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Antique Spongeware and Spatterware: An American Stoneware Tradition

After inheriting her grandmother's collection of antiques, Dolores has maintained an interest in the care and sale of vintage items.

Antique Blue and White Spongeware bowl

Antique Blue and White Spongeware bowl

What Is Stoneware?

Blue and white vintage American stoneware is attractive and versatile. Blue and white spongeware and spatterware has been made in the United States for nearly 300 years and is still being produced today. Originally made in the United Kingdom, created as an inexpensive product often exported to the United States, the durable and attractive pottery quickly became very popular in the U. S.

Stoneware is a dense, durable type of pottery created by firing the piece at a very high temperature (1200-1350 degrees Celsius or 2185 degrees Fahrenheit). Earthenware, by contrast, is fired at 1915 °F. Stoneware is made of a stronger clay than earthenware.

Tough, chip-resistant Stoneware was and still is made for utilitarian use. Those lovely old blue and white spatterware or spongeware pitchers and bowls you see in antique shops can easily be over 100 years old—their resiliency stood up to a long life in the kitchens of yesteryear.

How Can You Tell If It's Stoneware?

  • Stoneware, in general, will feel heavier than it looks for its size.
  • The bottom of a stoneware piece may be uncoated or unglazed.
  • If you can see the ware on the bottom or on a chipped edge, it will look buff colored or gray (unlike earthenware which is white).
  • If there is a chip on the piece and the ware is white and easy to flake off with a fingernail, it is earthenware.
  • Stoneware can stand up to temperature extremes, both high and low, while earthenware can not.
Spatterware over 100 years old, you can see the wear on this piece which adds to its charm.

Spatterware over 100 years old, you can see the wear on this piece which adds to its charm.

American Stoneware

American Stoneware was the most popular dishware of the 19th century in the US. Many antique stoneware pieces are available today, due to its durability. The popular blue and white spatterware and spongeware never really went out of style and still pops up in contemporary settings.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between old and reproduction spatterware and spongeware. One way to find clues is to take a close look at the design. Minor flaws, uneven lines, and slight smears indicate hand-painted, antique stoneware. Newer, manufactured stoneware will have a more uniform design, and the lines will be clearer.

The pitcher shown above is well over 100 years old. If you look closely, you can see that the horizontal blue band is less than perfect. Also, the spattered blue design along the bottom is uneven. The imperfections of the antique hand made stoneware highlights its unique character and charm.

If you want to use spongeware or spatterware on a day to day basis, it is best to use newer products. Old stoneware, as well as many other forms of antique dishware, may be tainted with lead as lead-based paints and glazes were often used in the production of old pottery. And why risk damaging an antique for ordinary day to day use? A damaged antique is not as valuable as an intact, undamaged piece.

You can use a pitcher or vase for cut flowers. If you are wary of toxins, you can still use a bowl lined with a linen towel to serve rolls or breads.

Never place antique or vintage items in a microwave or dishwasher.

History of Stoneware

While earthenware pottery is a very old production technique, Stoneware is only about 2,000 years old, originating in China.

In the 1400s, German potters in the Rhineland learned the technique of making stoneware in extremely hot kilns.

American potters began to make stoneware spatterware and spongeware in 1720. Importation of household goods was an expensive proposition, especially for the lower classes and for utilitarian use. Production grew in Manhattan, New York in the 1740s, Philadelphia in 1769, and spread to New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland.

Today, Red Wing Pottery in Minnesota and Bennington Pottery in Vermont still produce attractive spatterware and spongeware. Many items for sale on eBay were made by Robinson Ransbottom which closed up shop in 2007. Most antique stoneware is unmarked.

American Stoneware is covered with a salt glaze. The salt added to the kiln bonds with silica in the clay to create a glass-like effect. Cobalt oxide was used to create the beautiful blue coloring and patterns.

Is It Spongeware or Spatterware?

The terms spongeware and spatterware are often used interchangeably, although they are separate techniques. Spatterware uses hand-painted or spattered colors. The cobalt oxide was mixed with a liquefied clay and blown onto the pot using a pipe.

Spongeware was made by applying the cobalt oxide to the pottery piece with a sponge or rag. Sometimes designs were cut into sponges and dabbed or stamped onto the piece. Often, spongeware has a sponged border with a hand-painted central design.

In general, spatterware will be more expensive than spongeware.

Some dealers and collectors use the terms interchangeably. In the United States both forms are often called spatterware while in the United Kingdom both can be referred to as spongeware.

Robinson Ransbottom spatterware

Robinson Ransbottom spatterware

Value of Stoneware Spatterware and Spongeware

Many spatterware and spongware items for sale on internet sites are listed as vintage which has come to be almost anything from kind of old (20 years or so), or just something that looks old. So the word can be taken with a grain of salt.

The best value for American stoneware is in antique items. An antique is, by definition, 100 years old or older.

The best value for antique or vintage items comes with demand and availability. During the collecting craze at the end of the last century, prices for old stoneware spatterware and the like were through the roof. When markets became glutted with downsizing baby boomers, mixed with newer more modern tastes, the prices a lot of older items fell. So if Grandma paid one price for say, a spatterware pitcher in 1998, that does not mean the value of the piece has risen greatly.

Most valuable pieces of spatter and spongeware are antique. Rarest pieces with multicolored or rainbow decoration are the most expensive. Black and yellow are hard to find so will be quite valuable as well. Blue on white or off white has always been the most popular style. Much was produced so there is a lot of it out there.

Before you decide to collect, learn as much as you can by reading books, and visiting dealers who specialize in stoneware. Go to antique shows and talk to people. Check out any collectors' clubs. Be wary of online sellers who call their wares rare. Just because someone claims rarity does not make it so.

For Further Reading

For detailed information and to learn how to identify what you have, check out one of the following books. Remember that old price guides will not reflect current values but can be helpful and informative.

  • Antique Trader Stoneware and Blue and White Pottery Price Guide by Kyle Husfloen
  • Spongeware and Spatterware by Kevin McConnel
  • Spongeware 1835 - 1935 Makers Marks and Patterns by Henry E. Kelly
  • Spongeware and Spatterware Schiffer Books for Collectors by Kevin McConnel
  • American Country Pottery : Yellowware and Spongeware by William Ketchum

Questions & Answers

Question: I own a lot of antique Spongeware and Spatterware but don't have room for it anymore. Are these pieces worth anything? Do people collect them?

Answer: There are enough people interested in antique spongeware and spatterware that there are several books out there on the topic. Before you learn the value or decide to sell some of your collection, you need to learn about what it is that you have. A book can help you learn the age of your items as well as who made them. Remember that an older book will not reflect current value. Values change constantly depending on demand. And certain patterns and items will be more popular than others. Rare pieces will command the highest prices.

Learn how to identify each piece by consulting one of these books:

"Spongeware and Spatterware Schiffer Book for Collectors" (2001)

"Spongeware and Spatterware 1835 - 1935 Marks and Patterns Schiffer Book for Collectors" (2001)

Check around for online sales and auctions to see if people are buying the type of things that you have. Look at sold prices. People who are selling may offer their wares for a higher price that most are willing to pay. Unscrupulous sellers may claim a piece is rare when it may not be. That's where your research will come in handy.

Question: I have a coffee canister with a lid on it that I believe to be legit spongeware. It has no markings, but the pattern is not perfect which makes me believe it was hand painted. What do you think?

Answer: There is no reason why your piece would not be "legit" spongeware. It has been made since the late 1700s and is still being made today. If you are wondering if it is old and American, check the weight. American pieces are heavy bottomed when compared to more modern pieces. For comparison, feel the weight of a newer piece in a retail store.

Blue and white or red and white were the most commons colors. Yellow or black are rare so are more valuable than more common colored items. Multicolored are rarer still.

As for how attractive a piece is, being modern does not make sponge or spatterware unattractive. Bennington Potters of Vermont make beautiful pieces to this day. I find of some of the newer pieces (like the last photo in the article) quite nice as I can use it. I would not use very old pieces for fear of damage.

Check out some of the reference books for more information.

© 2010 Dolores Monet