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Shell-Edged Earthenwares

Defining Attributes

Shell-edged, or more generically, edged wares are characterized by molded rim motifs, usually painted under the glaze in blue or green on refined earthenwares. The term “shell-edge” was used by Staffordshire potters in the eighteenth century to describe these wares. Nineteenth-century potters’ price fixing lists and invoices use simply "edged" to describe both shell-edged and embossed rim motifs (Hunter and Miller 1994:433-434).


Shell-edged earthenwares were one of the most common decorative types used on table wares from North American archaeological contexts dating between 1790 and 1860. Shell-edged earthenwares were inspired by eighteenth-century rococo designs on continental porcelain and earthenware. Josiah Wedgwood was the earliest documented Staffordshire potter to use shell-edge motifs, introducing it in the mid-1770s on creamware. This motif was quickly adopted by many other English potteries. Edged wares were the least expensive tablewares available with color decoration between 1780 and 1860 (Hunter and Miller 1994:443).

It is almost always impossible to date excavated edged wares using manufacturers’ marks. Not only were the great majority of edged vessels unmarked, the rims and marlys were not the portion of the vessel that would contain those impressed marks. Molded motifs display distinct variations through time, however, and archaeologists can date assemblages using these variations. The date ranges and definitions below are taken from Hunter and Miller (1994). Click on the links to images of each ceramic type.

  • 1775-1810—Rococo-inspired asymmetrical, undulating scalloped rim with impressed curved lines.
        - In vogue between 1775 and 1800, but produced until c.1810.
        - Underglaze blue and green painting most common, but occasionally seen in        overglaze enamels in purple, green, red, black and brown.
  • 1860s-1890s—Non-impressed: Blue rim edging created by brush strokes continues, but impressed molding disappears.
        - Shell-edge was becoming rare by this time.

Shell-edge decoration is found on refined white earthenwares. Refined white earthenwares have a hard, somewhat porous body. Calcined flint, feldspar, ball clay, and occasionally kaolin, were among the substances added to the clay to produce a white body.

Ware Type
Archaeologists have traditionally used the terms pearlware and whiteware to describe ceramic vessels decorated with shell-edge motifs. Beginning around the 1780s, Staffordshire potters, importers and merchants rarely referred to ware type to describe vessels. Ceramics were described by their decoration type, e.g. “edged,” “painted,” “dipt” and “printed” (Miller 1980, 1981). Two exceptions to this are creamware and Egyptian black (black basalt). The potters name for what is commonly called pearlware was “China glaze,” which predates Josiah Wedgwood’s “Pearl white” by at least five years. The terms China glaze, pearl white and pearlware are almost non-existent in the potters’ price fixing lists, invoices, accounting records and correspondence (Miller and Hunter 2001). Separating vessels by their ware types has minimal value. For a further discussion of the evolution of creamware, pearlware and whiteware, click here.

Edged earthenwares most commonly have a clear lead glaze.

Additional Decoration
Some early shell-edge wares have overglaze black printed central decoration or blue underglaze painting or printing. Some examples also incorporate additional molded swags along the rim. Chinese-style motifs painted in blue on rococo blue shell-edged rims generally date between 1775 and 1800 on creamware and China glaze, although they persist into the 1810s (Miller and Hunter 2001:152). Between 1815 and 1830, edged wares were sometimes decorated with an eagle from the Great Seal of the United States. After the 1840s, added decoration on edged wares was rare (Hunter and Miller 1994:440).

Shell-edge decoration is almost always found on table ware and is rare on teaware and toilet ware. The dominant vessel forms for edged wares from archaeological sites and invoices are plates, soup plates, twifflers, muffins, and dishes (the English term for platters). Less common edged vessels include bakers and nappies, which are mostly oval or oblong-hexagonal in shape and do not have footrings (Hunter and Miller 1994). Although archaeologists often list them as bowls in their excavation reports, bowls with shell-edged decoration are very rare. Soup and sauce tureens, pickle dishes, mustards and sauce boats are sometimes seen in pre-1820 assemblages. With the exception of bowls, all of these vessels were classified as table ware in the Staffordshire potters’ price fixing lists. Tea cups and saucers with shell-edge decoration are very rare and almost always date before 1790.


Hunter, Robert R., Jr. and George L. Miller
1994   English Shell-Edged Earthenwares. Antiques, March 1994: 432-443.

Majewski Teresita and Michael J. O’Brien
1987   The Use and Misuse of Nineteenth-Century English and American Ceramics in Archaeological Analysis. In
           Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 11. Edited by Michael Schiffer, Academic
           Press, New York, pp. 98-209.

McAllister, Lisa S.
2001   Collector’s Guide to Feather Edge Ware; Identification and Values. Collector Books, Paducah, KY.

Miller, George L.
1980   Classification and Economic Scaling of 19th Century Ceramics. Historical Archaeology 14:1-40.

1991   A Revised Set of CC Index Values for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from
           1787 to 1880. Historical Archaeology 25:1-25.

Miller, George L. and Amy C. Earls
2008   War and Pots: The Impact of Economics and Politics on Ceramic Consumption Patterns. In Ceramics
           in America
, edited by Robert R. Hunter. Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee, pp. 67-108.

Miller, George L. and Robert R. Hunter Jr.
2001   How Creamware Got the Blues. In Ceramics in America, edited by Robert R. Hunter. Chipstone
           Foundation, Milwaukee, pp. 135-161.


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Updated:  1/14/11