Transferware china: Blue Willow is just the beginning
May 06, 2009
by Mark A. RoederSummary
Detail of transferware pattern. All photos submitted by Mark Roeder.
Transferware china is among the most beautiful china ever produced. It’s highly collectible and often highly valuable, but affordable pieces can still be found. Just what is transferware? Transferware is any pottery with decorative elements applied by transferring a pattern from a copper plate to paper and then to the pottery itself. Transfer prints are found on china, ironstone, and porcelain. There are tens of thousands of transferware patterns, but one of the most recognizable and most common is Blue Willow.
While blue is the color most commonly associated with transferware, it was produced in other colors. Some of these include red, pink, purple, cranberry, brown, black, green, yellow, gray and various shades and combinations of these colors.
While highly collectible today, transferware was originally a cheap alternative to expensive imported pieces from China. It first appeared in the late 18th century, but became extremely popular in the 1820s and 1830s. Transferware has been made continuously since that time. Most of the transferware found today was produced in the last 50 years, but earlier pieces are out there. The earliest transferware I’ve located dates to the 1820s or 1830s. This isn’t surprising as earlier transferware was produced in much smaller quantities. As a general rule of thumb, the earlier the piece, the higher the price, but this doesn’t always hold true. Condition plays a large role, of course. I purchased a damaged, unmarked, transferware cup dating from the 1830s at a local auction for $8. The price was low because the cup had a couple of old chips and a crack. I purchased it for the beautiful transferware pattern in lavender. The cup had no handle, which is typical of early cups.
Like many, my first introduction to transferware was Blue Willow. The pattern is the most widely recognized and probably the most common as well. I was attracted to its deep blue color and attractive pattern. While many pieces of Blue Willow were out of my price range, others were far more affordable. I own some vintage pieces from as early as 1910, but most of my collection is of far more recent vintage. The beauty of Blue Willow is that old and new can be easily mixed. I actually use a set of this transferware china as my everyday dishes. I purchased an eight place setting of newer Blue Willow at an auction for only $50! That’s far cheaper than most new sets.
The Blue Willow pattern tells its own story. There is more than one variation of this tale, but each tends to flow along the same lines. As the tale goes, long ago, a Chinese Mandarin, lived in a wonderful pagoda under an apple tree on the right side of the bridge seen in the pattern. He was the father of a beautiful girl, who was the promised bride of an old but wealthy merchant. The girl, however, fell in love with her father’s clerk. The lovers eloped across the sea to the cottage on the island. Her father pursued and caught the lovers and was about to have them killed when the gods transformed them into a pair of turtle doves, seen at the top of the design.
The Blue Willow story is a nice tale, but it has no real basis in fact. The pattern was not created to tell the story. Rather, the story was told after the pattern was designed. The tale isn’t Chinese either. According to different sources, it is either British or American in origin. The tale is no more than a 19th century merchandising scheme. Blue Willow itself didn’t even originate in China. It was created in England. An estimated 90 percent of older Blue Willow was made in the Staffordshire county of England, but it was also produced in other areas of Great Britain. The British Isles do not have a monopoly on Blue Willow. A great many pieces produced after 1930 were made in Japan and various other parts of the world.
Blue Willow is only the beginning, however. Over the years I’ve purchased pieces from several of the tens of thousands of patterns available. There are some real buys out there, especially if one doesn’t mind a bit of damage. At a local auction, I picked up two 19th century soup bowls in the Asiatic Pheasants pattern. Both bowls were cracked, but still useable and I got the pair for only $2! I use these as cereal bowls on an almost daily basis. Using such damaged pieces allows me to actually use antique china without the cost or worry of breakage that comes with undamaged pieces. If they were in excellent condition, my bowls would cost upwards of $40 each.
Dating transferware can be difficult. Many of the early pieces are unsigned. Many patterns made in Great Britain between 1842 and 1883, however, were registered with the Patent Office in London. The registration marks on the reverse of these pieces can be dated. British transferware made between 1890 and 1920 usually has “England” printed on the back. After 1920, the mark became “Made In England,” I’ve noted that older transferware often has richer and more plentiful color than later pieces. Manufacturers of more recent pieces tend to skimp on the amount and quality of color. This varies greatly with the manufacturer, of course, but it is another clue to age.
Values for transferware vary greatly. Early or rare pieces can run into the thousands of dollars. Price tags in the hundreds are not uncommon, but there is a great variety of transferware available in the under $100 price range. Common pieces of recent vintage, such as plates, can be quite affordable. I’ve often sold such pieces myself at flea markets for $10 or less and I regularly spot similar examples for under $25.
Transferware can be found anywhere other antiques and collectibles are located. One good source is the household auction. Very early or rare pieces don’t usually turn up at such sales, but this is a good source for more common pieces. They can sometimes be purchased in partial sets for very reasonable prices. I’ve spotted a few good buys on eBay, too, and as usual, eBay offers quite a selection. Keep in mind the cost of shipping and insurance if buying on eBay, however, as they can significantly added to the cost. Don’t expect to find great bargains, as they are definitely the exception and not the rule. Don’t let price tags in the low hundreds scare you off, though. While much transferware is quite costly, there are a great many affordable pieces out there.
Transferware is some of the most beautiful china available. Single plates and serving pieces are great for display. Partial sets are attractive on plate racks and in china cabinets. Don’t forget to make use of your transferware pieces, too! Damaged examples, common items, and pieces of recent vintage are all wonderful for everyday use.
Whether you collect a china cabinet full of transferware or just a few pieces, you’ll find it a beautiful, nostalgic, and useful collectible that will bring you pleasure for years to come.
If you haven’t collected transferware before, give it a try. I guarantee it will add to your collecting enjoyment.
Mark A. Roeder is the author of two nationally syndicated columns on antiques, Successful Antiques Collecting and Spotlight on Antiques & Collectibles. His expertise comes not only from researching antiques, but from collecting, buying, and selling them for more than three decades.