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Yellowware

Martha Stewart Living Television

From the 1830s until the 1940s, when Pyrex and plastics took over, yellowware was ubiquitous in American kitchens. Yellowware is a ceramic fired from the fine yellow clay that lines riverbanks from New York to Ohio. Its color ranges from butter yellow to deep mustard, and it was popular due to its low cost and durability --  it could even withstand the heat of a woodstove.

In the last fifteen years, yellowware has caught on with collectors, and values have soared. To identify a piece as authentic yellowware, make sure that the glaze is clear -- only the clay should be yellow. It is difficult to date yellowware, or determine its point of origin, because only about 5 percent of this pottery was marked. If you do find a piece with the original potter's marking, expect to pay prices at least 30 percent higher than for a comparable unmarked vessel. There is an easy way to determine whether a piece of yellowware is English or American. Tap it solidly with your fingertip. If it rings clearly, it's probably English; if you hear a dull thud, it was most likely made in the United States.

Yellowware's glaze contains lead, so avoid using cracked pieces for food preparation. Even dishes in top condition should not be used for storing food in the refrigerator, for preparing acidic foods, or for baking, because this may cause lead to leach out of the glaze.

Yellowware was mostly used for mixing, baking, and storage rather than as tableware. Here are some common pieces:

Bowls
Sold in nested sets of six to eight pieces ranging from three to seventeen inches in diameter. Many were decorated with colored bands of slip, a clay derivative combined with flint and stains. Collectors often try to assemble a set. The smallest and largest sizes are the most difficult to obtain.

Nappies
Circular vessels with straight sides and no lips that were used for baking and serving.

Pie plates
Found in four or five sizes; the rarest are larger than ten inches in diameter.

Milk pans
Similar to nappies but with a turned lip.

Molds
In patterns like a stalk of corn, wheat, or a bunch of grapes.

Pitchers
Available in many sizes and shapes, from creamers to large ewers. Whether thrown or cast, they usually have applied handles and spouts.