Ceramics is a classification describing clay-based decorative objects and include two main categories: Pottery and Porcelain. There are many types of each, but for now, let’s take a look at the main differences between the two.
Pottery is opaque, meaning light cannot be detected through it. Porcelain, on the other hand, is translucent. Pottery is generally heavier and thicker than porcelain. It is fired at a lower temperature and is softer and can therefore chip more easily.
When there is breakage, pottery will show a line of damage, whereas porcelain will usually shatter. Another difference is that porcelain is colder to the touch than pottery. When struck (gently!), porcelain will ring and pottery will “thud”.
So these are some quick and easy tests to perform when identifying ceramics. Just by holding up to the light, feeling the weight and handling an item, you can discover a lot about a piece.
Of course, it is also important to look at manufacturer’s markings. Mandatory markings on imported goods to the U.S. began in 1891 after the McKinley Tariff Act was passed. Another helpful clue is that “Made in” (before the country of origin) was required after 1914. So, for example if a piece says “Germany”, you know it was manufactured prior to 1914. A great deal of information can be found out from markings, including country of origin, pattern, trademarks and patents, shape, artist and sometimes even date. Some investigation may be required, but after all, that’s the fun part!
Another important characteristic of porcelain is that it is water tight (vitrified) because of the materials and process used. Pottery, on the other hand, requires a glaze in order for it to hold water. Otherwise, the clay will just absorb the liquid like a sponge.
Most early porcelain was made in the Orient and Europe. America never really learned the secret ingredients (specifically kaolin) or process until much later, and so had to import porcelain. By the way, the term “china” comes from the shortened label “chinese export porcelain” and is not a correct term for general porcelain. The first successful American Porcelain company was Lenox in 1889 (which of course continues to produce today). Instead, we produced an abundance of pottery (to include both “earthenware” and “stoneware”)… mostly utilitarian at first (think crocks and jugs). Then around 1870, we began to make “art pottery” in Ohio, which was hand designed and decorated. This led into the Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century with pottery makers such as Roseville, Weller, Grueby and Rookwood (all of which are highly collectible today). A more in depth look at American pottery is a topic for another day!
So, without getting into the numerous makers, patterns and types of ceramics (a never-ending lesson in itself), this basic foundation will hopefully serve to help you in identifying your next found treasure! Happy hunting…
Article Written By: Karen S. Murray, ISA
Owner of PixieVintageHome.etsy.com