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Flow Blue ceramics, with softly flowing transfer-printed decorations on durable, white, earthenware bodies, were created by English potters
in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and were promptly introduced
to the world market. Flow Blue wares were particularly popular in the
American market by 1840 and continued to be produced in England into the
first quarter of the twentieth century.
This long English production flew in the face of critics such as N. Hudson Moore, who wrote in his 1903 edition of The Old China Book, "There
is a certain style of design known as 'flow blue,' which has nondescript
patterns, flowers, geometric designs, and which has nothing whatever of
beauty or interest to recommend it..."
Americans have never been ones to give critics too much of their attention. America's consumers adored the dark blue hazy patterns and purchased Flow
Blue by the barrelful. As the nineteenth century progressed, Flow Blue
found its way into a variety of households – beginning with the burgeoning
middle classes at its introduction and expanding until these wares were
available to nearly everyone by the late nineteenth century.
While England would always be the largest producer of Flow Blue, France, Germany, and Holland followed the English lead and produced their own
flowing wares. After 1875, American potters began serving up their own
renditions of Flow Blue to compete with English and European production.
Two of the best known American potteries producing flowing wares were
the Wheeling Pottery Company of Wheeling, West Virginia, and the Mercer
Pottery Company of Trenton, New Jersey.
Left: Three Hong Kong syrup pitchers by Charles Meigh, c. 1845. $500-800. Right: Melbourne covered soup tureen with ladle and undertray by W.H. Grindley & Company, c. 1900. $1200-$1500.
The term Flow Blue itself broadly describes predominantly hard, white-bodied earthenwares decorated with underglazed transfer printed designs. Once
applied, these designs were caused to bleed or "flow" into the
undecorated portions of the vessel. The addition of lime or chloride of
ammonia into the protective shell of the fire-clay sagger surrounding
the wares while firing the glaze produced the desired "flowing"
By 1840, English potters were producing an ever-expanding variety of dining services, tea sets, and household ceramics with earthenware bodies
as white as Chinese porcelain but much more durable and eminently suitable
for arduous overseas travel to foreign markets.
These tough, white ceramics were christened white wares, semi-porcelains, Spode's "Stone China" and Mason's acclaimed "Ironstone
China." These white wares were also considerably less expensive than
the Chinese export porcelains, making them very attractive to a growing
Victorian middle class by mid-century.
England's potters decorated the surfaces of these sturdy ceramics with striking, mass-produced patterns, quickly and inexpensively using transfer
printing processes perfected in the eighteenth century. The quality of
the blue printed wares was high. Large export markets opened or expanded
in North America, Europe, and India where consumers sought elegant, matched
sets of wares while avoiding the high costs and fragility of true porcelains.
Left: Willow matched sets of candlesticks by Doulton, c. 1891. $570-$630. Right: Acadia pitcher by one potters located in of several Hackwood Shelton and Hanley from 1827 to 1855. $715-790.
Among the transfer printed wares was the style which came to be known as "Flow Blue." The flowing effect, while originally sneered
at by British critics within the potting industry, but nevertheless attractive
and popular with overseas consumers, was also an aid to potters.
Spreading over the white surface of their wares, the color bleed hid a myriad of potting imperfections, from poorly joined seams on transfer
prints requiring several sections to bubbles in the body of the ware.
This was wonderful for manufacturers as the Victorian ideal of the "perfect
finish" was either great realistic detail and meticulous surface
finish or the concealment of the methods of production used to obtain
the finished result. Flow Blue enabled manufacturers to meet the ideal
with ease. In fact, some pieces were so heavily flown that the original
pattern was completely obscured. As underglazing techniques improved,
other colors were used to make flowing wares, including puce, mulberry
and sepia, but blue remained the most popular.
By the time Flow Blue was introduced, economic opportunities and standards of living were on the rise. The ranks of the Victorian middle class swelled,
a middle class intent on climbing the twin social and economic ladders
Acquiring wealth and conspicuous consumption were considered proof of a family's virtue and a measure of their success. Until a family had that
wealth, appearing well-to-do could make all the difference in Victorian
For the middle class, Flow Blue was a godsend, providing durable, moderately priced services much less expensive than porcelain or bone china, yet
tasteful and delicate enough to be used during formal dinners and teas.
Hosting these affairs was absolutely essential to rising in the Victorian
social rankings. After the middle of the nineteenth century, the dinner
party became one of the most reliable methods of drawing and impressing
a crowd. This endeavor was not undertaken lightly. Massive tomes were
written prescribing every detail. The dinnerwares on which to properly
serve the food took up many pages.
Here Flow Blue played its most significant role as a durable ware in a variety of forms offered at prices well within the range of the aspiring
middle class. By 1850 etiquette required large matching services with
a number of functionally specific pieces. Flow Blue was produced with
the color, the style, and the diversity of form recommended – at
a price the aspiring middle class host and hostess could afford.
Extremely important to a successful dinner party was an impressive service for proper meal presentation. All the etiquette books said so. Appearance
was paramount during those multi-course extravaganzas, and Flow Blue allowed
the aspiring family to present the appearance of elegance without the
In 1855 price lists show Flow Blue was still the highest priced of the transfer printed wares, but compared to fine porcelain and expensive china,
it was a bargain. As such, during the 1850s Flow Blue and other blue-and-white
English earthenwares were much more commonly found gracing middle class
tables than either porcelain or china.
During the course of the meal, Flow Blue wares would have been employed to serve up the main courses for the middle class families seeking to
impress but unable or unwilling to spring for French porcelains. For a
group of twelve, the courses for the dinner party could well run to ten
courses before dessert, coffee and walnuts. In the absence of the preferred
French porcelains, Flow Blue would be used for the soup, game and main
courses. Dining wares featuring a Chinese motif for the main course was
Gouchos covered vegetable
dish produced by an unidentified
Major pieces came and went from the table with each successive course, laden with soups, turtles, fish, lobsters, venison, or roast saddle of
mutton, a plethora of vegetables, side dishes, wines, and desserts to
delight even the most rosy-cheeked, overstuffed, walrus-mustachioed Victorian
The impact of the parading dinner wares themselves was transitory, however. Small ceramic wares littered the table and were not removed. These
helped enforce a positive lasting impression.To this end a
wide variety of butter pats, individual salts, salts, sugar bowls, and
cream and syrup pitcherswere produced in Flow Blue.
Dessert services were designed to finish that impressive dinner party with a flourish. The service itself, lavishly decorated with tasteful
flowers and fruits and made of the most expensive material a family could
afford, consisted generally of compotes with varying heights, at least
two cake plates and twelve dessert plates. Once again the display was
as important as the bright fruits, cakes, and candies served.
Eventually, food-laden dishes stopped coming and the formal dinner drew to a close. Ladies withdrew to the drawing room upstairs for coffee or
tea. Gentlemen then passed the port. As a gentleman never smoked in the
presence of a lady, this was the time when men so inclined would indulge.
Cigars were preferred, as these were considered symbols of status and manly wealth. Smoking wares in Flow Blue were produced to accommodate
this need as well. Only when the port and speech began to flow too freely
would the host suggest the gentlemen return to their ladies and wind down
Breakfast, tea and dessert also required their own special wares. During the first half of the nineteenth century breakfast sets had consisted
of twelve cups and saucers with larger teacups than would generally be
used for other occasions, a sugar dish, a milk pot, teapot, slop bowl
and breakfast plates.
Larger sets would include a coffee pot, butter boat, and cake plate. By the end of the nineteenth century, breakfast included fruit and a mush
– hot cereal of boiled grains. These required a fruit plate and mush
Afternoon tea began in the 1840s in England and soon extended to America. Tea services for five o'clock tea, a ritual in-and-of itself by the 1860s,
were comprised of a teapot, sugar bowl, creamer, cups and saucers, cup
plates, a waste bowl, plates, two cake plates, preserve plates, a butter
plate, a tray, hot-water urn, spoon holder, and occasionally a syrup or
molasses pitcher. Breakfasts and teas could be served on a rotating table
in the boudoir as well. With Flow Blue on the table reducing costs, who
knows, maybe a higher quality cup of tea could be served.
Another sign of a well-to-do family was the presence of a complete ceramic "chamber set" in every bed chamber, the latest advance in domestic
sanitation. All but the most destitute had a couple of chamber pots to
ward off nocturnal trips to the privy, as the pots were available in a
variety of English wares for low prices.
However, a full wash set in each bedroom was the height of gentility, including a matching basin and ewer, a soapdish, and a spongedish for
private bathing, a cup for brushing teeth, a slop pail and a chamber pot
with a cover to reduce disagreeable scents and spillage. Flow Blue wash
sets produced by Minton, Wedgwood and other firms of all sizes were available.
By midcentury, chamber sets in every bed chamber would become more common,
and these sets remained a staple of the earthenware trade.
To accommodate the new demand for tablewares of all sorts, manufacturers expanded their production capacities and distribution networks. By the
end of the nineteenth century this expansion would lead to a wide choice
of services for all occasions available at every socio-economic level.
Late nineteenth century Flow Blue reflects this trend, with wares exhibiting
a wide range of qualities produced by well-known and obscure manufacturers
from Britain, America and Europe.
Flow Blue and its patterns may be organized into three general periods of production: the Early Victorian period from circa 1835 to 1860, the
Middle Victorian period from the 1860s through the 1870s, and the Late
Victorian period from the 1880s through the early 1900s. The term "Victorian"
is used loosely, bearing in mid that the formidable English Queen Victoria
did not take the throne until 1837 and ended her reign in 1901.
Pattern designs and themes change recognizably through each period, with certain exceptions duringtransitional years. Generally speaking, in the
Early Victorian period oriental patterns based on imported Chinese porcelains
and romanticized scenic patterns were the norm. Through the Middle Victorian
period, floral patterns grew in popularity while Japanese motifs were
introduced to the Western public. By the Late Victorian period, Japanese,
Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau designs proliferated.
While Flow Blue patterns and themes changed frequently, there were basically two distinctive types of patterns. The most common pattern type features
a distinct central image and a separate border design. The amount of white
space left between the border and center design varies from pattern to
pattern and from one decade to another with changing aesthetics.
Border designs usually completely cover the rim of a plate or platter. Both the border and center designs conform to plates and platters best
and were adjusted to fit hollow forms. Small pieces such as butter pats
and cup plates generally received only a small portion of either the center
or border pattern for decoration.
Sheet patterns, on the other hand, have no separate centers or borders. A single pattern covers the entire object as if it had been covered with
a sheet of wallpaper. Sheet patterns came in two distinct varieties: floral
patterns and marble patterns. Floral patterns became popular in the 1860s
and continued to attract consumers on into the early twentieth century.
Evidence suggests that the popularity of Marble patterns was strong early in the nineteenth century. Middle class families hoping to climb the social
ladder would have liked to decorate their homes with real marble. Most,
however, settled for less costly gently flowing Marble patterns which
most often were found decorating chamber sets.
Often, identifying the manufacturer and the name of the pattern adorning a particular piece of Flow Blue is a simple matter of either turning the
plate over or the vase upside down. Transfer printed patterns such as
Flow Blue frequently included printed or impressed manufacturers' marks
on the bottoms of plates and the undersides of hollowares. Printed marks
were created as part of the overall transfer print and applied at the
Impressed marks were pressed into the unfired clay underside or base with a tool reminiscent of a branding iron. Whether printed or impressed,
these marks contained the firm's name, initials, symbol, and location
– or some combination of these. Often the pattern name is supplied
with the mark as well. These marks are one of the best and easiest guides
to identifying Flow Blue.
However, many small firms either saw no reason to use marks (as they had no name recognition value) or sometimes used marks which have never
been identified because of the short life-span and limited production
of the company. Also, be aware that a few firms printed the name of the
ceramic body or of that body's shape rather than the name of the pattern
on their marks. This may cause some confusion.
Take care when identifying patterns; there are occasions when a particular pattern name was used by a number of different potters to identify patterns
that were very different, one from another. There are at least three Madras
patterns and as many as five Osbourne patterns, produced by different
With a little study and some good luck, today's collector will be impressing visitors with a stunning collection of Flow Blue wares, just as the Victorian
did in an earlier age. Jeffrey B. Snyder is the author of four books on
Flow Blue ceramics: Flow Blue: A Collector's Guide to Pattern, History,
& Values (Revised 1996); Historic Flow Blue (1994); A
Pocket Guide to Flow Blue (1995); and Fascinating Flow Blue
(1997). These books are available through Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. (610)
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