Visitors to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia find an interesting exhibit on ceramics offering a step-by-step history spanning the earliest Asian pieces to modern examples. The museum exhibit explains that transfer printing as a decorative technique was developed in England in the mid-1750s, particularly in the Staffordshire region. The process began when a flat copper plate was engraved with a desired pattern in much the same way as the plates used to make paper engravings were produced.
Once the plate was inked with a ceramic coloring, the design was impressed on a thin sheet of tissue paper. This inked impression was then transferred onto the surface of the ceramic object, as shown in the photo above courtesy of Nancy's Daily Dish blog.
After it was inked, the object made its way into a low-temperature kiln to fix the pattern. The printing could be done either under or over the glaze on a ceramic piece, but since the ink tended to wear off on overprinted pieces, the underprinting method became more popular going forward.
When examining a transferware decorative object, you can distinguish it by the fine lines produced through the engraving process that originates on the copper plate. If you’ve ever seen an old book filled with engraved images, it’s much the same look only on a plate, tureen, or other ceramic object, instead of a piece of paper.
A Little More Transferware History
Transfer printing actually came about when English consumers called for an affordable alternative to the hand-painted utilitarian wares popular with local gentry. Before transfer printing was developed, each piece in a set of dinnerware would be hand decorated, which was a laborious and costly process when intricate patterns were desired. These were available only to society's upper crust due to the expense.
Some of the earliest transferware patterns were done in blue and white with an Asian influence. Chinese blue was popular in the mid-1700s, as was the Blue Willow pattern. In fact, Mount Vernon visitors can view a piece of hand painted Blue Willow ceramic ware once used in President George Washington’s home. Once the mass production of transfer printing came about, middle-class families could enjoy pretty dinnerware similar to that found in the homes of the aristocracy, but at a much more affordable price.
The firms manufacturing these wares included Ridgway, Johnson Brothers, Spode, and Wedgwood along with many others. When Josiah Wedgwood began using the transferware process, it was to add interest to his familiar ivory Creamware.
Collecting Transferware Today
Most transferware patterns sought by collectors today are two-tone in color. Blue and white, red and white, and brown and white are the most common colors. Sometimes transfer printed designs were enhanced with translucent hand-painted enamel over the printed patterns to add even more interest.
While collectors don’t find many of the valuable English pieces made from the 1700s through the late 1800s offered for sale in antique shops now, one will happen to crop up occasionally. What buyers do readily find in most areas are pieces made during the 20th century. While they’re not as valuable as the true antique versions, they can be just as pretty.
For instance, take the souvenir plates made with the transferware process. Widely sold in tourist areas, these plates can be found featuring everything from early-1900s views of Portland, Oregon to the Texas Centennial Celebration held in Dallas in the mid-1930s. Many turkey platters were also made with transfer designs.
Of course, there are complete transferware dinnerware sets available from the same time period if you’d prefer to go the traditional route. Some companies, Johnson Brothers being a popular name, are still making dish sets in these styles available today in department stores and specialty shops.
All in all, the technique and the colors are truly timeless making transferware a classic that is appreciated today just as much as it was in the 18th century.