Wares with sponge decoration have a long history in England going back to delftwares. Sponge decorations, for the most part an underglaze decoration, are rare on creamware and China glaze, and began to appear as part of painted decoration on what is commonly called pearlware. However, it is much more common on whitewares. On refined earthenwares, sponged decoration is heavily associated with teawares until around ca 1835. Early sponge decoration was commonly used to represent foliage, such as the tops of trees. Sponge decoration free of any associated painting is rather rare before the 1820s. With the introduction of cut sponge patterns in the 1840s, there was increasing sponge decoration of table as well as tea wares and to some extent on toilet wares, bowls, mugs and other forms.
Sponge decorated wares had color applied by dipping a sponge into the glaze color and then applying the sponge to the ware to be decorated, either by dabbing with the natural sponge or with a sponge cut into a pattern. In Britain, four firms—J. & M.P. Bell and Co. (1842-1928), David Methven and Sons (pre-1850 to c. 1930), William Adams and Sons (1769 to 1998), and George Jones (1861-1951)—were major known manufacturers of sponge-decorated wares because they marked their products; however many potters who produced sponged and painted wares did not mark their wares. There was a great deal of copying of patterns between potters. These wares were exported in large quantities to China, Africa, South and North America in the mid-19th century, and were being produced in the United States after about 1850 in New Jersey and East Liverpool Ohio (Dietz, 1980; Earls 2004; Liebeknecht 2001; Majeweski and O’Brien 1987:161). Sponge decorated wares were also produced in large quantities in France, Holland, Wales, Scotland and Germany.
A variety of collectors’ terms have been used over the years for sponge-decorated wares. Table 1 lists the terminology used in this essay to define sponge-decorated wares, with an attempt to create as few categories as possible. To the right of each category is a list of collectors’ terms associated with these techniques over the years.
|Categories of Sponge Decorated Wares ftn1
||Other terms associated with same decorative techniques
||Spatter, Spatterware, True spatterware
||Sponge printing, stick spatter, design spatter, Portneuf (as variant with painted line borders) ftn2
|Open Sponge ftn3
||Sponged, Flowing spatter; Kitchen spatter; Cottage spatter
Sponge decorated wares were produced using several techniques over the period from the 1820s to 1930s. Since it is estimated that only 1 to 2% of sponge decorated wares were marked by their manufacturers, assigning manufacture dates is difficult. Each decorative technique does exhibit some temporal variation and each category is discussed more fully below.
Sponge – This form of sponged decoration was common from the 1820s to the 1860s, but most popular in the 1830s (Robacker and Robacker 1978; Laidacker 1954:77). It refers to closely spaced, dabbed sponging of color, generally used in conjunction with painted patterns, but in some rare cases with printed patterns. Sponged colors were applied as distinct parts of a pattern or as a background or border for a design (Majewski & OBrien 1987:162). Sponge decoration is distinguished from open sponge, which generally covers the entire or large portions of the vessel surface and also has larger interstitial openings in the sponge.
Unlike the collectors’ terminology—spatter decoration—most commonly associated with this technique implies, sponge decoration on mass-produced 19th-century wares was not created by spattering color. It was instead a process more aptly described as the dabbing or stippling of color to the biscuit body with a sponge. The porousness of the design (the amount of white vessel body showing through the dabbed color) was a function of how much color was loaded into the sponge, the size and density of interstitial openings within the natural sponge and the heavy-handedness of the decorator. In addition to sponges, decoration could be pounced on with short bristled brushes or dabbed on with color-loaded cloth (Laidacker 1954:77).
Sponge decorated ware was produced in a multitude of underglaze colors, including red, yellow, pink, purple, blue, brown and black. The introduction of borax into lead glazes facilitated the use of chrome colors— this added new colors from red to a pinkish red and black to sponged decoration. There are chrome greens and yellows; however there were earlier greens from copper and yellow from antimony, so the green and yellow colors are less useful in dating sponged decorated wares. The chrome reds/pinks and black became very common after 1830 in the Staffordshire potteries. A common treatment for sponge-decorated wares was a pattern known by collectors as “rainbow”, consisting of bands of two to five colors over the surface of the vessel. Combinations of red, blue and green dabbed around the rim of vessels, usually in combination with painted center designs such as peafowl, floral motifs and schoolhouses, were produced in the 1820 to 1860 period (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:161). The peafowls and other motifs were usually outlined in black and in-filled with painting and/or sponge decoration, especially the foliage on these wares. During the period of peak production (1830 to 1850), some sixty patterns can be identified (Hunter 2006:221).
Cut Sponge – From around 1845, it became common to see painted wares in which at least part of the motif was applied with a color-filled cut sponge. Some sources say that cut sponge patterns were introduced from Scotland (Bagdade and Bagdade 1987). Cut sponge designs included stars, diamonds, scrolls and daggers, flowers, various geometric shapes, eagles and other animals. Since sponges pre-cut into patterns were sold by pottery suppliers, attributing unmarked pieces to specific potteries on the basis of cut sponge designs is not possible (Earls 2000:3; Liebeknecht 2001). Vessel rims would often be decorated with a repeating cut sponge design, often involving two or three different cut sponges to create sprigs of flowers and leaves. These designs are sometimes enclosed within painted bands or lines. Cut sponge decoration also occurs with painted or stenciled decorations as part of a larger design (i.e. stamped flowers with painted leaves and stems) and was used to lower the production costs of these often highly decorated wares.
The period of greatest popularity for English cut sponge decorated whiteware (based on potter’s price lists) was the 1840s to the 1870s (Miller 1991:6; Earls 2004). Cut sponging used in combination with painted decoration was common on English and European wares of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Earls 2004:44). Cut sponge decorated wares were also made in the United States, starting in the late nineteenth century, with a revival between the two world wars (Earls 2004:45).
Open Sponge – This technique produces a sponged design with more open areas or spaces, distinguishing it from earlier sponged decoration. In open sponge decoration, you often see different colors applied over one another, sometimes creating a smudged effect. Open sponge decoration was used as a technique by British and North American potteries from 1860 to 1935 (Ketchum 1983:178, 228-229). This type of decoration is more typically found on utility wares, most commonly on large bowls and pitchers, in ironstone, yellow wares and Bristol glazed molded stoneware, although it is also seen on tablewares in white-bodied earthenware.
Sponge and cut sponged decoration were very common on a variety of vitreous to non-vitreous white bodied wares. Open sponge decoration were common on red-bodied wares, stonewares, and yellow wares made in US.
Sponge decorated earthenwares most commonly have a clear lead glaze and after circa 1830 a lead/borax glaze.
Sponged decoration can occur in conjunction with painted, printed or stenciled motifs.
Sponged and cut sponge decoration occurred on a wide range of vessel types, including tea, table and toilet wares. Teaware shapes change through time, and distinct patterns occur between vessel shape and type of sponged decoration. Click here to view chart of Common Cup Shapes. For example, sponged decoration of any kind is rare on common (i.e. Chinese) shape cups. While the use of cut sponge decoration is rare on London shape cups and bowls, it is quite common on later appearing double curve and tulip shape cups and saucers.
Excavations at the Joseph Mayer Pottery in Trenton, New Jersey have yielded cut sponge decorations on bakers, bowls, nappies, cups, saucers, plates, serving dishes, and spittoons (Liebeknecht 2001; Earls 2004). Open sponge decoration on American-made wares occurred primarily on toilet sets and kitchen utility wares. Open sponge decoration was common on kitchen wares like mixing bowls, custard cups, storage crocks or jars, pitchers and on toiletry vessels, like wash basins and pitchers, soap dishes, spittoons, and chamber pots.
1. Early invoices referred to these wares as sponged or painted.
2. According to Finlayson, cut sponged wares referred to by many collectors as “Portneuf” wares were never made in this Canadian city.
3. This terminology comes from Majewski and O’Brien (1987: 162).