Celebrating Mostly White Antique Ironstone

We’ve been enamored with antique ironstone for as long as we can remember. We love it for its versatility, timeless design and simplicity. It’s also durable enough for everyday use. We often layer or mix our white ironstone with other pottery such as majolica, deruta or faiance to add variety and colour to our tabletops (see our banner image for an example). We’re celebrating mostly white ironstone within the confines of this post, but will also touch briefly on other 19th century variations.

Ironstone was developed in England in the early 19th century. Josiah Spode first manufactured a material he referred to as “stone china” around 1803, inspired by Asian porcelain techniques and designs. Elizabeth Collard, in her seminal book, Nineteenth-Century Pottery and Porcelain in Canada describes early ironstone as “a fine-grained, high-fired earthenware approximating porcelain”.

Spode Ironstone
Rare and Fine Antique English Spode Ironstone Kakiemon Warming Dish – Ist Dibs

Charles James Mason (Spode’s nephew) developed a slightly different material he called “ironstone china”. First patented in 1813 in Staffordshire, England, it was decorated with under-glaze transfer patterns. Early Spode and Mason ironstone is prized and can be found on sites like, 1st Dibs (see right).

When Mason’s patent expired there were many companies in England that sprang up focused on developing simpler, more durable wares for early North American settlers.

What is White Ironstone?
The White Ironstone China Association describes it as:

“a porous, glaze-covered earthenware, consisting of clay mixed with iron slag and feldspar, and a small amount of cobalt.”

White Patterns
By the 1840’s, undecorated, or white ironstone china, was being manufactured for export to the Americas.  This is the white ironstone china collected today. Plain ironstone wares were developed for agricultural communities and were called “thrashers’ ware”. Dinner, tea and chamber sets were embossed with wheat, prairie flowers and corn. These, and other variations, became popular patterns and were manufactured in huge quantities throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Tea Leaf
Anthony Shaw developed a white ironstone decorated with copper lustre exclusively for the North American market in 1856. It was known as “Tea Leaf” – the first of over 150 styles by dozens of English and American potters.

Antique Ironstone Tea Leaf in varying motifs

Decorative motifs range from lustre bands to “Ivy”, “Tea Leaf”, “Teaberry” and “Morning Glory”, to name only a few. For a free identification guide visit The Tea Leaf Club International website or click here.

Other Ironstone
Transferware is the transfer-decorated ironstone that was first patented by Mason.  Flow Blue is ironstone with a blue design, either a transfer pattern or hand painted brush stroke, that has been fired in an atmosphere containing volatile chlorides which has caused the design to blur or bleed.

Canadian Ironstone
According to the author Donald Webster, in his book Early Canadian Pottery, there was only one factory in Canada that produced ironstone of any note during the 19th century and that was St. Johns Stone Chinaware Company in St. Johns, Quebec.

In 1873 George Whitefield Farrar of the Burlington, Vermont, stoneware-making family, and owner of the Farrar Factory at St. Johns, set up a new factory to produce white ironstone in direct competition with the English factories. The factory also produced blue chinaware (colouring the clay itself) before moulding. Others were imitation Wedgwood ironstone with white applique on blue. These are difficult to find but are on view at the Canadian Museum of History. The plain white stoneware can still be found. Look for the St. Johns black under stamp mark shown in the following images:

Displaying Your Collection
The best way to display your ironstone is in a large cabinet but there is no right or wrong way to showcase a collection. It could look equally as nice on open shelves or in a corner cupboard. As we have said before, buy what you love and display it in a way that pleases you.

We have an old Empire-style mahogany cabinet in our shop and filled it with a selection of white and Tea Leaf ironstone to illustrate what we mean. The dark wood contrasts nicely with the white ironstone. We’re showing a variety of items but you could focus on a selection of tureens, pitchers, or tea pots. Or choose a selection of Tea Leaf, brown, red, green transfer or flow blue pieces in varying sizes. Aim for an overall balance that is varied and pleasing to the eye.

Dating your Ironstone
Most ironstone is marked on the base so its age can be easily determined by consulting an encyclopedia of pottery marks. We like the Encyclopedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks by Geoffrey A. Godden for early English-made ironstone. We’ve added links to help date your American pieces in our resources section. Some general points that Godden points out in his introduction might help with dating your British ironstone:

  • “England” was added to marks from 1891 (to comply with the American McKinnley Tariff Act);
  • “Made in England” signifies a 20th century dating;
  • the use of the word “Limited” after a firm’s title indicates a date after 1860 and was not generally used  before the 1880’s;
  • the words “Trade-Mark” after the Trade-Mark act of 1862 normally denote a date after 1875;
  • use of the word “Royal” suggests a date after the middle of the 19th century.

Finally, we encourage you to try adding antique ironstone to your china collection or to use it as accent pieces. It is surprisingly varied and versatile and will add a touch of our early history and charm to any home.

Online Resources
White Ironstone China Association – There are links to ironstone references, care and cleaning of ironstone
Tea Leaf International – Check out the free Tea Leaf Identification Guide
Flow Blue International Club – There are links to numerous articles and resources
The Transferware Collectors Club – Includes links to research, publications and directories

Sources for this post
* Nineteenth-Century Pottery and Porcelain in Canada, Second Edition, by Elizabeth Collard, Published by McGill-Queen’s, 1984
* Early Canadian Pottery, by Donald Webster, Published by McClelland and Stewart, 1971
* Encyclopedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks, by Geoffrey A. Godden, F.R.S.A.,  Published by Bonanza Books, 1964

Photo credits
* Rare and Fine Antique English Spode Ironstone Kakiemon Warming Dish – Ist Dibs
* St. Johns imitation Wedgwood and toiletry set – Canadian Museum of History

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