Friday, January 14, 2011

The Ironstone of Darlington

Some of Reggie's readers may think that he only dines on the finest of antique china, eating his meals and drinking his tea from fragile porcelain vessels decorated with whisps of gilding and hand-painted flowers.  If so, then Reggie plans on giving you a bit of a jolt, since that isn't true.  Well, not mostly.  While one does have rather a lot of good porcelain and creamware, and one routinely sets one's tables with it, there is a more quotidian side to Reggie's dishes that gives him equal, if not at times greater, pleasure.

A typical 19th-century transfer label
found on English ironstone china

Today I share with you images of the platters, dishes, bowls, and serving pieces that we use in our kitchen and at our casually set tables, and which are the workhorses of the back-of-the-house activities that support the more refined requirements of the front of the house at Darlington.

A pile of medium and small ironstone platters

They are made of what is known as ironstone, a type of stoneware china that was introduced in England in the early nineteenth century by potters looking for a substitute for porcelain that could be mass-produced and sold to a broad market.  Dense and hard, glazed ironstone china was first patented in 1813 by Charles James Mason in Staffordshire, England.  It was an improved china that was harder than the earthenware offerings available at the time and stronger than more costly porcelains.  Durable and affordable, ironstone wares decorated with colorful patterns were an immediate success in England.

Two footed shallow ironstone bowls

By the 1840s, undecorated—or white—ironstone china, was being mass-produced in England for export to Europe, Australia, and North America, where it remained popular in middle-class households for the next seventy years.  Until the late nineteenth century most dinnerware in the United States was imported.  After the Civil War dinnerware, including ironstone, was increasingly manufactured in America.  Residential use of ironstone fell out of favor in this country in the early twentieth century, when other lighter and more colorful alternatives arrived on the market.  Ironstone remains popular to this day for institutional and hospitality use, although it peaked there in the 1960s.

A large ironstone punch bowl

Originally given such names as graniteware, stoneware, pearl china, or feldspar china, the china I am referring to is now all categorized as "ironstone."

A stack of small ironstone soap dishes

English manufacturers of ironstone frequently marked their wares with transfer-print labels, often incorporating the royal coat of arms:

Most American-made ironstone is unmarked, but some manufacturers first used marks that resembled the British royal arms in an attempt to promote their wares, later transitioning them to the use of the American eagle as customers became more confident in purchasing American-made ironstone:

We have collected ironstone for as long as we have owned Darlington House, and we have amassed a rather large inventory of it.  We use it daily in our kitchen, mostly while preparing food and often for serving.  We have dozens of platters, from very large to tiny ones; we have footed compotes and serving dishes; we have bowls; we have jugs; and we have more.  We enjoy using our ironstone—I like the heft and hand of it, and I like the way it looks: honest and straightforward, true.  There's nothing fancy about it.

An early octagonal ironstone platter 
with a useful deep well

White ironstone patterns fall into distinct periods.  The earliest—called gothic or primary—date from the 1830s and 1840s and frequently includes paneled hexagonal or octagonal shapes.  More rounded forms emerged in the 1850s and 1860s, when exports to this country really took off, and huge quantities of it were sold to the American middle classes and in this country's farmlands where it was called "thrasher's ware," since much of it was decorated with harvest patterns of relief-molded sheaves of wheat and fruits and berries.

A stack of early rectangular ironstone platters

After 1860, bulbous, highly ornamented designs were introduced that combined ribs with leaves and flowers, and from 1880 onwards ironstone reverted to plainer forms—often unadorned except for handles or finials.  Most of the American-made ironstone dates from this period and has simpler shapes than found on English imports.

An ironstone sauce jug sitting
on a small oval stand or dish

Almost all of the ironstone we own at Darlington House was made for residential use and dates from after the Civil War through around 1910.  I don't really care for the more bulbous and ornamented earlier designs, which can look rather ungainly and fussified to me.

A footed ironstone soup tureen

Collecting white ironstone came to widespread popularity in America in the 1970s, and Reggie remembers many a photograph in shelter magazines of the time showing stripped pine Welsh dressers filled with it in the type of country interiors popularized by Mary Emmerling.  In the 1980s Perry Wolfman filled her marvelous store, Wolfman-Gold and Good Company, in Soho in New York City with it, and Reggie remembers spending delighted hours there enjoying seeing it in mass quantities, beautifully displayed.  Ironstone enjoyed another round of popularity in the 1990s, courtesy of Martha Stewart.  It has remained a popular and utilitarian collectible ever since.

A stack of very large ironstone platters
that we use for lobster boils at Darlington

Using ironstone is quite safe, as its glazes do not contain lead or other harmful elements.  It is not recommended that one put ironstone in the dishwasher, though, as the high heat and soaps used in such machines can damage it.  Discoloration can be removed or reduced by soaking ironstone in a bath of hydrogen peroxide for several days.  Contrary to what you might have heard, one should never use stonger chemicals on it—such as chlorine bleach—which can harm it.

An assortment of ironstone vessels

Even though prices for good, clean pieces of antique ironstone have risen since Reggie first began collecting it over a decade ago, it is still possible to score pieces of ironstone for between twenty and fifty dollars.  Reggie has even had good luck finding odd pieces of it in junk shops and at yard sales, too.  But finding ironstone in such places is increasingly rare, and it is more likely that one will come across it at dealers asking seventy-five dollars to two hundred dollars per piece, sometimes more.

A stack of footed ironstone stands

Reggie enjoys owning and using his ironstone, both in the kitchen and at the casual table.  If you do not yet own any of it, Dear Reader, Reggie encourages you to keep an eye out for it and buy it when you come across it at a good price.  You needn't live in a traditional interior such as Darlington House to enjoy using ironstone, either, as the plainer pieces that Reggie likes are suited for use in modern, clean-lined interiors, too.

An early ironstone soap dish in
our flower-arranging room at Darlington

Tell me, do you own and use ironstone in your house?

For additional information regarding ironstone, Reggie recommends consulting the excellent website of the White Iron Stone Association and the "potteries" sections of the website of the city of  Stoke-On-Trent, England, both of which were invaluable resources to him when researching this essay.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. LOVE!!! Nothing better!

    I also love the string dispensers.........David Hicks kept them all over his garden. He would go out and inspect......and would always find a branch or something....that needed tying up. I am going to collect them....and place them all over the place. By the time I get back to the ADD will have totally helped me forget the branch that would just make such a difference! if it were just tied to the trellis!

    Brilliant.......thank you!


  2. Very beautiful, well-lighted image-making, the soaps especially.

  3. Thank you, yet again, Reggie for educating me on something I didn't know existed. You have an admirable collection. I'm off to do some follow up research on the topic!


  4. I do love ironstone. The plainness, the heft, the solidity.

  5. Dear friends have a collection of ironstone which I admire. I think it has a rather handsome utilitarian look. Wonderful photos.

  6. Reggie, I am a huge fan of English ironstone. Having grown up in the colonies, I remember Grandmother and countless Great Aunts all using it, and sculleries and pantrys were full of the stuff. I also use it for casual dining having a lot of Broadhurst's Agincourt pattern, (lots of little cobalt blue fleur de lys on a white background). You have an amazing selection!

  7. Agreed with Penelope. Brilliant post. Wonderful information. And those photos! Boy ups his game at every turn. To say nothing of the, "Graceful silver ladle? What graceful silver ladle? Oh, that old thing?" Now I only want to know, where is the SHOP button so that I could order a few Reggie-certified pieces? Huh?

  8. My grandmother and aunt amassed a huge collection of ironstone in the 1970s, as you described. I ended up with a tureen, a cake stand, and a platter, but I would love to have the dishware for 12, too. I'm sure there are additional platters and serving pieces,too, so I will be snooping around in my parents' basement storage on my next visit. Your collection is wonderful; I especially admire the footed bowls.

  9. I love my ironstone. Most of it is packed away right now, save the soap slab by the kitchen sink and three punch bowls in a glass-front cabinet in the kitchen.

    You're absolutely right about never using chlorine bleach. It actually seeps in under the glaze, turns to crystal, and will push the glaze off the piece. Hydrogen peroxide takes a long time but works fine. Peroxide of the strength used by beauticians is a bit faster.

    Reggie, have you ever seen any old Wedgwood ironstone with blue coral, sea weed or sea shell decoration? I have a small platter, the back is marked Wedgwood and Neptune, and I've never found another piece of it anywhere. Just wondering if you or any of your readers have any info.

  10. PB: Thank you for your appreciation. I had not thought of keeping string dispensers out of doors, but we do have them in our garden house, where they are easily accessible. But them Reggie's grounds are not as extensive as Mr. Hicks' were -- by a long shot!

  11. I ADORE ironstone!! My sister had a spectacular collection including many pitchers, tureens and serving pieces that she sold since she didn't have room in her apartment - I now so regret not having taken it off her hands. My mother-in-law also had a fabulous collection as well that now resides with my father-in -law, who regularly puts it in the dishwasher with seemingly no repercussions.

  12. I've had a long love affair with white ironstone. I love the elegant simplicity. Wonderful collection, Reggie.

  13. Dear Reggie the ironstone is beautiful, solid yet elegant. You have marvelous taste xx

  14. While converting an old New England inn into their home in the early 60s, my in-laws unearthed a huge pile of ironstone in the basement and even underneath the house.

    Gorgeous stuff and wears like, well, iron!

  15. This was a most enjoyable post. Thank you. While I do not have ironstone, I have an extensive collection of white restaurant ware, bestowed upon me when a dear friend moved across country. These, too, are real day-to-day work horses. That silver ladle is beautiful!

  16. "Reggie, have you ever seen any old Wedgwood ironstone with blue coral, sea weed or sea shell decoration? I have a small platter, the back is marked Wedgwood and Neptune, and I've never found another piece of it anywhere. Just wondering if you or any of your readers have any info." is usually an excellent source. If this link below is your pattern, you may email them to register your interest in their finding more for you since they only appear to have one dinner plate on hand.

    If this isn't your pattern, then re-set the search terms, and go through until you find your pattern:

  17. I grew up in a house with ironstone and have always loved it. Thanks for the thorough background information - now I appreciate it all the more! ...Mark

  18. I don't have ironstone, but like you despite a huge collection of antique porcelain, I use plain white china (from ikea of all places) for my daily use. Weekends or for guests I tend to 'splurge' for myself and use fine china.

  19. Reggie what a wonderful post. Thank you. Please tell Boy that his photographs are beautiful.

  20. Excellent post! I adore the image with the pieces of ivory-handled knives.

  21. I have only a couple of pieces of ironstone: a platter from my grandmother, and a small dish my late wife got from her college as a memento when they finally retired theirs. As always, that was a wonderfully informative post, naturaly with beautiful pictures to boot.
    Best -
    - Mike

  22. Flo, thank you, that IS it. I don't know why I never thought of checking Replacements.

  23. I do not have any ironstone, but I do have a terrific service for 24 that mimics ironstone, (that I use rather than rent) that I found at Ikea. Your photos are wonderful!

  24. Ironstone is something I have collected over the years, and I do love it. I still find it here and there and when I do it's a very good day. Happy hunting everyone.

  25. Oh Reggie...a post after my own heart. I've had an ironstone addiction for quite a while now...most of it has been packed away for the last four years and I miss it! I've bought a few bits here and there recently because I couldn't stand not having it around. The few pieces I have I use almost daily, especially when I cook.
    Your punchbowl is wonderful...very envious of that one, and the way you have all of your pieces stacked around is just the way I love to see them...they look so beautiful grouped together like that.

    Thank you for the tutorial...and the word "fussified"...I love it! I have to confess, I adore some of the very early 'fussy' versions...I find them pretty.
    One thing more, your kitchen and garden room look very worth seeing more of, the little peeks were such a tease!
    xo J~

  26. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Yes, indeed I do own and use ironstone in my household. My meager collection is nothing compared to yours however (absolutely
    loved viewing the gorgeous pictures Boy took).

    The pieces I seem to have acquired are more decorative in nature(hefty pudding molds and a majestic ham stand,for example). I'm also
    currently using a vegetable tureen as a vessel to house six deep-purple
    hyacinths that I'm forcing into bloom. I'd love to round off my collection with some practical pieces such as platters (I use Apilco classic rectangular porcelain ones in my kitchen).

    My favorite ironstone shopping story is the one where for a moment I owned a beautiful Meakin bowl that I'd just purchased from an antiques shop. Then, I experienced
    a "Brideshead Revisited" moment. All I could think, of as I excitedly exited the shop holding the bag my bowl had been packaged in, was Anthony Blanche's words "full of rainbow light for a second and then – "phut! –
    vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing." The bag had slipped through my fingers and landed on the concrete
    sidewalk in front of me. You can imagine what greeted me next.

  27. I love this post. My grandparents used this everyday too. Alas when I gad a chance to take it all I was too busy with thoughts of boys and moving to New England. Tsk!

  28. MT: I hope that your research leads you to the same place as it has Reggie, as he is sure you will enjoy using it as much as he does, once you find yourself the happy owner of some.

    David Toms: Your Agincourt sounds lovely, and the idea of it fills Reggie's head with sinful thoughts of covetousness, he admits.

    LPC: That was most amusing, indeed. I am always looking for the same button when I visit museums, where I am often frustrated that the prices for what is on view are not displayed. Most bothersome!

  29. Reggie, if you keep getting clicks from North Florida, it is I. This post is enchanting, I keep returning, my mind wanders, the tureen is absolutely exquisite, Boy makes luscious photographs, the stacks of platters make me limp with lust, we have a couple of big stacks of Pottery Barn's "Great White Dinnerplate" - it has a great slope, the wide rim flares up nicely as the old W-G&GC plates did from days past, 12" across, heavy.

  30. T&CM: Most definitely, get thee to thine parents' storage unit and retrieve what you can!

    David and Flo: Glad to see you've worked this out, and thank you both. Reggie is more than happy to have been the vehicle for such an exchange...

    Quintessence: It was only researching this piece that I learned dishwashers were considered unsafe, heretofore in ours it went!

    Patsy: That is one lucky set of in-laws, indeed!

    JW: Mixed in with what you saw here are some restaurant pieces, too.

    AD: Our "every day" at Darlington is white china from Reynaud, bought at Scully & Scully on Park Avenue. So versatile, and definitely "goes" with everything.

    P-D: That's Boy's favorite photo of the story, too.

    North of 25A: That's a lotta china!

    24 Corners: Thank you, all shall be seen in good time...

    Liza E: You have intrigued Reggie--what does a ham stand look like? We also have some Apilco in our kitchen cabinets, it's wonderful. I'm forcing hyacinths now, too, in amethyst forcing vases. Your story about the bowl made my stomach lurch. "Been there!" as they say...

  31. Dear Mr. Darling,

    I'll be happy to share a photo with you of my ham stand if you wish, but where do I send it to? Basically, a ham stand looks like a double-ended cake stand on a squat pedestal (is that a good visual?). Instead of flat plates on either end of the stand, there is more of a shallow bowl. One would sit one's leg of ham on one end and slice away as needed.

  32. Tabitha: I commiserate. There is much that my grandparents had that I wish were mine today. Ah, well.

    Flo: Thank you for visiting again, do come back often, I do so enjoy your comments. I, too, have some PB white china (cups and saucers) that I bought thirty (!) years ago and still use regularly.

    LizaE: I cannot picture your ham stand for the life of me. I would be most grateful if you would be so kind as to email it me. I can be reached at Thank you.

  33. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Please check your email box. There should be a couple of photographs for you of the ham stand that I hope you enjoy and give you a better understanding of what this is.

  34. I just recently purchased ironstone a 10 peice setting . It was made by J & G Meakin in 1891. It is the Virginia pattern in Teal color. Gorgeous !!!! I am soaking a butter dish now in the peroxide and after 4 days it is looking great !! I am so excited with these dishes


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