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White Ironstone

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 12 February/March 1993

Ironstone dates to the early 1800s; the name and its formula, containing the mineral feldspar, were patented in 1813 by Charles Mason of Staffordshire, England. Ironstone decorated with colorful patterns was an immediate success in England, but the white-glazed variety has little official history there because virtually all of it was made for export to Europe, Australia, and the United States.

By the 1830s, enterprising British potters recognized a potential market among rural American families buying china for the first time. They put together services of snowy-white ironstone, predicting that its simplicity and affordability would appeal to the no-frills aesthetic associated with American country life. These pieces, given names such as graniteware, stoneware, pearl china, or feldspar china, are now all categorized as ironstone.

White ironstone patterns fall into distinct periods. The earliest, called gothic or primary, date from the 1830s to 1840s and comprise paneled hexagonal or octagonal shapes. More rounded forms emerged in the 1860s, including harvest patterns decorated with relief-molded berries or sheaves of wheat. After 1860, bulbous, highly ornamental designs combined ribs with leaves and flowers, and from 1880 on, ironstone reverted to plainer forms, often unadorned except for the handles or finials.

The once ubiquitous and affordable ironstone is now highly coveted by collectors and therefore expensive. A teapot might sell for $350 and a soap dish for $200. Its quality is based on the evenness of the color and the crispness of the relief work. All edges, finials, and handles should be chip-free and unrepaired. The cost of a piece depends on its maker, pattern, condition, and rarity, as well as where it is being sold.