Blue India China.

Scribners monthly 4 (AUG), 1877

Editor of Scribner's Monthly.

DEAR SIR: The article in SCRIBNER'S MONTHLY for January, on "Blue China versus White," has induced me to make some jottings upon the same subject. The household to which I belong has eaten from the blue India china for sixty-seven years, the head of the family, now over ninety-two, having begun his married life with a set of this ware, which has been in daily use ever since. I think I may therefore be considered competent to give an opinion founded on experience. And, first, I will speak of its durability. When a friend was dining with me, and said how delighted she was to sce dishes like those familiar to her childhood, I remarked that this set had been in use over sixty years; " but," said she, "it must he like the Irishman's coat, not a piece of the original left." "On the contrary," I replied, "though the smaller-sized plates and teacups have been often renewed, yet the great body of the dinner set is the same."

In all these years, it has not been stationary in one china closet; bought in Boston, it traveled first to New Hampshire, then back to Massachusetts, then to Maine, and thirty-five years ago to the neighborhood of Boston again. One reason for the durability of this ware is found in the fact that it is subjected to a very high temperature in firing (a degree of heat at which iron melts), so that the dishes are placed in the furnace not on the usual iron tripod but on beds of sand; this adhering to the base of every piece causes the roughness so perceptible, and makes the bottom of an India plate the knife-sharpener of the old-fashioned carver. It is only blue that can stand the furnace en grand feu, and it is painted directly on the biscuit, the glaze being made over it, so that the color never changes or wears off. The reader will readily see why this ware bears, without breaking, boiling water and the overheating that Biddy will subject the dinner dishes to. It was a former custom for Thanksgiving and Christmas pies to be baked on Canton china, so well assured was its owner that it would stand the heat of a common oven; but that was before the Irish reign.

In the earlier importations of India china, covered vegetable-dishes were unknown,—like handles to tea-cups, they are an English innovation; small, oblong, six-sided platten, and flat bowls with deep scollops were then used for that purpose, the only covered articles being the two large soup-tureens and their four children (exactly alike, except in size), which were used for sauces and gravies.

I cannot agree with the writer in the January number, when he says that the china produced today does not, so far as he can see, differ in the least from that which was made fifty or a hundred years ago. It is quite evident he has not used it for over half a century! When, by chance, a piece imported within the last twenty years comes into my hand, I can tell, without looking, that it is new. To a china-collector, the evidence of touch in distinguishing the old from the modern ware is greater than that of sight. Since the Chinese rebellion and the breaking up of so many of the ancient potteries, the ware has greatly changed; it is far heavier, rougher to the touch, and less delicate in decoration, and the employment of European colors has given us instead of the deep rich blue, a pale, faded hue, far inferior in beauty to the old.

Yet, notwithstanding this deterioration and the high price of India or Canton china, I believe it is still the most economical set a young housekeeper could purchase, as it bears overheating, a great deal of hard usage, and never changes color or shows the scratch of a knife.

Dealers in old articles, like Quigly and Sullivan, in Boston, always have it on hand, where one can generally find the genuine ware of fifty years ago, and Briggs annually imports it for his customers. I differ with the writer in SCRIBNER who thinks that there are tons of it stored in garrets and cellars near Boston. In the ancient town where I live, every one who has a set uses it and eagerly watches the breaking up of old families to replenish the stock if any is offered at auction, thus obtaining a better article at far less cost; for, if an old dish is neither cracked nor broken, it is far better than any Briggs can offer.

In 1850, there appeared in "Littell's Living Age," "The Story of a common China Plate." No credit was given to the magazine from which it was reprinted, though it was evidently written or translated, and probably published, in England. I have no doubt that the story is essentially Chinese, as in many different styles of blue India plates that I have collected, scenes of this story are depicted; that the whole is ever told on one plate, as in the Liverpool ware, called the "willow pattern," I am inclined to doubt; because, after diligent search for several years, I have been unable to find one.

In my series of these plates, covering a period of one hundred and fifty years, the earliest ones, known by the ancient six-sided form, have very elaborate scroll and butterfly borders, with the mandarin's palace near the water, its walled-in garden, a flock of swallows overhead, but neither bridge nor lovers. The next form shows, by six rounded notches, the gradual transformation of the angular plate to a circle; Koong See and Chang arc seated on a highly ornamented rock in the garden, while over them wave the fanlike leaves of the gink-otree; the peach-tree is in full bearing; the gardener's wife approaching in a large boat warns the lovers to fly.

My set of forty pieces is of a soft peculiar blue on a bluish-white ground; the decoration is rude but effective, and the figures are three inches high on the plates. I have never seen any of this pattern out of Philadelphia, where, in the breaking up of old families, a few pieces can occasionally be bought at auction. The china and the forms of the dishes are the canonical India, and I think the ware must have been brought direct to Philadelphia from some port in the China seas, in the latter part of the last century. (I should be glad to receive any further information about this old china.)

On the next plate in the series, still with six notches, Koong See is crossing the bridge with her parasol, watching a little boat containing her lover's message. On later plates the flock of swallows eventually change to the emblematic doves, and three small figures appear crossing the bridge.

The Canton china made during this century has neither doves nor figures; it is the survival in its barest outlines of the story which was crystallized on the Liverpool ware by the art of printing on clay.

Soon after the middle of the last century, several eminent potters experimented with this new idea of printing on earthenware, and the honor of bringing it first to notice is a subject of dispute. That the first printing was done in black all the early specimens attest; it is generally believed that Thomas Turner, at his potteries in Caughley, in Shropshire, England, invented the beautiful dark blue, and, in 1780, completed the first blue printed table service made in England.

I have a blue dish, English shape, with the Caughley mark printed with classical designs in a lovely blue, probably among the early efforts of Turner. The blue printed ware immediately came into favor, and many potteries were established for its manufacture in Liverpool, where, as early as 1756, Sadler & Green had begun to print earthen-ware tiles, and brought the art into notice.

The "willow pattern" soon became a favorite, and is, as far as I know, the only one of the old styles that obtained a permanent hold in public esteem,—probably from the fact that it is a poor imitation of a higher-priced article.

Thirty or forty years ago its place had been usurped in the American market by the Liverpool ware with printed views of the scenery of our country, and when the story of the "willow pattern plate" was published here, it was very difficult to obtain a plate of it in the neighborhood of Boston, as the older sets had descended to the kitchen and long before been consigned to the dust-heap. I understood at the time that it was still largely made and used in England, and during the centennial year it was imported in considerable quantities. The old ware may be recognized by its bright deep blue, and by the bottom of the plate, which is of a rounded form without a rim to stand on; the modern is a pale, washed-out, ugly blue, and the pattern mechanically exact as is the fashion of the day in English ware.

Very truly yours,
Isabella James.

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