Rhapsody in Flow Blue: the History of a Plate

Whenever we at CAP come across an interesting artifact, it sparks the inevitable, if inelegant question, “what was this thing doing on our campus?” It’s a simple question, but I’ve often found as I delve into researching an artifact that the journey of that object to our campus is connected not only with MSU’s history, but also with broader themes in American and even world history. This blog post explores how a broken dinner plate in an MSU professor’s trash pit is connected to a larger story of global trade, the rise of the middle class, and the beginnings of consumer society.

In his last blog post, Jeff discussed some of the decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage, the large collection of artifacts unearthed during excavations near Hannah Administration building. These artifacts date from the 1890s to the mid-1920s and are likely from a trash pit associated with the remodel of Professor Gunson’s house. One of these artifacts was a dinner plate decorated with a blurry, blue pattern on a white background.

Early 20th Century Flow Blue Johnson Brothers "Montana" Pattern

Early 20th Century Flow Blue Johnson Brothers “Montana” Pattern

As it turns out, this blurriness is not due to a manufacturing error or the effects of the elements, rather it is a decorative style known as “flow blue.” The name refers to the blue glaze that “flowed” as it was fired, giving patterns a characteristic blur. Flow blue was widely popular from about 1830 to 1915, and several pieces have been found on MSU’s campus.

Chinese export porcelain vase. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

Chinese export porcelain vase. Image courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

Flow blue pottery was first manufactured in England sometime in the 1820s, but its origin story begins in China over a century earlier. In 1700, the East India Trade Company had recently secured England’s first successful trading post in Taiwan. As trade between China and England increased, so did exports of Chinese porcelain to Europe. Chinese porcelain was strikingly beautiful with rich, blue patterns hand-painted on stark white vessels. It was also delicate and subject to high tariffs, making it expensive and difficult to transport. Only the wealthiest could afford to import porcelain, adding to its allure.

English potters spent the next 100 years trying to replicate Chinese porcelain to meet demand for such a product. The difficulty lay in producing vessels that matched the bright white of porcelain. After many attempts including salt-glazed earthenware, creamware, and pearlware, the desired effect was achieved in the early 1800s with ironstone, a white-glazed stoneware.

While Chinese porcelain was hand-painted, transfer printing technology developed in the mid-18th century created an opportunity for potters to market their products to a wider audience. Transfer printing uses ink and damp tissue paper to transfer designs from an engraving to a piece of pottery. This method allowed for quick and easy application of designs, which reduced the cost per item. The result was an affordable luxury that could be sold to the emerging Victorian middle class.

Flow blue plate featuring Oriental motifs. Image from passionforthepastantiques.com

Flow blue plate featuring Oriental motifs. Image from passionforthepastantiques.com

Transfer printed pottery became a highly successful early form of mass production, and precipitated some of the earliest mass marketing efforts. Transfer printed products could be produced cheaply and in large quantities, but in order to drive up demand, potters employed new marketing techniques such as catalogues, traveling salesmen, and showrooms in major cities. Items that were once primarily seen as utilitarian became decorative, collectible status symbols for the middle class.

One slight disadvantage to transfer-printed items is that they tend to have an overly crisp look that makes them appear obviously manufactured, rather than hand-painted. No one likes to look cheap, so potters had to come up with a way of disguising this quality.

Enter: Flow Blue. Cobalt oxide, the compound responsible for the blue color in transfer printing inks, tends to bleed slightly when vessels are glazed and re-fired. The bleeding produced designs that appeared handcrafted, hid minor cosmetic defects, and thus looked more expensive. The blue could be made to “flow” even more with the addition of lime or ammonium chloride.

Flow blue factory second. Image from hobbylark.com

Flow blue factory second. Image from hobbylark.com

It was sometimes difficult to control the amount of “flow.” Manufacturers ended up with large stocks of factory seconds rejected because the patterns were too blurry. Factory seconds were shipped to the US and sold cheaply in the American market. Here, flow blue became especially popular with the middle class who could now afford to buy these decorative items.

Flow blue was printed on a variety of mediums, but ironstone was particularly popular in America because it was durable and impermeable, which made it more sanitary than earlier, more porous ceramic wares. However, ironstone could only be decorated in a limited number of ways because few glazes other than the blue transfer-print could withstand the heat of firing. This meant that a lot of 19th century ironstone was decorated in flow blue—tea sets, dinner plates, and even dog bowls—and potters had to get creative with their designs.

By the late 1800’s, more than 1500 patterns were available in flow blue. Early flow blue patterns mimicked Chinese imports, featuring imagery such as pagodas, temples, and mountains. Later, English pastoral scenes and floral motifs became fashionable. The plate recovered from Professor Gunson’s trash pit features a floral “Montana” pattern manufactured by the Johnson Brothers.

The Montana pattern found on the plate in the Gunson assemblage dates to about 1913, which means Professor Gunson may have had some of the last flow blue exported from England. Around 1915, most English manufacturers stopped making flow blue. The cobalt used by English potters came from Saxony in Germany, and World War I effectively cut off this supply.

As I researched Gunson’s dinner plate, I couldn’t help but think about how this object connects MSU to a whole range of historical events. Flow blue pottery is the result of a century of English attempts to replicate Chinese porcelain, the demand for which was created over hundreds of years of trade between Western Europe and China. The transfer printing technology used to produce flow blue pottery is one example of long-term trends in mass production and mass marketing. Even the fact that such a plate made it here to a rural Michigan campus relates to the growth of a middle class able to select and purchase items like decorative dinnerware for use in their homes. Sometimes a broken is just a broken plate, but with a little bit of context, sometimes a broken plate reveals a (literal) piece of history.