A Background and Examples from MIT’s Biology Building
Copyright © 1994 Jennifer Grucza
Flow Blue China is a type of pottery that enjoyed widespread popularity from the mid-1800’s to the early 1900’s. Now it is again popular, but as a collectors’ item rather than dinnerware. During the dig at MIT’s biology building, some pottery shards were unearthed that showed the characteristics common to Flow Blue china. The purpose of this report is to give a background history of Flow Blue and to describe the possible origin and history of a few of these shards.
During the eighteenth century, English potters were busy trying to copy Chinese porcelain, which was immensly popular with the upper-crust British. They developed salt-glaze earthenware, which was whiter than other pottery, and which therefore looked more like porcelain. They then decorated it with Chinese-type designs in various colors.
Around 1775, a new technique for decorating pottery called transfer printing was developed in Battersea and by Sadler & Green at Liverpool. In this process, a metal plate, most often copper, was deeply engraved with the desired design. Then paint was rubbed onto the warmed plate and excess paint was cut off with a palette knife. After being cleaned with a cloth called a boss, a piece of tissue-paper was dampened and pressed onto the plate. Next, the paper was lifted from the plate and set carefully onto the plate or other piece of pottery. The design was then rubbed in with soft-soaped flannel by “Transferrers,” women who had the job of placing the pattern so that it lined up correctly and placing the backstamp on the piece. After the design was rubbed in, the dish was placed in water where the tissue paper floated off, leaving the design. The piece was first heated slightly to dry the paint, then dipped in glaze. The design disappeared then, to reappear after firing (Williams 1971:3-4).
“Only the biggest firms could hire their own artist engravers. The smaller companies were supplied by engraving firms. According to Geoffrey Godden in his book, ‘Antique Glass and China,’ several firms would use the same design, with the individual initials changed for each” (Williams 1971:4). In other words, it is possible to have two identical plates with different backstamps.
Most of the Chinese ware being imported had blue designs, and the Nankin ware that was imported from 1780 to 1820 was all dark blue. The English potters were all copying the Chinese, so they used blue, too. Also, blue had been used from the start because the blue from cobalt was the only color they knew for certain would survive the glazing process. In 1781, Josiah Spode perfected the process of blue underglaze transfer printing (Williams 1973:13) and everyone started making pottery using blue underglaze. “By 1818 there were over 140 master potters in the Staffordshire potteries. Practically all of them used cobalt blue as their major decorating color” (Blake 1971:iii).
The type of pigment used in Flow Blue is cobalt oxide, which had been discovered in 1545 by Schurer. This dye sank into the porous earthenware and blurred somewhat in the glazing period. “In the 1820’s it was discovered that although the blue would blur naturally, it could be made to flow by instilling lime or chloride of ammonia in the sagger while glazing. This deep blurring covered printing faults and stilt marks and served to hide other defects such as glazed bubbles. Some of the pieces made are so flown that it is impossible to discern detail, and some are done so lightly that only a halo effect appears” (Williams 1971:5). Thus the name “Flow Blue” or “Flowing Blue” or “Flown Blue.” Some maintain that the discovery of Flow Blue was a mistake, however, “Potters had been able to control the cobalt color for many years, so there seems to be no doubt that this flowing effect was intentional. Flow Blue was not a ‘potter’s mistake,’ but a definite innovation devised to reduce the mechanical look of the printed design (Blake 1971:iii).
The first maker of Flow Blue pottery was Josiah Wedgewood in the 1820’s. However, large production of Flow Blue didn’t start until about 1835. The production of Flow Blue can be split into three time periods: Early Victorian (1835-1850’s), Mid Victorian (1860’s-1870’s), and Late Victorian (1880’s-1890’s and early 1900’s). During the Early Victorian (E.V.) period, the most popular style was Oriental. However, there are some examples of scenic designs in early Flow Blue pieces. These scenes were highly romanticized, unrealistic pictures of foreign lands. The Oriental styles were also very unrealistic with a mixture of Chinese and Indian and even Arabic motifs. There were very few floral patterns during the E.V. period, and those that do appear are “designed with restraint and realistic taste” (Williams 1971:7).
During the Mid Victorian period, styles start to mix and merge with one another. “The Mid-Victorian period was a time of great eclecticism and excessive ornamentation. That is, the designers borrowed from many different sources and mixed many diverse elements. We find Oriental plates with European flowers in the borders, and even Oriental scenes with Gothic borders” (Williams 1971:7). Extravagent borders and designs are common, with scrolls, columns, wreaths, and urns of the classical Baroque style.
The designers of the Late Victorian period were influenced by writers William Morris, who loved the Middle Ages and its cathedrals, and Charles Eastlake, who thought that gilding and fancy handles and knobs on china was vulgar and who believed in a simple style with harmony of color and style. Therefore, a new style appeared: Art Nouveau. This style was characterized by stylized flowers and plants. Floral plates became increasingly common. They were cheap and easy to make, and customers liked the variety and beauty of all the different kinds of flowers and buds.
By the end of the Victorian period, there were over 1500 different patterns of Flow Blue (Lindquist 1993). Most of it was made in England, but some was made in Germany, Holland, France, Belgium, and the United States. Makers included the Staffordshire potters Alcock, Davenport, Josiah Wedgewood, Grinely, New Wharf, and the Johnson Brothers, to name a few, and in the U.S. Mercer, Wharwick, and Wheeling. Also, unlike it’s predecessors, Flow Blue was made for the common man. It was made to be used everyday. That’s probably why it made it to the landfill under
There are nine pieces from the dig that show the deep blue and blurriness of Flow Blue. Numbers 11, 17, and maybe 18 have enough pattern showing to possibly be identifiable. Numbers 11, 16, 17, and 18 all are probably pieces of plates, while numbers 15, 20, and 21 seem to be pieces from cups or bowls. Number 29 is difficult to identify, because although the edges are not uniform, the piece as a whole is straight. It could be part of a handle. There are some examples of less curved and more angled handles. It could also be part of the rim of a plate. “The early Victorian period saw the production of many panelled plates. These were not scalloped, but were made with 12 or 14 straight sides” (Williams 1971:8). This piece could have broken off the edge of one of these early Victorian plates, which would put the date of it’s making around 1835-1850.
Another very interesting piece is number 12. It is two sides of an octagonal vessel. The outside has straight lines, while the inside is smoothly circular. The cross-section is quite elegant, with a fluid line down the side. The Flow Blue color is darkest at the top, fading somewhat farther down the side. “Hollowware, such as teapots, sugar bowls and pitchers were sometimes made in octagonal shapes, the sides were squared off vertically and were not rounded. You will find these shapes date, for the most part, from the same time as the early 12 sided plates” (Williams 1971:8-9). So this was most likely some sugar bowl or some such. In fact, in Williams’ book, Flow Blue China II, there is a picture on page 79, with a sauce tureen that has an edge that looks very much like the piece that was dug up at the Biology Building. This also means that this piece was probably made around the same time as number 29.
The most fascinating piece is number 17. It is the edge of a plate with a large portion of the rim pattern surviving. This pattern matches up exactly with that of a pattern by W. Adams & Son called “Tonquin” that was later renamed “Shanghai.” Like Williams describes, the shard has a triangular cartouche form on the rim and a geometric border around the center of the plate. The pattern “Tonquin” is dated at around 1845, and “Shanghai” at 1870. There is no real way to determine from the small piece that was dug up whether it was made at the earlier or the later date. However, it is exciting to actually be able to determine the actual manufacturer and name of the pattern of such a small fragment (around 5 X 5 cm or 2 X 2 in). The center part of this plate would have had a Chinese scene with several small houses and a temple with a bridge with two figures. Williams speculates that it could be the escape scene from the willow legend: a daughter of a wealthy man and one of his poor employees fall in love and escape to his island cottage until the girl’s wealthy husband-to-have-been comes and burns them together in their cabin. Their two souls emerge from the wreckage as two doves that hover above the cottage where they once enjoyed happiness.
Numbers 11, 15, and 18 may also be identifiable, however, they were not shown in the findable references about Flow Blue. As to remaining pieces, numbers 16, 20, and 21, it is doubtful whether they can ever be identified as to pattern or manufacturer, however, to a trained eye, they might be able to be dated according to color, consistency, and material.
If you generalize from the identifiable pieces, the date of manufacture was around the early to mid 1800’s, possibly into the 1870’s. The pieces were most likely used for some while before they were thrown away, so the date of the site of the dig was possibly around the second half of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th.
It is easy to see why so many modern collectors are eager to acquire pieces of Flow Blue china. With it’s soft, warm blues and romantic patterns, it appeals to almost everyone’s sense of beauty. By studying the dishes they made and used, it is possible to obtain a glimpse of what people were feeling and thinking a hundred years ago.
Blake, Sylvia Dugger
1971. Flow Blue. Des Moines, IA: Wallace-Homestead Book Co.
Lindquist, David P.
1993. Official Price Guide to Antiques and Collectibles. New York: House of Collectibles.
1971. Flow Blue China: an Aid to Identification. Jeffersontown, KY: Fountain House East.
1973. Flow Blue China II. Jeffersontown, KY: Fountain House East.
This document was created 12/12/94.