The geography of Staffordshire in central England conspired to make it a center for slipware and other types of lead-glazed earthenware. Thick layers of clay lay only a few feet below the surface. In fact, there was so much of the stuff within easy reach that 18th-century potters routinely dug clay right out of the roads, thus giving us the origins of the phrase “pot hole.”

Coal to fire the area’s signature bottle kilns was also plentiful in the northern part of the district. The field that fueled the Potteries (as the industry that dominated the towns of Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke, and Tunstall is still known) covered roughly 100 square miles.

It’s thought that the two minerals first came together in 1467, 200 years before John Astbury introduced his red earthenware to the world, and almost 300 years before "Potter to Her Majesty" Josiah Wedgwood made his cream-colored, lead-glazed Queen’s Ware for Queen Charlotte.

The antique Staffordshire ceramics that we're most familiar with today are from these later periods, when as many as 4,000 bottle kilns spewed black smoke into the skies in the service of fine dinnerware and fanciful figurines.

One of the leading potters of the 18th century was Thomas Whieldon, who made everything from black tea and coffee pots to knife hafts for Sheffield cutlers to plates with richly ornamented edges. Whieldon had many apprentices (Josiah Spode and Ralph Wood are two of the most important) and he was a business partner for about five years with Josiah Wedgwood, who learned a lot from Whieldon before establishing his own firm in 1759.

Though rightly famous for his creamware, which was lightweight and seemed to shine thanks to its luminous glaze, Wedgwood also developed a line of unglazed black stoneware known as the basaltes. Some sported precise basketweave reliefs on their exteriors — these are highly sought by collectors. Others were decorated with terracotta figures — these Wedgwood-dubbed Etruscan Ware.

Charlotte was not the only monarch to choose Wedgwood. In 1770, Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a dinner-and-dessert set for 24 called the Husk Service and in 1774 he delivered to her a 954-piece dinner set known as the Frog Service. Other achievements by Wedgwood include the introduction of Jasperware (stoneware colored by metal oxides) and pearlware (a bluish version of his creamware)...

By the end of the 18th century, Staffordshire potteries were producing Anglo-American wares for the newly independent colonies across the Atlantic. Pitchers were decorated with slogans that celebrated American independence and the young country’s love of liberty.

At the beginning of the 19th century, transfer-printed scenes of everything from Niagara Falls to views of Boston Harbor were produced on monochrome blue platters and plates. Today the 800-some subjects in this series are known as Historical Blue Staffordshire, or simply Old Blue.

Other wares made for the new American market were Gaudy Dutch, whose vivid pink, green, red, and green glazes were aimed at residents of Pennsylvania. And as many as 40 patterns of sponged ware, also called spatterware, came out of Staffordshire potteries to supply Americans with dinnerware, tea sets, and washbowls for the bathroom.

Key terms for Staffordshire Ceramics

Slipware: A technique in which an aqueous clay body is painted, splashed, or used as a dip for a dry clay surface.

Haft: The handle of a knife or sword.

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