Little child-sized and toy dishes were made in abundance in England’s Staffordshire district potteries, especially throughout the 19th century. Staffordshire, which is a district of six towns on the western edge of England near Wales, was well suited to the pottery industry because of the ready availability of clay, salt, lead, and coal. As with Thuringia (Germany) being a center of toymaking before the advent of the china dolls made there, Staffordshire made pottery before the advent of porcelain. It was a center for pottery production since the early 17th century, noted for reddish brown wares. In 1720, potter John Astbury discovered that adding heated flint to the clay produced a more desirable lighter clay known as creamware. Soon after this discovery, beautiful English made pottery began to grace the tables of well-to-do families in England and America. Of course, modifications to the pottery continued to improve and add variations from soft paste or semi-porcelain, to ironstone and fine bone china.
Thanks to the Children
Children’s and toy dishes were made alongside those created for adults. The play dishes, then as now, were a whimsy that delighted adults as well as children. Dinner and tea sets were charming gifts for children from parents, grandparents, and adoring aunts and uncles. And so, we can thank these wealthy and merchant class children for the little dishes that have been cherished, and those that have made it through well preserved (or not), and passed down through time to become available to us, as admirers and collectors in our time.
The poor children, though, deserve just as much, if not more, thanks for our little whimsies. Poor children have always had to work just as soon as their parents could find employment for them, and the Staffordshire potteries did offer employment for many children throughout the 19th century. Children as young as five or six years could fetch, carry, prepare raw materials, and provide power for the few machines that potters used. Many children at age eight to ten were working 72 hour weeks to the detriment of their health and education. At age 14, most children working in potteries became apprenticed to a particular trade-thrower, presser, transferer, or paintress. In 1840 Parliamentary inquiries were made into the state of children employed in mines and factories, leading to child labor laws.
To Teach, to Play, to Cherish
With so much to teach the young ones in the way of ettiquette, it was inevitable for child sized and toy tea and dinner sets to become more readily available. Children learned rituals and manners by having dinner or tea parties with their peers or by serving their dolls.
The 1860’s marked the start of mass production of toy dishes. After this time, parents could be more generous with their children with gift giving. An 1890 Butler Brothers catalog is evidence that there were toy sets available for the taste and means of every family. Children’s tea sets were available in price from five cents to five dollars. By studying the quality of sets we find today, we can guess which ones were at which end of this spectrum!
Transferware became the decoration of choice for English pottery after its development in the second half of the 18th century. Early designs were based on Chinese designs, called Chinoiserie. Early transferware was blue because only underglaze cobalt blue could withstand the heat of the glost ovens. Lead oxide gave wares the characteristic depth of color that made them so successful.
By 1800 some English scenes became available as transfer designs. After the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, there was a trade boom and European scenes and subjects were in vogue. Pieces made for export to America were often very dark blue, and some had patriotic subjects.
Later developments allowed for other monochrome colors in transferware such as green, mild red known as puce, mulberry, black, and sepia or brown. Polychrome designs were made by adding painted colors over a transfer design.
For Your Pleasure and Continued Education
Staffordshire has been home to well known potteries such as Wedgwood, Copeland, and Ridgway, as well as to hundreds of small firms that have come and gone through the years. The variety and patterns available for antique toy Staffordshire dishes are too numerous to document–more are being discovered now, and several that I have shown you here are not in the reference books. The best reference books with color illustrations are Doris Lecher’s English Toy China, and Lorraine Punchard’s Playtime Pottery and Porcelain. Find them new and/or used from BN.com.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I do not find toy Staffordshire at my local antique shops and sales. Luckily, it is fairly available on eBay and Ruby Lane, if one is not too discerning in searching for particular patterns and colors. When you are ready to shop for your own toy Staffordshire dishes, I highly recommend Nancy Barrister’s Ruby Lane shop, “Childhood Antiques.” She offers a good selection of antique children’s tea and dinner sets. Additionally, if your budget can only handle single pieces rather than sets, she has a good revolving selection on eBay at nbarrister. Nancy is a friendy and accomodating seller who provides professional packing for your treasures.
For a broader view of the scope of English toy china dishes, an observation of how they changed over the years, and more information on the makers of these pottery whimsies and their marks, I highly recommend two books:
- English Toy China by Doris Anderson Lechler. 1989; Antique Publications, Marietta, Ohio.
- Playtime Pottery & Porcelain from the United Kingdom & the United States by Lorraine Punchard. 1996; Schiffer Publishing Ltd, Atglen, PA.
Now that you are well on your way to appreciating Staffordshire children’s dishes, please come to tea and tell me about your observations and finds!