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Transferware

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 34 February 1999

Transferware was named for the process by which patterns were imprinted onto china. An engraved copper plate was inked, and a damp tissue forced onto it with a press. The inked design was then pressed, or transferred, onto the china. After glazing and firing, the decoration became permanent.

This china was highly desirable from around 1800 to 1860, (although it was first produced around 1770), and most of it was made in England. Early transferware bore Asian motifs designed to replace broken pieces from costly sets of Chinese porcelain. Later, sailing ships, hunting scenes, mountain views, and vignettes of exotic locales like Turkey, India, and Greece were popular. Patterns manufactured for the market in the United States included patriotic and historical American images, such as Niagara Falls and Mount Vernon.

Blue is the most common color of transferware, because it was the only color produced for the first 50 years transferware was made. Cobalt-blue ink was inexpensive and could survive the high temperatures of the firing process. By 1820, transferware was produced in shades of red, green, black, brown, purple, and yellow. Some rare pieces were even made with more than one color. Blue is the color most in demand today, so it's also generally the most expensive. Red transferware is less expensive but harder to find.

Flat pieces like plates were more common and are more likely to have survived intact, so they're less expensive than sugar bowls, tureens, or large serving platters. When considering a piece, examine its condition thoroughly. Hold it up to a bright light and look for lines and cracks to see if it has been repaired. Some repairs will be obvious, while some are almost invisible. A good test is to tap the piece with your fingernail: If you hear a thud instead of a clear ring, chances are it has been repaired. A repaired piece should always sell for a lower price than a comparable intact piece.

Reference books on transferware are generally organized by pattern, not color. So find a pattern you like, then check to see if it was produced in the color you like to collect. To learn about specific patterns, consult books such as those listed in the recommended reading list below. Comprehensive reference works on the subject are often rather expensive, so you may want to check if they're in your local library before purchasing them.

Some experts say transferware can be placed in the dishwasher occasionally, as long as items are placed far enough apart that they don't touch during the various cycles. You can also hand-wash yours with a gentle detergent. Line your sink with a kitchen towel when washing delicate items so they'll be less likely to crack or chip. Store your transferware with felt rounds between plates, bowls, and platters, to keep the patterns from rubbing off or becoming damaged.

Transferware Collectors Club