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 past 15 years, yellowware has caught on with collectors, and values have soared. To identify a piece as authentic yellowware, make sure 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 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 the 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 3 to 17 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 10 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.