Transferware is a type of ceramics. Its signature feature is delicate patterns applied through transfer printing. Developed in late 18th-century England, transferware can be earthenware, ironstone, porcelain, or china. The invention of transfer printing originally made fine china affordable for middle class families, but transferware has since become a valuable collector's item.
The transfer printing process's invention is attributed to John Brooks, an Irish engraver who began printing on enamel in the early 1750s. John Sadler and Guy Green of Liverpool first used the process to print on ceramic tiles in the mid 1750s. Transfer printing involves etching a design onto a copper plate, inking the plate, and then transferring the design to a tissue sheet. The sheet is laid on an already fired ceramic object. Transferware could be glazed before printing but, since the ink fades quickly, many manufacturers glazed after printing.
While fine dining sets had been a luxury item, transfer printing allowed manufacturers to efficiently reproduce delicate patterns and make dinnerware affordable. Manufacturers used transfer printing to decorate tea services, smoker sets, wash basins, and vases.
Thousands of transferware patterns exist. Early patterns imitated designs from the Orient, but transferware expanded to depict historical scenes, pastoral landscapes, and recreational activities. When a niche market developed in the United States, manufacturers depicted images from American history, including scenes from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Cobalt blue, a favoured import from China, continued in popularity after transferware's development. More blue-and-white items were sold than any other colour combination. Red, brown, grey, yellow, and green also became fashionable, and the United States imported many multicoloured items.
Collecting antique transferware has become popular in recent decades. Transferware's worth depends on date, rarity of pattern, and print quality. Obscurity makes unusual colours and transferware with no identifiable manufacture more desirable. The most collectable items were made in the early 19th century but 20th-century items are easier to find. Depending on rarity, restored transferware may be worth less than unaltered items.
Collectors use a variety of cues to date transferware. Until 1883, items from England had a datable diamond-shaped registration mark on the underside. In 1884, England's patent office began registering patterns with identification numbers. Because of the McKinley Tariff Act, transferware made after 1891 often carries the words "Made in England."
Transferware's timeless elegance continues to intrigue historians and hobbyists. The Transferware Collector's Club offers a wealth of information for aspiring collectors. It features a pattern database and classified ads for buying and selling antique items. Museums with ceramics collections, like the Michigan Historical Museum or the Horatio Colony Museum, are also helpful resources because they provide detailed images of rare items.
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