Sunday, September 6, 2015

My American Yellowware

My American yellowware collection gets taken out of storage the first week of September.  I fill my kitchen with these pieces of pottery every single autumn, because I love the warmth that they add to my shelves, counters and table. The months of September, October and November wouldn't be the same without some yellowware to help me bake and cook.


I've talked about collecting yellowware before, which you can read about by clicking here.  This is an excerpt from that post: "Yellowware originated in England in the late 18th century and potters skilled in its construction who emigrated to United States began production here in earnest throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Ohio river valley in the early 1800s.  By the mid 19th century and well into the early 20th century, yellowware was found in many kitchens throughout New England as a result of its durability and affordability.  Characterized by its distinct, yellow-firing clay taken from rich riverbeds in the Northeastern part of the United States, most pieces were given simple decorative elements while others were left unadorned with a clear glaze.  Its colors and hues are unmistakable to the collector."

Bringing these beloved pieces of Americana down from the attic and into the main floor of our home, never fails to bring a smile to my face.  I think back to how I first began collecting my yellowware and how it was really by accident, or as I would prefer to think, fate, that got me started.

It was an overcast weekend when I set out on foot to an antique fair in our town with a few tote bags, not having any 'game plan' about what I was looking for. By this point in my life, I was firmly set on collecting things that would not only look nice in my home, but those which would still be functional.

The large 16"-in-diameter bowl with the red slip and white band design (middle of the photo above) was simply sitting there on a dealer's table and no one seemed to be drawn to it but me.  I wasted no time in finding out the price, agreeing to it and carefully packaging it in my oversized canvas tote.  I'm not sure if I bought anything else that day (this bowl set me back quite a bit), but I was happy.  It was my first piece of yellowware and I was hooked.

Since then, I have continued to add to my collection when I come across something that I happen to like.  For the moment, I've tried to concentrate my efforts toward mixing bowls, since I love collecting bowls, but I haven't ruled out adding other pieces to this burgeoning cache of pottery.

Not everything in my yellowware collection is from the late 19th century or early 20th century.  A few pieces that were made exclusively for Martha by Mail by the Robinson Ransbottom Company in Ohio, are among my favorite bowls to use.  Their beautiful glazes, hefty properties and well-made characteristics blend well with the earlier pieces. 


There I am in holding this particular bowl (top left), As you can clearly see it is actually much wider than I am.  The vendor told me that it had been in her family for several generations and she was sad to part with it, but at the time she was downsizing.  I was more than happy to give it a good home that would appreciate its place in American history.

I often wonder about the American potter who fashioned this gigantic bowl and decorated it with the simple design over one hundred years ago.  Who was that individual and where did they work?  Did the person think they were creating art at the time or was this simply a case of manufacturing something utilitarian for the everyday housewife or the head cook of a household?  Would it have ever crossed their mind that one day a passionate collector of bowls would cherish the bowl and  write about it?

The day I took my yellowware bowls out of storage, we went to pick apples from the trees which surround the field.  I quickly divided up our spoil between bowls while figuring out where I was going to store these crisp fruits.

Some of the characteristics of yellowware I'm most drawn to are the rich tones of the clay, along with the variations in the quality of the clay found in each vessel.  To my mind, a kitchen instantly takes on a warm tone whenever there is a bit of this pottery, giving the space an inviting ambience.

Incidentally, I've also been picking crabapples from the trees which line the driveway.  Ms. Kitty guards a bowl filled with them while I pick through for stems, leaves and other debris (top left).  She's such a good helper.

None of the bowls in this photograph match one another, but you can see what I mean when I say that each one has a different tone of yellow.  This is what makes yellowware so collectible.  Variations in the clay really sets this type of pottery apart from any other.  Collectors can't seem to get enough of it.

From large 16" bowls to tiny 4" ones, and everything in between, I am lost without them during the fall season.  Some friends of mine collect yellowware, while others admire it from afar.  A few have told me that they want to begin collecting it.

To them I give this advice:

  1. Collecting yellowware is like collecting anything else.  Base it on what captures your attention, what colors you happen to like, your budget, and whether or not you plan to use these pieces or simply have them for display.  It's up to you how you choose to cherish this American pottery.
  2. Go online and begin looking at auctions in order to get an idea of what things cost; don't forget to look at sold/completed auctions, as these will tell you true market value prices.  The more rare the item or if it's in close to perfect condition, the higher the price will be.  Cracks, chips, hairline fractures, etc., will bring down the value of a piece.  
  3. From my personal experience, I've paid between $75-$300 for a single bowl.  Having said that, I have a friend who recently paid $30 for a set of Martha by Mail yellowware bowls (made in the late 90s) at an antique shop!    
  4. Be aware that the majority of antique yellowware wasn't stamped or marked with the potter's name, and it will more than likely have crazing, flea bite marks, pops in the glaze, or even small pieces of clay that aren't smooth.  All of this is normal given the fact that yellowware was made with unrefined clay.
  5. Don't overlook a bowl with a hairline crack or small chips that are inconspicuous.  These pieces can be a bargain to have if you want to decorate shelves, cupboards, sideboards or countertops.  I wouldn't recommend buying a damaged vessel if it's going to be shipped, as this can compromise its integrity.
  6. If you're buying from an online source, make sure that bowls and other vessels are double boxed when shipping.  This reduces the chances of chips, breaks or cracks.
  7. If you're purchasing yellowware from an antique shop, consignment store, flea market or from an antique fair, make sure to ask if the marked price is firm.  Some vendors will give up to a 10% discount if you pay in cash.
  8. NOTE: several sources have introduced 'reproductions' of yellowware, such as mochaware from the East Knoll Pottery in Connecticut.  Moreover, several years ago Williams-Sonoma had a set of yelloware bowls that were made in China.  Most of these pieces are marked, which is a good indicator that they're repros.  
  9. Go through the book, 'Collector's Guide to Yellowware', in order to familiarize yourself with the pottery.
  10. Last, but not least, never put your antique yellowware in the dishwasher.  Wash it by hand and dry it soon after so that you don't encounter any problems


If this prompts you to start your own collection of yellowware, then cheers to you!  The moment you have one piece of yellowware in your home, you will find it alluring and wonderful for use in  autumn.  What was once considered common, plain and utilitarian, is now highly collectible.  Give yellowware a second look and let it be used in your kitchen and home.  The generous proportions, the sturdy characteristics and the unmistakable color & modest designs of yellowware from a bygone era can never quite be reproduced in the same manner.  Enjoy collecting it, enjoy using it and admire it for generations to come.  

6 comments:

  1. Such a beautiful collection! It's perfect for the fall season. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thank you Kenn! I agree with you that it's perfect for fall. :)

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  2. This post makes me so happy. Such an amazing thing to collect. Loved the photography, excellent lighting!

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    1. I'm glad you liked the post, Nick! Yellowware is something you become passionate about once you have one piece. :)

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  3. I am always on the look-out for yellowware to add to your collection. Sadly, most of what I find is damaged and certainly not up to the standard of the pieces you already have. Nevertheless, it doesn't keep me from looking! :)

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    1. One of these days you and I will have to go antiquing together! We both know how to spot the "good things"! xoxo

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