When Minton & Company of Staffordshire exhibited a new line of ceramics at The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the firm called it Palissy ware. The name came from a 16th-century Frenchman named Bernard Palissy, whose vividly colored, high-relief, lead-glazed plates, platters, and pitchers had inspired Minton’s new, French-born art director, Léon Arnoux.

The word majolica was also used to describe the ware, since it had some commonalities with the tin-glazed 16th-century Spanish and Italian earthenware of the same name. But even though Palissy ware was a more accurate description of Minton’s new line, the work quickly became known as majolica.

Before long there was a majolica renaissance in Europe and the United States. A great deal of it was made in Italy by firms such as Ginori and Cantagalli. In Germany, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory was known for its majolica.

What these companies shared was a vocabulary of images and style that was at once exuberant and uniform. All used bright colors splashed on reliefs of plants and animals. This was fun ware for the common man, and it sold as quickly as Minton and others could produce it.

Naturally Wedgwood and other Staffordshire stalwarts wanted a piece of this action, even though Minton had about a 10-year head start. Predictably, Wedgwood majolica was more formal than Minton’s and used humor with restraint. While some potteries were producing teapots in the shapes of cauliflowers, Wedgwood stuck mostly to basket-weave patterns and relief foliage on the outsides of its standard shapes.

In the United States, a similar fascination with majolica took hold around the same time as the Minton debut. As in England, potteries coated their ware with clear glazes, so that the pieces positively shined. Griffen, Smith & Hill was one prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”

Other American companies known for their majolica in the second half of the 19th century were Morrison & Carr, Chesapeake Pottery, and Edwin Bennett. They produced relish dishes,...

One of the most popular majolica forms was the pitcher, which was sometimes designed to appear as if it had been formed from vertical slices of wide bamboo, with more slender bamboo branches employed for the pitcher’s handle. Other pitchers resembled ears of corn, while syrup containers were routinely festooned with fat sunflowers or clusters of lily leaves and flowers.

There were platters and plates, or course, with leaf-shaped plates being a collectible subcategory all its own (begonia leaves were especially popular). Sardine boxes and cigarette holders were also produced—many were topped by African-American figurals, known then as now as blackamoors. And animals from bulldogs to pigs were deemed the perfect shapes within which to store tobacco.

If there was a dark side to the sunny look of majolica it was the process of making it. In 19th-century America, young girls did much of the painting, usually earning as little as 25 cents for a 12-hour day. This was well before child-labor laws, so the idea that these children were expected to work long hours and handle lead glazes was not seriously questioned until the first part of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the difficult conditions produced work that was often sloppy, as anyone who has seen a majolica vase with colors radically out of register or running down the side can attest.

By the 1890s, the majolica craze was ending in the United States—the technique looked a bit too baroque compared to the ascendant Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. While majolica persisted in Europe, pieces from the 20th century are generally thinner and feature less dramatic relief than those from the century before, which makes them less interesting to collectors.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Gouda Design

Gouda Design

Stuart Lonsdale and Kim Lindley's excellent tribute to and reference on Gouda Dutch Art Pottery and Delftware. The … [read review or visit site]

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Dedicated to raising awareness of the ceramic art work of R. Guy Cowan and his Cowan Pottery Studio in northeastern… [read review or visit site]

The Pottery Studio

The Pottery Studio

This 7,000-plus page site lives up to its self-billing as a 'knowledge base' with examples of work from all major a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

George Jones 19th Century Majolica Jug Pitcher W Lizard Handle & Bat Spout RareMajolica Etruscan 1880's Cauliflower Antique Sugar Bowl With HandlesStunning 19thc Jose A Cunha Majolica Palissy Caldas Of Portugal Charger C1890sStunning 19thc Manuel Mafra Majolica Palissy Caldas Of Portugal Charger C1880sAntique Samuel Lear English Majolica Vase Lily Pond Pattern Circa 1886Mackenzie Childs Globe Vase With Flower Arrangement, DiscontinuedAntique Majolica Alligator Tobacco Jar Humidor19th Century Fish Swallowing Fish Tea Pot With Lid MajolicaRare Antique Vintage English Register Mark Syrup Must SeeSuperb 19thc Majolica Vase With Blackamoor Girl Holding Tray Of FruitsSuperb 19thc Majolica Vase With Blackamoor Boy Holding Basket Of PastriesSuperb 19thc Majolica Vase With Female Blackamoor Figurine Holding Tray C1880sAntique Art Nouveau Majolica Pottery VaseAntique Etruscan Majolica 9" PlateLovely 19thc English Majolica Sardine Dish With Bird FinialAntique Swiss Thoune Majolica Vase Circa 1900 Excellent Qaulity 4’’ NrVintage Majolica Bowl/vase Egret Crane Water Lilies Green English UnmarkedAntique 12" Delicate Handled Majolica Flower Vase MarkedAntigue Majolica Fine Wire Basket Plate Green Leaf Basket Weave Pattern 8 3/4"Antique Majolica Match Striker Holder "happy Hooligan" Character Very Cute!!Majolica PlateAntique Majolica Etruscan Basket Weave & Leaf Butter Pats PairFantastic Large Continental Cobalt Blue Majolica Centerpiece AustrianSuperb Antique Majolica Palissy Lobster SaltsSuperb Pr 19thc Majolica Fluted Vases With Raised Ivy Leaf PatternSuperb Pair: 19thc Majolica Bud Vases With Male, Female Chinese Figurines C1880sAntique Majolica Bowl Basket Weave 5.5" X 3" Serving Bowl Floral Motif N/rLarge Antique Majolica Blackamoor Match Striker Holder C. 1880Vtg Lovely Hand Painted Majolica Style Bird/flowers 6 ½” Wall Pocket (noritake?)Antique St Clement French Majolica Hand Painted Pitcher Strawberries #7332Beautiful Hand Painted Hummingbird And Flowers Majolica Oval Dish - MexicoAntique Majolica Ear Of Corn Toothpick Or Match Holder German 1880Nice Vintage French Michel Caugant Majolica Chicken Terrine DishPair Antique English Art Nouveau Thomas Forester Majolica Pottery Portrait VasesSigned Thomas Sargent Antique French Majolica Figural Monkey HolderEarly Antique Etruscan Majolica Fern Flower Tapestry Weave PitcherEnglish Majolica 3" Tall Pitcher Flower & Leaf Pattern, Circa 1860s-1880s As IsAntique Zell Majolica 8" Cherry Plate Aqua An Antique Majolica 5-1/4" PitcherVintage Green Majolica 6 Well Oyster Plate - ImperfectAntique Italian Majolica Pottery - Rustic Scene & Cherub Decorated ChargerVintage Italian 2 Headed Devil Heads Flowers Carved Majolica Pottery Vase SignedVtg H B & Cie Choisy Le Roi France Majolica Art Pottery Strawberry PlateOrnate Majolica Toothpick Holder - Nice