This article, written by the Brooklyn Museum’s then-Curator of Decorative Arts, discusses the global influence on American ceramics in the 19th century, using the china found at the Sunnyside house (Washington Irving’s home) as an example. It notes the types of china produced, the decorative characteristics, and the various manufacturers and production processes. It also describes public reaction to the introduction of the bath tub and details a typical 19th century dinner party. It originally appeared in the October 1947 Sunnyside Edition of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
In the 19th century affluent Americans enjoyed ready access to the ceramic markets of the world. The result was the greatest known importation of various wares. Ceramic tastes of the time were influenced in general by three dominating trends which contended with one another for supremacy: the classic revival, the Gothic revival and the baroque.
Nationalism asserted itself in all countries, and in France under Louis Philippe, the period of Louis XV was selected as the basis of a new style. England turned with favor to the Gothic style and was influenced by Continental Europe to a lesser degree than in the preceding period.
At the same time there was an interest in the art of ancient Greece and Rome. This was especially true in America where the classical style, revived by Thomas Jefferson, continued to flourish until the Civil War, competing with the baroque in France and the Gothic revival in England.
The Greek War of Independence from 1821-1829 appealed to the American mind and gave an added stimulus to the revival of the classic style in this country. When a Greek student, Christos Evangelides, came to the United States he was much feted, and sat to Samuel F. B. Morse for his portrait.
Our classic tendency is further reflected in the naming of many American towns – Athens, Carthage and Rome. The pagan deities of mythology became acceptable and were depicted in many forms of art.
Romantic interest was shown in old classic ruins, and in the distant and exotic places of Egypt, China and India. All these influences were evident in ceramics, reflected in the classic ideal of symmetry and the opposing force of the asymmetrical as found in the later Chinese style and the baroque. The heavy English designs of solemn respectability were defied by the touch of the riotous baroque with results that show a great amount of originality.
Early in the 19th century, with the use of the plaster of Paris mold, mass production of all kinds of ornaments could be achieved at inexpensive prices. It satisfied the individual desire for grandeur, magnificence and affluence and was expressed in terms of a mass of obvious objets d’art. Decorative ideas as well as the grotesque and odd found their way into the home and created the atmosphere of the period. Romanticism and sentiment exercised their influence on all designs.
America, a new nation, turned with national pride to her natural wonders-Niagara Falls, the Hudson River, bird life and the buffalo. Every man’s home was his castle and all womanhood was placed on a pedestal. It was shockingly crude to mention the word leg in a lady’s presence even though the leg was attached to a well-roasted fowl on the dinner table.
An abundance of utilitarian and decorative ceramics were placed in every room of the house, where they became a part of the whole, reflecting the coloring and spirit of the times. French and English porcelains were used in the genteel parlor to create an elegant and rich effect. The chimney shelf and pier table contained two or more vases in classic forms of beakers and urns decorated in colors of canary yellow, emerald green and royal red with strong accents of gold.
The classic forms vied with elaborate baroque and rococo porcelains and Parian-ware types with heavy relief designs of fruit and flowers intertwined with ribbons, scrolls and cartouches. Parian-ware busts of national heroes along with maidens kneeling in prayer on a tasseled cushion were popular subjects.
The whatnot, a newly introduced article of furniture, afforded an opportunity for further decoration with miniature vases and Meissen figurines along with a liberal number of shells and oddments in glass. French porcelains, considered the most fashionable, were referred to with great pride, English holding second place and German third.
England, one of the largest manufacturers of Parian-ware, found a ready market in the United States for this product. It was a biscuit porcelain in all-white, simulating the Parian marble from which it took its name. It also was made in a combination of white and a color, the most usual being blue.
After 1847 a fine quality of this ware was produced by Christopher W. Fenton at Bennington, Vermont. A pair of English Parian vases of classic urn form with an applied relief decoration of grapes and leaves against a central band of blue have been replaced in one of the rooms at “Sunnyside” (fig. 2).
Elaborate toilet sets were created for bureau, dressing table and wash stand. Several of the wash-stand sets in Sunnyside were in use during Washington Irving’s occupancy. These sets consisted of a ewer and bowl (fig. 1), soap dishes, tooth brush holders and waste jars. They are made of Ironstone china and of white earthenware with transfer printed designs in blue on white or black on white.
The introduction of these English printed wares exerted a marked influence on the American market and examples of it were found in almost every home. These printed wares are designated under the general term of Staffordshire, from the English district where many types of earthenware were produced throughout the first half of the 19th century. This inexpensive, mass-produced ware was so successful in capturing the American market that it almost excluded the Chinese export porcelain which formerly had been so popular.
The Staffordshire wares depicted scenic views, portraits of prominent personages, Gothic ruins, Oriental, Indian and Persian fantasies in colors of blue, pink, green, black or sepia on white grounds (fig. 3). Quantity production of the ware was made possible by the transfer process. Patterns were engraved on copper plates from which impressions were made on tissue paper. The tissues in turn were pressed on undecorated earthenware, transferring the designs. The pieces were then glazed and fired.
A Staffordshire ewer and bowl in black and white transfer depicting a Chinese scene are in Sunnyside. Also, a number of Staffordshire shards with a light blue design of the 1840-1850 period have been excavated on the property. It is interesting to note that in spite of the popularity of Staffordshire wares, blue-and-white Canton porcelain was still advertised for sale in New York as late as 1855 and that several fragments of this Canton ware are found among the excavated shards.
In the 1840s the English market also was producing a so-called stone china, a heavier, thicker glazed earthenware of a grayish tone. It was made by Mason as “Ironstone China,” by Minton as “Granite China” and by Ridgway under the name of “Stone Ware.”
Of these manufacturers the foremost was James Mason, who was succeeded in 1851 by Francis Morley, who advertised general earthenware of every description for table, toilet and ornament. They claimed that “it is fitted for families of the highest ranks. It is used in the homes of the nobility and higher classes. No climate affects this ware.”
Ironstone china was more expensive than other printed wares, selling at about the same price as English porcelain. It was said the export of this china did more damage to the French ceramic export trade than Nelson’s fleet.
The characteristic decorations of stone china were flat washes over printed outlines in Persian, Imari and Famille Rose patterns in colors of pink, blue, orange and green. Gold was elaborately used in all the patterns. An ironstone china toilet set in the Persian floral pattern made by Francis Morley about 1851 was used by Washington Irving (fig. 1).
In America in the first half of the 19th century vast amounts of crockery were produced by many Potteries – for kitchen, pantry and dairy use in red, yellow and white earthenware. Redware was made from the common brick clay found almost everywhere. It was sometimes slip-decorated and glazed with lead. Yellowware and its derivative Rockingham ware (not to be confused with the English Rockingham factory) was introduced in this country about 1830. Manufacturing costs were low as it was made in plaster of Paris molds. When yellowware was coated with a brown glaze it became Rockingham.
Flint enameled wares were made at Bennington and other potteries by sprinkling powdered metallic oxides on a Rockingham glaze before firing. In firing, the oxides created irregular flashes of color. A mixing bowl of flint enamel ware is in Sunnyside.
The Gothic influence extended to the potteries of England and America, resulted in a number of designs. One example of this is the Rockingham apostle pitcher made by the American Pottery Company at Jersey City in 1838-1845. The motif consists of relief figures of the apostles enclosed by Gothic arches.
Stoneware, a different product from the English Ironstone ware or china, was commonly made from a bluish gray clay fired at a high temperature, thus creating a harder and more durable utensil.
Stone ware was usually decorated with blue enameled or incised designs that became more elaborate in the ’50s. Some of the articles for common use were jugs, covered creamers, butter, cake and bean pots as well as churns, pitchers, milk bowls, mixing bowls and molds.
Although running water was a luxury in country houses, it is known that “Sunnyside” had a bath. Old pipes leading from a spring have been uncovered along with installations in the house for a tub. In a letter written from a New York hotel by Washington Irving to his niece, he mentions how glad he was to have just had a refreshing shower bath.
Bath tubs were still a great novelty in America and the practice of taking a hot bath was highly questionable from a health standpoint. In 1842 a bath tub installed by Adam Thompson in Cincinnati was a startling innovation. Thompson had heard that the Prime Minister of England had a bath in his house, and he decided he could enjoy one in Cincinnati. It was a cumbersome affair weighing 1750 pounds and the room had to be reinforced before installation. When completed he gave a dinner to show it to his friends and let them try it out.
Cincinnati doctors, referring to the Domestic Encylopedia (printed in Philadelphia in 1804) which stated that “Rome for 500 years together had no physicians, but only baths,” attacked the use of the bath tub. Neighboring States took up the dispute. Virginia placed a high tax on tubs; Philadelphia considered an ordinance to prohibit taking hot baths from November to March; Boston made it illegal to take a bath in a tub without a physician’s order and it was not until 1850 that a tub was installed in the White House.
John Ridgway of Staffordshire was advertising “Fountain, Hand basins” for a frequent and easy supply of pure water and to facilitate its disposal after use. A similar hand basin, 6 1/2 inches deep with an 18-inch diameter for running water, has been placed in Sunnyside (fig. 5). It is made of yellow earthenware with a flint enameled glaze, a type produced at Bennington, Vermont.
The dining room was the center of hospitality, and infinite thought was given to the careful planning of food and drink. No greater honor could be extended or received than a dinner invitation. The times were well reflected in the statement of a divine that Christianity taught a man how to use a knife and fork.
After reading accounts of some of the prodigious meals and viewing the interminable dinner services, one wonders that a personage of the day had time for little else but gout. In order to appreciate fully the services in use it is interesting to see the type of dinner that was considered comme il faut in America. The hour for a dress dinner seems to have been seven or later and the guests were expected to arrive within a half hour of the appointed time. One rule was that to be well cooked a dinner must be charming to the eye, delightful to smell and delicious to taste.
One such dinner consisted of a first course of raw oysters served with white wine. Soup follows with a Vin de Table, “that is good claret or German wine not containing more alcohol than claret.” Recommended are Macon, Thorins, Rhine, Cote St. Jacques.
Hors d’oeuvres appear and are composed of small appealing dishes of radishes, anchovies, sausage, sardines and pickled fish. With this course and the next two it was suggested that one part wine and three parts water be taken. It was stated that this rule “is not always followed but they are sorry for those who depart from it.”
Releves are next and consist of a large fish cooked whole, then calf’s head. Entrees follow and are composed of a course of meat then fish, both served with light and dark sauce. “A fish when served whole is a releve, but when served in pieces or slices with a sauce it becomes an entrée…All the science and skill of the cook are necessary for their preparation.”
The roast course is next and consists of poultry and game, the poultry always being served first with salad greens which are eaten with or after the course. A glass of Madeira wine or a sorbet is taken just before the roast course. With the roast course and the entremet, a superior, richer wine is served, such as Pomard, Clos-Vaugeot or Cote-Rotie. The entremets then make their appearance in the order of vegetables, fish (always small and served fried), sweet dishes and large cakes. The sweet dishes were made of vegetables, fruits and eggs and sugar. The remark was made: “the sweets are so enticing in appearance that we make an effort to taste them. Some go beyond tasting; so much the worse for them; they pay a high price for momentary gratification.”
At last the dessert course comes forward, with cheese served first to “prepare the palate for the dainties” which consisted of everything in and out of season. Champagne is served with the dessert course; and Lunel, Muscat, Tokay or Madeira as alternates.
After almost three hours of being seated the ladies retire for “the French custom of taking a black cup of coffee,” “which excites the faculties of the mind.” The gentlemen close in next to the host and are served coffee and brandy. One hour later the men join the ladies. After eating, every one must relax, “talking of trifles that do not tax the intellect.”
Because of such meals it is understandable why dinner services for 36 people contained between 350 and 400 pieces of china. Persons of position owned two important dinner services including matching table garnitures of candlesticks and fruit baskets. Two lesser services were required for everyday use. Tea and dessert sets averaged two to three in number.
The choice dinner service was of French porcelain from one of the Paris factories or from Limoges or Sevres. It is difficult to identify the makers of the French porcelain sets unless marked, as the same colors and designs were duplicated by many factories. It also was customary to sell blank sets that were in turn decorated by individual establishments and resold as a finished product. Some of the English sets that were widely used were from Minton, Rockingham, Derby, Worcester, Davenport and Wedgwood.
A large amount of gold-band china and earthenware was produced in France and England for the American market. Sets ranged from tea to large dinner and dessert services decorated with gold bands and fruit finials on a white ground. A French porcelain dinner service of the type made in Paris has been replaced in Sunnyside. It is decorated with gold bands enclosing a salmon colored border, with naturalistic flowers in bright colors on a white center (fig. 4). The service is complete with fruit baskets and six candle holders of kneeling angels in classical dress.
China of this type is referred to in, the inventory of The Spanish Adventures of Washington Irving, by Claude Bowers:
In the list of contents sent to Almodovar we get a glimpse into the domestic plans of the bachelor diplomat. In one box were two brass lamps with glass globes and other attachments. Another contained table linen and bedclothes. In another were two dozen crystal glasses, eight dozen wine glasses of various classes, eighteen decanters, and twenty-four fingerbowls. A fifth box contained a pair of gilded candelabra, another a set of white porcelain, and another a set of white gilded porcelain. The eighth box enclosed a set of porcelain for dessert. It was evident that Irving had no thought of entertaining more than twenty-four at dinner at one time.
Lesser services for everyday use or “second best china,” were in printed earthenware and in shell edge Queensware as produced by Wedgwood and other Staffordshire makers.
The shell edge or pie-crust edge wares were derived from an 18th century design created by Josiah Wedgwood, who made a special study of shells and adapted the broken shells to a simple relief decoration. The edges of this pattern were decorated in green, blue and red colors. Shell-edge fragments have been found at Sunnyside (fig. 7), and a shell-edge platter that bears the mark of Enoch Wood & Sons, Burslem, has been replaced in Irving’s house (fig. 6).
White earthenware with a blue edge similar to the English shell-edge was made in this country by the American Pottery Company, 1840-1845, at Jersey City, New Jersey. The Jersey City Pottery produced a high quality of wares. They are well known for their hound-handle pitchers designed by Daniel Greatbach with a pattern of running vine on the neck and a hunting scene on the body. One of these pitchers is known to have been in Sunnyside.
The porcelain produced in Philadelphia by William Ellis Tucker from 1827 to 1838 found favor in this country and was widely distributed (fig. 8). Washington Irving, due to his close associations with Philadelphia, undoubtedly possessed some specimens from this factory.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.