Alphabet wares are a form of tableware characterized by the inclusion of the alphabet as a part of their decoration. Most alphabet wares were plates or mugs made of ceramic, although glass, metal and plastic were also used. The focus of this essay will be on ceramic alphabet wares.
These wares were produced for use by children and served as educational tools. Plates, almost without exception, contained the full alphabet, usually molded or printed clockwise around the rim. Child-friendly scenes decorated plate centers. These scenes fell into a number of decorative themes, including household pets, barnyard animals, children’s activities, Aesop’s Fables, proverbs of Benjamin Franklin, the months, Bible stories, and riddles. Alphabet plates were often created in sets (Chalala and Chalala 1980:1). While mugs could depict the entire alphabet, it was common for this vessel form to include only one or two (sometimes up to four) letters, used in conjunction with a related scene.
Ceramic ABC wares, first produced in the Staffordshire district of England in the late eighteenth century (Kovels.com), continue in production to the present. The earliest known ABC plate is a Davenport shell-edged example with the alphabet printed in a block in the center of the plate. Chalala and Chalala (1980:142) date this plate between 1793 and 1810.
Many alphabet wares were unmarked and, like other ceramics without manufacturer’s or registry marks, it is difficult to date them with certainty. Thus, as a part of research for this project, a database was created of 425 marked British and American alphabet plates, using published sources and vessels for sale on commercial websites.ftn1 The only vessels that were recorded were those whose production could be placed securely within a 50 year time span, using either manufacturer’s marks or pottery firm operation dates (Godden 1964; Lehner 1988). This database allowed some conclusions to be drawn about design and production elements of these plates and may allow more educated conclusions to be drawn about non-marked vessels.ftn2
Vessels were recorded from 28 British firms and 10 American firms. The British firms accounted for 356 of the vessels, with 69 recorded from the American firms. If the marked examples in the database provide a representative sample, they suggest that British examples had their greatest period of production in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with a mean beginning and end production date span of 1872 to 1894. As a group, British alphabet plates date earlier than American-made plates, with American examples showing a mean beginning and end production span of 1904 to 1926.ftn3 Table 1 lists six British and two American firms that accounted for large quantities of plates in the database.
||Number of Recorded Examples
||Dates of Operation
|Charles Allerton &Sons
|Brownhills Pottery Company
|Edge, Malkin &Company
|Elsmore & Forster
|Elsmore & Son
|J & G Meakin
|Harker Pottery Company
|D. E. McNicol, Ohio & WVa
Placement and Production of Alphabets
Alphabets were either printed or molded, generally encircling the rims of plates. The rims were often further decorated with painted lines or molded motifs. British manufacturers produced both molded and printed alphabets on their vessels, although molded alphabets were present in quantities five times greater than printed alphabets in the database sample. Molded rim alphabets also began production earlier than printed rim alphabets, although they continued to be made throughout the entire span of British production. The mean beginning and end production dates for British molded alphabets was 1868 to 1894, while printed alphabets that encircled the plate rim had mean beginning and end dates of 1881 to 1895 (Table 2).
Table 2. Dating Details for Alphabets on British Alphabet Plates
|Method of Production
||Placement of Alphabet
||# of Vessels
||Along sides or top of plate (influenced by Aesthetic Movement)
Some ABC ware plates from the 1870s to 1890s followed design elements of the Aesthetic Movement. In alphabet plates influenced by this movement, the “central” design was enclosed in a frame or box, either centrally located or placed asymmetrically to one side of the plate. The printed alphabet letters would be arranged across the top, sides and bottom of the box or along one side of the plate (see the Post-Colonial Ceramics entry for Aesthetic Period in Printed Underglaze Earthenwares for a more complete discussion of this style of decoration). They were often printed in brown on ivory-dyed ceramic bodies and highlighted with enameled painting. This design style in ABC wares was used almost exclusively by the Staffordshire firm of Brownhills Pottery Company, in business between 1872 and 1896 (Godden 1964:111). Mean beginning and end production dates for these asymmetrically placed alphabets were 1884 to 1895.ftn4 Many of these plates were produced by Brownhills Pottery Company in series like “Nations of the World”, “Wild Animals” and “Bible Pictures”.
Almost without exception, American-made plates depicted printed alphabets – of 69 American examples, only two vessels, produced by Smith Phillips China Company (1901-1931) of East Liverpool, Ohio contained molded alphabets.
Production and Design of Central Motifs
There were two primary methods of producing central designs: underglaze printing and lithographic decals. Printed designs were generally produced in one color under the glaze, with many designs printed in black.ftn5 In the database sample, central scenes on British vessels were almost always underglaze printed (Table 3).
Table 3. Central Designs on American and British Plates
Lithographic decals, introduced in the 1890s, replaced underglaze printed designs by around 1905 (Venable et al. 2000:120). While decals allowed the production of more detailed designs and a greater range of colors, they were prone to damage by cutlery. With the exception of one airbrush stenciled example, American manufacturers used decals exclusively to create central scenes. A large factor in the difference between British and American central design production techniques can be accounted for by the time frames in which the two locales were producing ABC plates. The use of lithographic decals began in the 1890s, when British production of ABC wares was winding down. American manufacturers, concentrated in New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia, appear to have begun producing ABC wares right about the time that decals became available.
Underglaze printed designs produced by British manufacturers were often filled in with colored enamels (pink, green, yellow, red, orange, brown and blue) hand-applied over the final lead glazing. Individual vessels often contained three or four colors, filled in as the enameller chose.ftn6 There seemed to be no appreciable dating difference in whether or not enameling was used (Table 4), and individual firms often made both enameled and non-enameled ABC wares. Enameling was not used on any of the American-made vessels in the database.
Table 4. Enameling on Printed British ABC Plates
||# of Vessels
||Mean Beginning Production Date
Central designs fell into a number of categories, but three predominated in the database: children’s activities, animals and adult activities. The category of children’s activities included scenes of children engaged in play, work or sports. No adults are present in these scenes. Scenes in the adult activities category can include children, but the focus is on adult activities such as sports, work, farming or the military. The animal category depicts scenes that contain animals – no humans appear.
Looking at the marked British vessels in the database, the children and adult activities categories appear at about the same time, with children’s activities appearing and disappearing in popularity just a few years earlier than the adult activities (Table 5). Animal-themed designs were produced primarily in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Several other categories are worthy of note. Religious themes were most commonly produced between 1870 and 1890. Brownhills Pottery Company produced several series of ABC plates based on fictional characters, such as Robinson Crusoe and Red Riding Hood, as well as a Nursery Tales series.
Table 5. British Central Designs
||# of Vessels
||Mean Beginning Production Date
|Fictional characters or
American-made plates depicted scenes in only three categories: children’s activities, animals and stories and rhymes. Sample sizes were very limited, but children’s activities showed a mean beginning and end production span of 1899 to 1924. Animal designs showed a range from 1902 to 1926, while characters or scenes from fictional stories or nursery rhymes showed a range from 1916 to 1930.
If the central motif was taken from an identifiable printed source, the source publication date can be used as a terminus post quem for the production of the ABC ware. Children’s books published in the second half of the nineteenth century appear to have been most often used as source materials for designs. Davida and Irving Shipkowitz’s The ABCs of ABC Ware (2002) is a good reference book for identifying and dating printed sources used in ABC wares.
Fabric and Ware Type
Ceramic ABC wares were produced in England, the United States and Germany. The production of ABC wares in the United States began in the late nineteenth century, centered in West Virginia and East Liverpool, Ohio (Fendelman and Rosson 2010). German wares began production around the turn of the twentieth century (Lindsay and Lindsay n.d.).
Ceramic ABC wares were produced in a variety of pastes/fabrics. Staffordshire wares were most often white-bodied earthenware. German ABC wares were produced in hard paste porcelain, characterized by a whiter and more highly vitrified paste than white earthenware.
ABC wares also appear in glass, sheet iron plated with tin, aluminum (first dating from the 1920s), and plastic (Lindsay and Lindsay 1998:181).
Ceramic ABC wares most commonly have a clear lead glaze.
Additional decorative techniques were sometimes used to supplement printed and molded decorations on ABC wares. Painted or lustered bands could encircle a molded rim. Luster was sometimes used to paint central designs in simple motifs, like houses. Gilt bands or highlights were common on German wares (Lindsay and Lindsay 1998).
Plates and mugs were the most common vessel forms for ABC wares, although bowls, cups and saucers were also produced. Since these wares were intended for children, they are typically small; plates generally range in diameter from 4 to 8½”, although a few plates with diameters of 9.75” have been recorded. In the sample of 425 marked plates, 74% fell between 6 and 8” in diameter. Mugs usually ranged between 2.5 to 3” tall.
Alphabet plates of the first several decades of the twentieth century changed in shape. They became sturdier and thicker in cross-section, and looked more like shallow, straight-sided bowls than typical plates. Alphabets would be printed along the flat, thick rim of the plate or along the vessel’s exterior side.
Published sources included Chalala and Chalala (1980), Lindsay and Lindsay (1998), Riley (1991) and Shipkowitz and Shipkowitz (2002). Commercial websites accessed during April 2011 included Ebay (www.ebay.com)and Ruby Lane (www.rubylane.com).
2 Dating is further complicated for archaeologists, since they often find only a molded or printed rim fragment, without any evidence of the more temporally diagnostic central motif.
3 To arrive at the date ranges presented below, data was collected on marked pieces with known manufacturing ranges of less than 50 years. The beginning and end production dates, or mark dates, were listed for each vessel (Godden 1964; Lehner 1988). The sum of all beginning production dates in each identification criteria category was totaled and divided by the number of examples to arrive at a mean beginning date. The same was done with the end production dates, thus providing a date span for a period of peak production.
4 Many of the vessels contained registration numbers that narrowed down the production date ranges, thus accounting for the short duration of the production span of this type of printed alphabet.
5 One-color underglaze printed designs were also seen in blue, brown, green, purple and red.
6 Different combinations of enamel coloring have been recorded on plates bearing the same pattern.