic rationales for the introduction of the “Tea Leaf” motif. One holds
that this decoration was the modern manifestation of an ancient legend. Finding an open tea leaf at the bottom of a tea cup would bring good luck to the fortunate tea-drinker. In this scenario, the “Tea Leaf” motif becomes a harbinger of happy times ahead, whether emblazoned on a cake plate, a candlestick, or a chamber pot.
For makers of “Tea Leaf,” the positive fortune continued into the early 1900s. Eventually, however, “Tea Leaf” pieces became so prevalent that the novelty wore off. By mid-century, the pattern had drifted into obscurity; its appeal was briefly resuscitated with lesser-quality reproductions, in vogue from 1950 to 1980. Marked “Red Cliff” (the name of the Chicago-based distributor), these reproductions generally used blanks supplied by Hall China.
For today’s collectors, the most desirable “Tea Leaf” pieces are those created during the pattern’s late-Victorian heyday. Like ironstone itself, the “Tea Leaf” design remains remarkably durable.