Ironstone 101

Jeff PottsAntiques, Favorite Finds, Ironstone, Popular

I have received a lot of questions lately about ironstone, what it is, and how to identify it. I am certainly not an expert, but I have been collecting ironstone for about ten years now and I have a pretty large collection (I’ve lost count), so I know it when I see it.

Heirloom-10 (528x800)
I remember reading a magazine years ago, drooling over the ironstone collections in some of the featured homes.  I loved how beautiful and simple it was and immediately added it to my “to collect” list right away.  I found a pitcher several months later and the collection has grown from there.  I’ve been fickle about other things I hunt for when shopping, but never about ironstone.  It’s been a constant over the years.

Pieces of ironstone can be found for only a few dollars (or a dime, like this past weekend), but pieces that are very old and in perfect condition can fetch hundreds (like the illusive cake pedestals…sigh.)  I usually go for the super cheap, “scratch and dent”, clearance ironstone.  That’s just how I roll.  It’s not an investment for me, though, I just love it.  I also love pieces that show their age through crazing, stains, chips and cracks.

What is ironstone?
Ironstone china is a glaze-covered earthenware. It was first patented by Charles James Mason in 1813 and other manufacturers followed suit.  At one point, there were almost 200 makers of ironstone china and they made everything from plates and bowls to tureens, covered casseroles, and gravy boats.  Even chamber pots.  Its popularity has come in waves and was apparently wildly popular in the 1970s.  I was not aware that there was anything pretty in home decor during the 70’s, but that decade gets a thumbs up from me for liking ironstone.

What do hallmarks look like?  Will there always be a hallmark?
The hallmark is the manufacturers marking on the bottom or back of a piece, so the look of the hallmark depends on who made it and when.  Sometimes it will tell you the piece is ironstone, but not always.  I have some pieces that read “stoneware” or display the mark of a hotel the piece was made for.  I also have some pieces that have no markings at all or just some blurry initials.  I love it when a piece has a clear mark, but you can’t rely solely on markings when ironstone shopping.  You have to learn what it looks and feels like.

How can you identify ironstone if it’s unmarked?
The best way for you to learn to spot ironstone is by studying a piece of ironstone.  The most noticeable thing is the weight.  A piece of ironstone will always feels heavier than it looks.  It has a wonderful luster about it, as well, that can be easily recognized if you know what you’re looking for.  It just looks different than any other china.  If the piece has a handle, hold it by the handle and flick the body of the piece.  It will make a lovely “ring” if it is free of chips or cracks. It can be bright white or a dark cream, almost beige.

Is all ironstone white?
No.  Ironstone pieces can have “transferware” patterns in all colors printed on them or a painted blurry blue design called “Flow Blue.”  My favorite to collect, though, is plain white.

 

There is a load of useful information about the care and cleaning of ironstone from an expert here.
My favorite piece in my collection is this ironstone tureen that I found in my grandmother’s attic.  I just about passed out with excitement when I pulled it out of a bug-eaten box.
Happy hunting!
z