The Ironstone Plates

I’m currently eating my breakfast toast off a plate that was made more than 175 years ago. How decadent! Was it expensive? Are you sure you should be doing that? Isn’t it delicate and easily broken?

Nope. I bought a set of 12 of these plates (with a few others thrown in) for £30. And they wouldn’t have lasted 175 years if they weren’t pretty solid! I dropped one yesterday (by accident…) onto a concrete floor. Totally fine — which is more than I can say for more modern casualties!

I love these plates because every day these small artefacts of history help me put the craziness of the modern world into context. I believe that by understanding a little bit about where an object comes from you can bring meaning, beauty and joy into the things you use every day.

The plates were made in Staffordshire in about 1845 by potters called Ridgway and Morley. They are made from a material called Ironstone China (basically a really strong earthenware pottery) and they are decorated with a pattern called Nankin Jar.

But that’s not why I think they’re interesting… let me try and put them into some historical context:

Inequality in the Victorian era

Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 in a period of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, global trade and rising inequality.

In the 1840s Britain was coming out of a period of recession where real-terms wages for workers had sunk compared to the price of living whilst factory owners and investors had got richer.

There was increasing social tension between the Bourgeoisie (the fast growing middle class — for whom these plates were made) and the Proletariat (the workers in the factory who made them). The level of social injustice was such that in 1847 London became the birthplace of Communism — Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto at pretty much exactly the time these plates were made.

Empire

In the 1840s Britain had the largest economy in the world and was dominant in global trade.

The East India Company was a massive force in the economy and (a bit like the banks in 2008) was seen by many in government as “too big to fail” because such a large proportion of the nation’s capital was invested in it. This increasingly led the government to step in and offer military and naval support to keep the Company growing.

A good example of this was the First Opium War between Britain and China, which ended at the time that these plates were made:

Britain’s growing middle class were clamouring to buy tea and the East India Company was a massive supplier. They bought their tea from China, but unusually there was nothing that the Chinese wanted to trade in return. So the Company flouted China’s ban on trading opium and flooded china with cheap drugs, for which there was a ready market.

When China objected and impounded the drugs, the British government sent navy gunships to back up the East India Company traders. The subsequent defeat of the Chinese Navy led to the Treaty of Nankin in 1842, which opened up China to British traders and ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain.

The interesting thing in the context of the plates is that the design on them is called Nankin Jar. For a middle class buyer in the mid 1840s Nankin would have been synonymous with British naval supremacy and global trade. Whilst “Nankin” was often used as a generic term to describe Chinese-style pottery, the pattern name would have carried a particular symbolic significance when these plates were made.

See it on Netflix

Did you enjoy all the pomp and ceremony of The Young Victoria on Netflix? It’s a great snapshot of the decadent lives of wealthy Britons in the 1840s.

Or to get a sense for the grimier end of Victorian Britain check out any TV dramatisation of Charles Dickens’ novels. Dickens was writing in the 1840s and was an outspoken critic of social inequality. Here’s a taster of what you could watch to see the “real” world that these plates came from…

Don’t forget, you could always read one of the actual books… or some of Dickens’ less well known journalism and essays.

Exodus

The 1840s marked a massive increase in emigration to the United States from Britain and Ireland as the poor left to escape social inequality.

In the 1840s more than 50% of US immigration was from Ireland, driven by the Irish Potato Famine. About 2 million people left Ireland, almost 25% of the population. About a million people died due to the British government’s “Laissez-Fair” response to the crisis.

As immigrants established themselves in America, often in far flung communities, many began to prosper. Durable household goods were imported on a large scale and Ironstone China like these plates was exported in large quantities from Britain.

Food and drink

Food and drink was a great way for middle class Victorians to show off their wealth and sophistication. Meals got bigger, heavier and more showy. Each new dish was served with fanfare rather than being presented all together as a buffet.

Three courses or more became common, with new forms of cutlery and crockery being introduced into everyday use to support this. Courses of soup, fish, meat, puddings and cheese all required separate (but matching) utensils.

My set of 12 plates come in two sizes — 6 dining plates for a gout-inducing meaty main course and 6 smaller “twifflers” to use for other courses.

To get into the full comedy detail check out Sue Perkins and food critic Giles Coren eating their way through a Victorian binge:

Technology

The world became a much smaller place in the 1840s with revolutions in transport and communication.

The 1840s was a period of “railway mania” in Britain. Pent-up middle class capital from international trade was looking for something sensible to invest in. The result was 6,000 miles of railways by 1850, most of which was not actually needed from any economic perspective and paid investors only small returns. Major manufacturing areas like the potteries in Staffordshire (where these plates were made) were already well connected by canals and sea routes.

But the opening up of the countryside with high speed transport forever changed perceptions of time and space. For the first time in 1840 The Great Western Railway synchronised railway clocks across the country to read Greenwich Mean time. Up until that point times were all calculated locally. This supported the invention of the first railway “time-table” from which all subsequent time-tables take their name.

Whilst Britain got smaller with the expansion of the railway network, the world got smaller and more connected with the invention of the Electric Telegraph, and with it Morse Code. Information that used to take days or weeks to get around the world now took hours or minutes. By 1850 the first “live texting” was possible between Britain and France via an undersea cable. By 1854 journalists were providing the British public with live coverage of the failure of the Crimean War.

Fashion and design — a mash-up

From fashion to furniture the Victorians were comfortable borrowing inspiration from every era and culture. They were not afraid of combining design languages as long as the end result created a “worldly” look of sophistication. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t!

The more “mass market” the item the less likely this mash up approach was to succeed. The growing middle class were not as discerning as you might think and were easily impressed by excessive decoration, frills and twiddly bits.

So whilst high end fashion and design was probably quite refined, the middle class versions often got a bit out of hand. There was also a bit of a time delay because styles were changing so rapidly at this point (because the rich were so rich) middle class style struggled to keep up.

The world of pottery decoration had already been taking the style mash-up to extremes for some time (more on this later). But happily in the case of these plates the result has been successful… or at least I think so — you might find it a bit much!

There are four distinct design styles mixed together here, all from different eras and cultures — can you spot them without looking below?

Here they are:

These plates in the timeline of pottery and porcelain

Up until the late 1700s the only way to get hold of fine, translucent, durable porcelain was to import it from China. As a result all fine “China” owned by the wealthy was decorated in the Chinese style and generally in “blue and white”. Purpose-built Chinese factories (whole regions in fact) churned out large volumes of wares intended specifically for export to Europe — another trade dominated in later years by the East India Company.

This meant that from a design perspective “Chinese” designs on pottery became shorthand for “this is good quality”. So when European manufacturers finally started to replicate porcelain their default position was to mimic the Chinese designs. Amazingly though it took several decades of manufacture before European makers were able to compete with Chinese imports of “blue and white” in terms of price.

This was one of the reasons why British manufacturers started to experiment with putting non-Chinese designs on their porcelain, to bring their customers something unique and responsive to changing fashions. But the Chinese pattern always persisted as a staple, and the growing middle class defaulted to it as a sign of quality.

Manufacturers were always pushing to bring something that looked like fine china to the mass market. To reduce costs and undercut imports there was innovation in manufacture and decoration techniques. As early as the 1760s transfer printing was used to speed up and increase the consistency of complex decoration that was previously painted by hand:

My plates are no exception. They are made from “Ironstone China”, a durable new material patented in 1813 by Charles James Mason to mimic and undercut the heavier types of Chinese dinner-ware imports. Mason’s innovation (earthenware made using ground Cornish stone and flint — not iron!) was quickly adapted and adopted by other manufacturers.

This led to an explosion in the manufacture of cheap, indestructible Chinese style dinner services and other pottery throughout the 19th century. Go to any antique centre or auction and you will probably find a piece of Ironstone China.

If you really want to geek out on this stuff and learn how to date it then check out Godden’s Guide to Mason’s China and the Ironstone Wares.

Here’s why I’ve written this

Antiques are getting cheap. Crazy cheap. Dirt cheap. These are objects that were hand made from quality materials by highly skilled craft-people over a hundred years ago. In the 1980s they were worth thousands of pounds, and now they’re worth hundreds.

Most of my friends don’t really get antiques. They go nuts for historical dramas on Netflix and spend hours in museums. They love social history and are interested in the evolution of culture and design.

But I think that if you’re interested in history then you should be interested in antiques. Because for very little money you can have a piece of real history in your home.

So what?

So this page is a bit of an experiment… What I’ve tried to do is give some cultural context to a 175 year old object that you could have in your home and use every day for a few pounds.

For me this context is what brings the object alive. I love that it prompts me to think every day about social and cultural history. If you can root the things you learn about history to something you see and use every day it makes them so much more real. And having this real history in your home has never been so cheap.

I want to bring antiques alive by putting them in context, and to help a wider audience to own and enjoy these little bits of history. This page is an experiment in how I might do that.

I’d love to hear what you think — Please do share your comments below.

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