Early Redware Came in Many Forms, Decorations

When you think of the American earthenware known as redware, chances are what comes to mind are plates to serve food and bake pies in. "Simple" and "utilitarian" would be apt descriptions for its many humble uses. However, it was also used in 18th and 19th century America for a diverse group of decorative objects. The rust color was often replaced with green, red or yellow when the objects were pipes, figurines or even coin banks.

Among the rarest examples are mantle ornaments and figurines that were primitive copies of the then popular English Staffordshire china pieces. These days, prices are anything but humble, not only for the utilitarian pieces but decorative items, too. A coin bank can sell for as much as $400 at auction; an unusual figurine can fetch several thousand dollars.

Redware can trace its origins to Europe and England, followed by the Pennsylvania Dutch who had settled in America. However, the decorating techniques date to ancient times. The most common style of decorating by the Pennsylvania Dutch was to use goose quills dipped in colorful slip to form sayings, names, dates and abstract designs. The thin clay fluid was a semi-liquid.

The other decorative technique, "Sgraffito" used a sharp-edged wooden tool to incise or "scratch" a design on the semi-wet clay surface. The potter began by applying a cream or yellowish slip color. Next, a hairline design was incised into the piece and other colors such as green and yellow were painted on the surface. When it was fired, the rust color of the clay showed through.

It is often the technique that determines the price. Slip pieces were made in large quantities, but since they were primarily used in the oven and with eating utensils, a piece in good condition is considered choice. The better the decoration, the higher the price.

By the 19th century, redware plates became so popular that they were made as gift ceramics. The favorite motif was the tulip, although roosters and floral motifs were also used. There were so many variations of tulip designs that they became known as tulipware.

Other popular motifs were eagles and other birds, flowers and animals.

CLUES: Reproductions of sgraffito designed redware were first made in the 1920s and '30s and are still being made. The repros don't show the proper signs of wear and surface crazing. Some have a maker's mark.

Slip-decorated pie plates rarely had a mark. However, the name of the pottery or the pottery worker was sometimes decorated on it in slip. For instance, David Spinner of Bucks County specialized in figures of soldiers, hunting scenes and fashionably gowned women, decorated in sgraffito and slip.

If a finely decorated pie plate is too perfect, be suspicious. They were used so much, they often have rim chips and loss of the slip design. Since they can be costly, check to see if they have been heavily restored. If you don't have an ultra-violet light, take an expert with you before you pay too much. Or, get a written statement from the seller saying if it is either a reproduction or has been restored, your money is refundable.

Remember, since the designs are always in the unsophisticated, folk art style, they can still turn up in garages and estate sales. Not everyone knows what their history or value is.

Rare redware figural of Adam and Eve.
(Photo: James Julia Auctions, Fairfield, ME.)


slip-decorated plate.



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