In 1835, when the British began to export Flow Blue -- white-bodied earthenware marked with blurred cobalt-blue designs -- to the United States, it wasn't as if they believed they were sharing a national treasure. The British were actually trying to get rid of it. At the time, etiquette books and other arbiters of social convention stressed proper dining. A simple plate, fork, knife, and spoon weren't acceptable; a suitable table required elaborate settings and serving implements, and Chinese porcelain was the favored tableware. Unfortunately, only the rich could afford Chinese porcelain.

Flow Blue was an attempt to re-create the look of Chinese porcelain at an affordable price, but British consumers spurned the product, which was promptly exported to the United States. American buyers liked the way the delicate blue designs bled into the areas they adorned, and Flow Blue's immense popularity lasted well into the 1920s.

The designs on earlier pieces were cobalt blue, and the flow was more prominent as a result; later pieces had more subtle gradations of blue and often incorporated other colors or even gold gilt. Flow Blue initially imitated the patterns found on authentic Chinese porcelain, but floral images were later adopted.

For those interested in starting a Flow Blue collection, Jeff Snyder, an author of five books on the subject, recommends combing estate sales and antiques stores. Expect to pay around $100 for a plate and $300 to $500 for a platter. Pieces that have been chipped, damaged, or restored will inevitably be less valuable, but many collectors think that the old repairs add interesting elements. Jeff also notes that many pieces have a set of three small dots at the base. These shouldn't be mistaken for imperfections. They're actually stilt marks, indicating where the piece was held in place during its manufacture.


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