Transferware: How to Identify and Value a Traditional Printed China
Transferware is a style of decorated china created to sell to the emerging middle class of the Industrial Revolution in England. First produced in the late 1700s, the style caught on and has remained popular since the early 1800s.
Before the transferware technique was developed, porcelain china was hand painted and very expensive. The new technique made beautiful dishware affordable for the middle and working class.
Transferware is made with ironstone china, developed by Miles Mason in the 1780s and patented by his son, Charles James Mason, in 1813. Made of ironstone slag, flit, Cornish stone, and clay; ironstone is heavier and thicker than porcelain and much more durable.
A hand-engraved copper plate was used to print designs on paper. The printed paper was pressed, pigment side down, on the item to be decorated. The paper was then floated off in water or burned off in the kiln. The result is a beautiful, often intricate design.
Most transferware features a white background with a one-color pattern. Blue on white is the classic traditional color combination. Another color could be added by hand or by means of another transfer. Images include landscapes, animals, architecture, and florals. The romantic themes on this beautiful dishware were popular as the West moved into the Industrial Revolution.
The Victorians were fascinated with foreign places and especially interested in areas outside Europe. Many early transferware patterns show scenes from what they called "the Orient," meaning places to the east of Europe. Popular early themes featured images of the Middle East, India, and China.
During the early Victorian era, traveling artists created beautiful illustrations of far off places. Photography had not been invented yet, so these illustrations offered people in the West images of Asia and the Middle East. Traveling artists could fund their excursions by publishing illustrations of foreign scenes. Others accompanied wealthy travelers to create souvenir drawings of their travels.
Potters copied entire illustrations, parts of illustrations, or mash-ups of several illustrations for transferware china.
How to Identify Transferware
The undersides of most pieces of transferware (as well as most other china) show a mark, or backstamp that can help identify the maker, pattern, and year or decade of manufacture. If you see an obvious date on the back of a plate, it usually refers to the year that a pattern was introduced or registered with a patent office, not the date that specific piece was made.
You can research marks in a book or check out an online database.
Some backstamps show the name of the producer while others rely on an image. Some show both. The mark of a particular company can change over the years. Marks that do change usually maintain an iconic image but may shift the placement of, say, a scroll or crown. Color changes in marks can also help you learn the time of manufacture.
Marks can include numbers, letters, company names, country of origin, animals, scrolls, sunbursts, etc. The famous Staffordshire knot, for example, appears on the marks of a variety of potteries located in Staffordshire. It looks like a pretzel.
From 1842–1883, transferware and other china made in England featured a diamond backstamp. The diamond mark indicates a registration number for the British Patent Office. The marks can help date a piece. For example:
From 1842–1867, a number shows on the right side corner of the diamond.
From 1868–1883, a letter appears on the right corner of the diamond.
The diamond is full of codes that can help you to learn more about your item. You can google a brief description of a particular mark to help identify your transferware. There are thousands of backstamps.
Clues to Understanding the Age of Transferware
Sometimes you can make a wild guess as to age, which can help identify a pattern. The cup shown above has no marking on the bottom as the backstamp was only on the missing saucer. Teacups without handles pretty much fazed out by the late 1840s. So I looked up the image which appeared to be a British university and included the words "antique," then "early 1800s" in my search. It did not take long to learn that the cup was Ridgway's University pattern popular in the 1840s.
The are other clues to learn the age of transferware. The McKinley Tariff Act of 1891 mandated the name of the country of origin on all china imported into the United States. So if your plate shows "England" on the mark, it was likely made after 1891 for the U.S. market.
- The word "Limited" or the initials "Ltd." indicate that a piece was produced in England after 1861.
- "Detergent Proof" was introduced in 1941.
- "Dishwasher Proof" or "Dishwasher Safe" was introduced in 1955.
- Newer transferware shows a brighter white background in the pattern than older items, which may appear dull or creamy white.
- Old marks are smaller than newer marks, as you can see in the photograph below.
- Older marks are about an inch or so wide, while newer ones may be 2–3 inches wide.
Pattern styles can also be a general clue to age. The earliest pieces showed an Asian influence. In the mid-1800s, patterns became complex with scalloping and gilding. By the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, patterns showed more white in the background.
- As you can see in the marks above, newer pieces feature more ornate marks than those produced before the 1960s.
- No glaze on the bottom rim of a piece of transferware usually means that it is a newer product.
- Older pieces often show crazing (a web of tiny intersecting lines), while newer pieces do not. Occasionally, new items aiming to look old are created with crazing. During the collecting craze of the late 19th century, reproductions were common. Some were made for simple enjoyment while others were made to hoodwink buyers into paying more for a piece by pretending it was antique.
New transferware is still being produced today. The new pieces are not made with the old labor-intensive techniques but with modern methods. Some artists produce transferware pieces the old way.
Famous Examples of Transferware
Flow Blue is a valuable and interesting example of transferware. Introduced in 1830, Flow Blue was created when the cobalt pigment bled outside the lines creating a slightly, or sometimes extremely smudged look. Some experts claim the flow was an accident at first, while others claim it was intentional. However the idea was conceived, the china's popularity in the United States encouraged a purposeful hazing of the lines in the patterns.
Blue Willow is probably the most well-known example of transferware. The pattern features a Chinese scene with hills, a pagoda, pine trees, a willow tree, a bridge, a boat, and two doves in flight. Originally created in 1780, the pattern appears in many variations created by many producers and has remained popular for over 200 years.
How to Value Trasferware
The best value for transferware is in old, Victorian examples. Early Asian influenced designs and items featuring images of American historic views from 1820–1840 are in high demand. Though Flow Blue is popular and can be quite valuable, so much was produced that there is a lot of it out there.
Less common colors can be quite valuable. Though blue and white has always been the favorite, transferware shows up in purple, mulberry, brown, black, green, cranberry, and gray. Few yellow patterns were made, so the limited number means that authentic antique yellow transferware is rare. Rarity equals value.
Unique, unusual, or less frequently made pieces are more valuable than those more widely produced. Think of it this way; if you were buying a set, you'd have many plates but only one tea pot.
A teapot or footed soup tureen would be made less often than a bowl. There are parts that could easily break, such as lids, handles, spouts, or feet. This makes the rarer piece more valuable. There are simply fewer of them available on the market.
You may find a particular intact teapot but are less likely to find an intact set of teapot, sugar bowl, and creamer, making the set more valuable than the sum of each of its parts if they were sold separately.
Damaged goods rarely hold value. However, antique items in high demand may show minor chips and crazing yet still hold value.
Do not rely on price guides to decide on a value for an item. Prices change quickly. While older books can help you identify your dishware, the suggested value in an older book will not reflect today's market. Many more common pieces have decreased in value since the end of the collecting craze.
After you identify your piece of transferware, shop around online or at antique shops or malls. Check sold prices. Remember that a suggested price can be misleading. Some sellers have high hopes and misrepresent the actual value of a piece in order to make money.
For Further Reading
A Pictorial Guide to Pottery and Porcelain Marks by Chad Lage
Miller's Antique Marks by Judith Miller
English Transferware : Popular 20th Century Patterns by Joe Keller
You can also check out the Transferware Collector's Club online for links, book lists, and other information.