Pearlware: Origins and Types (Part 1)

Terence A. Lockett

The term 'pearlware', surprisingly, is not an easy one to define. Whereas creamware and cream-coloured earthenware are names used at the time of manufacture by potters, the precise term 'pearlware' was not. 

Moreover, modern archaeologists, ceramic historians, collectors, curators and dealers, have come to use 'pearlware' very much as a catch-all term for what appears to be a wide variety of ceramics. I hope in this and a subsequent article to provide a series of explanations and definitions which may help to clarify the subject.

The first major difficulty concerns the origins of pearlware. The traditional view was that Josiah Wedgwood 'invented' or 'developed' the ware over a period of years and then marketed it in 1779. The authority for this is his own letters to his partner Thomas Bentley. The published versions of these contain much fascinating detail of his pursuit of 'a white Earthenware body, and a colourless or white opaque glaze, very proper for Tea & other wares.'1 The ware he eventually produced was basically a creamware body, though modified to make it whiter by the inclusion of china clay, and which was covered with a glaze containing some china stone, but most importantly a small quantity of cobalt which gave a bluish cast to the glaze. (Incidentally, the creamware glaze derived its colour from the iron oxide in the glaze.) It is this cobalt blue glaze over a whitish body which is regarded as the single most important diagnostic feature in identifying pearlware.

Wedgwood called his ware 'Pearl White'. The traditional view that he was the 'inventor' has been held for many years. In the 1980s it was challenged by George Miller2, who maintained that there was evidence that Staffordshire potters had been producing a ware which they called 'China Glaze' which pre-dated Wedgwood's 'Pearl White' by several years, and was in effect a pearlware. This approach was endorsed by myself3 and by Robin Reilly who more cautiously in his monumental two volume book Wedgwood writes of a creamware with a bluey glaze 'perhaps experimentally as early as 1774', moving on to a white body in 1779 (Wedgwood, Vol. II, p.325).

It is not necessary in a short article such as this to review all the evidence that has led to the conclusion that the potters' 'china glaze' and our modern term 'pearlware' refer to the same product. It is, however, worth noting that archaeological evidence from the United States has been especially helpful in establishing a chronology which supports the introduction of some quantities of pearlware by potters in Staffordshire, and possibly Liverpool, before the 1779 dateline for Wedgwood. At New Windsor cantonment, abandoned in 1783, 12% of the 155 sherds excavated were pearlware, and at Fort Watson, abandoned in 1781, 11% of the 624 sherds were pearlware4. These are significant totals for the dates in question, even in New York State, and do not appear to be of Wedgwood's Pearl White, but of 'china glaze' from other manufacturers.

Equally important is documentary evidence cited by Arlene Palmer Schwind5. She records that on 4th July 1780 Frederick Rhinelander, the New York china dealer, ordered from the Staffordshire potter Anthony Keeling a considerable quantity of 'fine large blue painted bowls for punch... etc'. In a subsequent order in October of the same year Rhinelander specified, 'All the blue painted Ware ordered above to be fine white (not cream coloured) painted we believe it is called pearl blue'. This is the earliest documentary reference so far found in American sources for pearlware. Evidence such as this does strengthen the case for the belief that other potters preceded Wedgwood in the production of a ware painted underglaze in blue and with a glaze which contained cobalt thus producing a whiter ware. This was intended to replace the well-established staple product - creamware. It would also bear a closer resemblance to and be cheaper to produce than either imported Chinese blue and white porcelain, or the comparable English porcelains.

It had been obvious for some years in the 1770s that English earthenware potters had attempted to produce in creamware, decoration that emulated blue and white porcelain. Such decoration was, of course, quite familiar in delftware, but as this relatively fragile body was increasingly being replaced for tableware by the more robust creamware, so the manufacturers sought to decorate the wares in the Oriental taste so fashionable in both delftware and porcelain. Wedgwood commented upon this in one of his letters datable to 17756, '...You will see a new sort of ware in London soon in Tea and Table ware. It is blue painted upon our cream color [sic] body & glazed with our common Glaze... You will see there is not a grain of taste employed - all is in the old Delft style, but it will have its admirers, though, I apprehend, we may safely pronounce they will not many of them be found (whilst this ware continues in its present state) among our present good customers...'

Wedgwood proved right in his assessment. For although painted underglaze blue decoration on creamware has its admirers still, in general the combination is not very satisfying aesthetically, and certainly it visually bears little resemblance to either Chinese or English blue and white porcelain. However, even as Wedgwood was writing the above it seems reasonable to assume that potters were experimenting with a more satisfactory solution. All that was necessary was to substitute cobalt oxide in the glaze in place of the iron oxide of the current creamware and the result would be underglaze blue painted pearlware. That these early examples were called 'china glaze' by the potters is confusing but understandable. The result was clearly felicitous.

'China glaze' wares, as perhaps we should call them - or the early pearlwares if this is still preferred - were predominantly decorated in underglaze blue with Oriental designs. One of these, the 'Chinese House' pattern, is by far and away the most popular and commonly found and must have remained in fashion for almost 25years - until the turn of the century at least . One may recognise it instantly despite its many variations by the layout of the pattern. This follows a regular sequence of 'tree-fence-house-fence-tree'. Other popular designs depict Chinese figures with parasols, and these are clearly based upon Chinese porcelain prototypes of the so-called Cornelius Pronk patterns.

This type of underglaze blue painted pearlware never really replaced creamware. The two existed side by side. The pearlware decoration was, as Wedgwood pointed out, somewhat out of kilter with current fashion. The neo-classical border patterns of Wedgwood and his contemporaries were immensely popular throughout the rest of the 18th century for tablewares of all kinds, but the china glazed pearlwares had their place. They were in the repertoire of almost every manufacturer in a very wide variety of vessels. Marked examples have been recorded from a considerable range of makers from Adams and Astbury through to Spode, Turner and Warburton 7. It should nevertheless be noted that the vast majority of such wares were not marked. Nor (except in a very few cases) is a comparison of painting styles or 'hands' particularly helpful in attribution.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of blue painted pearlware is that the decoration appears as fresh today as it did when first applied. The blue painting was done under the glaze on the fired biscuit ware, and the objects were then glazed, this sealed the designs permanently under the glaze and thus protected them from scratches, flaking and the general wear and tear associated with on-glaze enamel decoration. For the potter underglaze painting had the added commercial advantage that it was cheaper as it required only two firings, biscuit and 'glost', whereas the on-glaze enamel decoration, even such simple designs as Wedgwood's border patterns, would require three visits to the kiln.

It is a curious fact that although Wedgwood did produce a rather superior type of blue painted pearlware to that of his competitors he never produced much of it, as he once remarked, 'I cannot at present find it in my heart to relinquish my good old Creamcolor...'8 Thus marked Wedgwood pearlware is quite rare. Moreover, Josiah eschewed the Oriental influenced patterns and almost all extant pieces of his are decorated in an underglaze blue painted border pattern which has become known as the 'mared' pattern (I rather suspect that this is a misreading at some time for 'marine').

Mention of marine draws attention to what was ultimately the type of decoration which typified the routine staple pearlware of many potters. This is the ware correctly termed shell-edged. Again, this was an almost universal product of British potters, and was exported in vast quantities throughout the world from the 1780s right through to the late 19th century. The standard 'shell-edge' was invariably painted underglaze with a line of blue or green which covered the moulding at the edge of the plate or whatever (figure 6). Such wares were always termed simply 'edged' in potters' invoices and price lists. Next to plain undecorated creamware they were the cheapest items offered for sale and thus although very serviceable, tended to be purchased by consumers at the lower end of the income scale. They were cheap to make and cheap to buy. As time passed many variants of 'shell edge' developed, some with quite elaborately moulded borders. These wares are now becoming collectable, especially in America9.

In this first article I have concentrated upon the historical development of pearlware and indicated just the underglaze blue painted types of decoration. It is perhaps worth emphasising that I have tried to use the terms which the potters of the 18th century themselves used to describe their wares. We cannot abandon the word 'pearlware', but the original potters knew it as 'china glazed', and Wedgwood as 'Pearl White'. Wares decorated under the glaze in colours were known as 'painted', those with on glaze decoration were termed 'enamelled', and this is a distinction to which it is worth adhering.

In a subsequent article we can look at underglaze polychrome painted pearlwares, 'Pratt wares', transfer printed pearlware including the so-called 'Salopian' wares, and several other categories whose only uniting feature is that the glaze which they bear exhibits a bluish cast. As I indicated at the outset, it is not particularly easy to define pearlware, and I have not even touched upon the really difficult problem of deciding whether the piece you hold in your hand is actually pearlware - it might well be whiteware! But that will have to wait until Part II.


1. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley, 7th December 1776 (Wedgwood MS 25/18724).

2. See George L. Miller, 'The Origins of Josiah Wedgwood's Pearlware' in Northeast Historical Archaeology, Vol.16, 1987.

3. See T.A. Lockett, 'The Later Creamwares and Pearlwares' in the Northern Ceramic Society Fifth Exhibition, Catalogue, Creamware and Pearlware (City Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, 1986).

4. G.L. Miller, op. cit., citing Charles L. Fisher, 'The Ceramic Collections from Windsor, New York' in Historical Archaeology, No. 21 Pt. 1, 1987.

5. Quoted by Arlene Palmer Schwind in 'The Ceramic Imports of Frederick Rhinelander, New York Merchant' in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1984.

6. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley, undated but 1775 (No. 18579-25). Rodney Hampson kindly drew my attention to this extract. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston).

7. See op. cit. Creamware and Pearlware (1986) for illustrations of several examples.

8. Wedwood to Bentley, 14th February 1776. (Quoted in Lady K.E. Farrer, The Letters of Josiah Wedgwood, Vol. II p. 268, 1903, reprinted 1973). Although the comment was made in 1776 this continued to be Josiah's attitude to creamware and to 'the brat' which was finally christened 'Pearl White' sometime before 19th June 1779 (See A. Finer & G. Savage, The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood, 1965, for the text of this and other letters relating to Pearl White).

9. See George L. Miller and Robert R. Hunter, 'English Shell-Edged Earthenware' in Proceedings of the 35th Wedgwood International Seminar, 1990.




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