An Introduction to Flow Blue

Vivid Cobalt on White Dinnerware and Decorative Antiques

A Variety of Flow Blue Pieces in Different Patterns
A Variety of Flow Blue Plates in Different Patterns. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

This type of blue and white ware was first made in England in the 1820s and remained popular through the rest of the century. Most early pieces were made using an earthenware base, but porcelain pieces can also be found with flow blue coloring dating from the late 1800s into the start of the 20th century.

In a detailed article on the Flow Blue International Collectors Club website, collector George Wells shares in detail regarding the chemical reactions that took place to produce this type of ware. In a nutshell, it was an intentional process derived as a way to use less cobalt oxide (an expensive component) and still achieve the captivating blue coloring that was so popular, especially with consumers in the United States. Without adding what Wells references as “flow powders” to the composition, with salt being one of the earliest used to induce the “flown” look, the cobalt coloring essentially stayed in place and appeared black.

The result is a vividly colored ware where the blue can be described as smeared, hazy, and even blurred in comparison to traditional transferware with its neat lines and uniform colors. In some instances, you can see the inky black lines that did not blur as well as the maker would have probably liked. In other examples, the cobalt smeared so much that the background looks light blue rather than white.

The designs on these pieces included something for every taste. Kovels’ notes that motifs incorporated include Asian designs, varied floral patterns, romantic landscapes, and events of a historical nature. Even wonderfully large turkey platters were made using this method, along with the familiar Blue Willow design. In fact, it is estimated that more than 1,500 different patterns were made.

Styles can sometimes help date these wares as well. Early pieces were generally made of ironstone and many have all-over designs with Asian influence. Those made in the mid-1800s can be fancier with scallops in the patterns and gilt trimming. Frilly flower décor and scenes with natural elements were also popular during that time. Moving toward 1900 and beyond, the pieces were less heavy in nature being made of porcelain, and more white showed in the Art Nouveau influenced patterns. Embossing and beaded edges were also popular as the popularity of flow blue began to wane, according to information provided online by Barbara Nicholson Bell.

Objects made in this manner include tea sets and complete dinnerware services. Other objects like chamber pots, decorative vases, and garden items have been found as well.

Makers of Flow Blue

Staffordshire, England was the hub for production and many different companies made their versions of flow blue there. The marks of the manufacturers can usually be found stamped on the bottoms of these wares. Some notable marks include Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Minton, and Johnson Brothers, and these products were largely imported into the United States. It was also made in Germany and Holland.

Later production of flow blue took place on American soil, especially after the turn of the 20th century, with Wheeling and Mercer being two names you may run across.

More Resources for Learning About Flow Blue

Organizations for collectors are often the best resources for garnering serious learning on topics of interest when it comes to antiques and collectibles. The members of those groups are serious about ferreting out accurate information and looking for new historical references to confirm or deny suppositions that may have been included in past educational materials prior to so much research data being available in digital formats. If you’re interested in learning more about flow blue, consider tapping the resources provided by the Flow Blue International Collectors’ Club at flowblue.org.  

The group offers a number of low cost educational resources you can purchase through their website including books and booklets detailing patterns and manufacturers. You can also join the organization to be kept in the loop about their annual conventions and receive their publication.