Collecting and Caring for Ironstone Dishware

Whether clean or marked with character, ironstone is as useful as it is beautiful.

Are you an enthusiastic collector of ironstone? The simplicity and utilitarian quality of these gleaming white dishes makes it a favorite collectible. Sometimes known as “the little black dress” of pottery, white ironstone mixes beautifully with antique, traditional, farmhouse, French country or contemporary interiors.

Ironstone pieces are survivors; their resilience tells their story, and minor discoloration only seems to add to their patina and beauty.

An antique breadboard gives this Ironstone vignette a rustic feel.

What Is Ironstone?

Ironstone is not porcelain; it’s porous earthenware, made of clay mixed with feldspar. Patented in 1813 by Charles James Mason in Staffordshire, England, it was an immediate success, and ironstone blanks were decorated with transfer patterns or hand painting to imitate Chinese porcelain. There is no iron in ironstone. Many believe Mason used this name to imply that iron and china created a durable and almost indestructible pottery.

Many Staffordshire potteries had similar products known by a variety of names: English porcelain, semi porcelain, new stone and stone china. Mason’s patent lapsed in 1827, and other Staffordshire factories adopted the name ironstone.

In the 1840s, undecorated white stoneware was shipped to the colonies. Durable and affordable, ironstone was popular with rural American families and settlers. Called graniteware, stoneware, pearl china or feldspar china, these pieces are all considered ironstone. In the 1870s and 1880s, American potters began to manufacture their own white ware, under the name graniteware.

Look for maker’s marks on the bottom and details toppers on lids.

What to Look for

Weight. Ironstone is thick and heavy.

Maker’s Mark. Most, but not all, ironstone is marked with a stamp on the bottom that is printed, impressed or both.

Color. Early English pieces made for export will have a blue or gray tint. Pieces that remained in England are creamier white, as are American ironstone pieces.

Shape. Date early ironstone by looking at patterns and shapes.

  • 1830s and 1840s: Gothic early pieces are hexagonal or octagonal in shape.
  • 1850s: Leaves were popular embellishments.
  • 1860s and 1880s: More rounded forms, harvest patterns with fruit, berries, nuts, grain or sheaves of wheat.
  • 1880s: Return to simpler forms, plain designs with decoration only on the handles or finials.

Condition. Crackling or crazing in the clear overglaze is not uncommon in old pieces; it’s considered acceptable, even desirable to some collectors. Edges should be free of chips if possible.

This cake plate hosts a bouquet of roses for a sweet yet informal centerpiece.

Start a Collection

You can choose a pattern, or focus on a certain shape. Once very affordable, ironstone is now highly collectable and coveted by collectors. You can expect to pay $350 for a teapot, over $1,000 for a rare pedestal or cake stand, and $200 for a soap dish in exceptional condition.

Beautiful as well as practical, these dishes add personality to your romantic decor. Gather a grouping in your hutch, march a variety of pitchers down your dining table, or fill a tureen with flowers for an effortless centerpiece. Once you have bought one piece, you’ll want to join the rest of us in our white-on-white craze—collecting is highly addictive. Happy hunting!

Create the look of rustic elegance by paring ironstone with natural linen and silverware that shows its age.

How to Care for Ironstone

  1. Hand wash ironstone and dry it with a soft towel.
  2. Never use bleach. Bleach penetrates the glaze, can dissolve the glaze and can eventually cause the clay to crumble and disintegrate.
  3. Remove silverware marks with a soft cloth and a gentle rubbing of toothpaste; then rinse and dry.

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