Antiques 101: Guide to Collecting Ironstone

Prized both for its durability and timeless good looks, ironstone has been a favorite of pottery and dishware collectors for more than two centuries.

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

What Is Ironstone?

Ironstone china is a glaze-covered earthenware that was first patented by Charles James Mason in 1813 and other manufacturers followed suit. At one point, there were almost 200 makers of ironstone china and they made everything from plates and bowls to tureens, covered casseroles, pitchers, gravy boats and even chamber pots. Most pieces come from England, France and the United States. Although, ironstone's popularity has come in waves, this durable dishware has remained a favorite among antique collectors for decades.

How to Identify Ironstone

If you’re lucky, it will be labeled as ironstone in the hallmark, usually stamped on the bottom of a piece. It might also say "stoneware". Many pieces, though, are not marked specifically as ironstone or they aren’t marked at all.

The best way for you to learn to spot ironstone is by studying a piece of ironstone. The most noticeable thing is the weight. A piece of ironstone will always feel heavier than it looks. It has a wonderful luster about it as well, that can be easily recognized if you know what you’re looking for. If the piece has a handle, hold it by the handle and flick the body of the piece. It will make a lovely "ring" if it is free of chips or cracks. It can be bright white or a dark cream, a bluish white, or almost beige from discoloration. Note: Ironstone is not exclusively white, either. It may have a transferware design added.

Where to Find It

Ironstone is typically found at antique stores and markets. It can even be found at yard sales, estate sales and thrift stores. The abundance of pieces available varies greatly depending on the region. Ironstone can always be found on popular online marketplaces that feature antiques but they are usually priced a little higher than you'd pay when thrifting and shipping is expensive.

Price Ranges

It's difficult to pin down an exact price range, because, like any antique, it depends on rarity, age, desirability, size, condition, aesthetic, etc. A sugar bowl, for example could be priced too high at $20 if it was made in the 1970’s, has a big crack in it and is missing a lid and it could be an amazing bargain if it’s mid-1800’s in a beautiful pattern. If you find a piece at a thrift store, it could be as low as $.50/plate and the prices can go as high as $1500 for a rare cake pedestal. In my experience, most common pieces can be found for around $20-$50.

Condition

What condition the pieces you buy are in depends on your preference. Some collectors value only pristine pieces while others prefer the pieces that are crazed and discolored —showing their age. Either way, always give the piece you’re considering a good visual review before buying to make sure you can live with any imperfections or necessary repairs. Look for chips and cracks specifically. Even fine cracks will allow water to seep through, which is inconvenient in a pitcher. Also look for previous repairs to handles, since those are most likely to break. Lastly, check to make sure the lid fits the base it's paired with. Often, an orphaned lid will be paired with a sugar bowl or tureen when they weren’t an original set. The pattern or color will be different and sometimes the fit will be off.

How to Identify the Piece's Age

Ironstone's age can often be determined by the hallmark. There are books and online databases to help collectors research their finds. But sometimes there isn’t a hallmark, or the mark doesn’t give enough information. Particularly, in older pieces, the hallmarks are often muted, blurry and sometimes stamped. They are typically thicker and heavier than their modern counterparts and have more imperfections in the glazing, coloring, and shape. In newer pieces, the hallmarks are clearer and tend to have more of a "manufactured" look. They are also more uniform in color with a smoother glaze and less crazing. They are still heavy, but not as thick as older ironstone.

Starting and Building Your Collection

A collection always starts with one piece. Find a piece you love and build your collection around that. Since there are so many ironstone pieces available — pitchers, plates, jelly molds, mixing bowls, brush boxes, etc. — I would suggest narrowing the initial collection down to one category of ironstone to keep it from being overwhelming. Start with pieces that are easy to find, like pitchers, sugar bowls or vegetable casseroles and grow your collection from there.

Usage Dos and Don'ts

According to the FDA, enforcement of leachable lead levels in tableware didn't begin until the late 1970s, so ironstone produced before that time may contain lead in the glaze. This should be taken into account if the desire is to use the piece for serving food. Pieces that are chipped, cracked, crazed, or have other signs of deteriorated glaze should never be used for serving food. Old ironstone should be hand-washed, should never be put in an oven or microwave, and should never be bleached. Newer pieces (though still vintage) will be marked as dishwasher safe and are ideal candidates to use as everyday dishes.

Prized Pieces

As you start collecting, you'll find some pieces are prized above all others. Intact cake pedestals from the 1800s are the crème de la crème for collectors and are rarely found priced below $400. Other rare pieces are punch bowls, large soup tureens (with matching plate, ladle and lid) and brush boxes.

To Remove Stains or Not to Remove Stains

Ironstone is pretty durable, hence the name. Some pieces have staining, though, that can detract from their beauty (or add to it, depending on your preference). To remove stains, completely submerge the piece in 3% hydrogen peroxide in a lidded container. Soak for 2-3 days. Remove the ironstone from the container and place it outside in direct sunlight. The hydrogen peroxide will vaporize, removing most stains along with it.

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