What is Porcelain?
Types of Porcelain found in Colonial America.
At the outset, it is essential for scholars of early American pottery to understand
that due to the vibrant trade taking place on the Atlantic between America,
Holland, England and Spain, the typical colonial household was likely to
contain both imported and local pottery. The earliest examples of colonial pottery
were utilitarian earthenware pieces. Some stoneware production began at a later
date. But when it comes to porcelain, we must travel back to ancient China for
our pottery history lesson.
As with so many of the world's art forms, pottery was being worked to wonderful
heights in China in ancient times. Extremely sophisticated manufacturing of
porcelain in China dates back to the 14th century. Two types of porcelain were
produced there: hard paste and soft paste. Hard paste porcelain features a glass-like
finish due to high firing temperatures. Soft paste porcelain is fired at lower
temperatures and does not achieve the luminous translucence of hard paste porcelain.
Europeans were so enthralled with the first examples of porcelain coming to them
from Asia that their enchantment created the industry dubbed the "China Trade".
The main ingredient in porcelain is a clay called Kaolin (Kao-ling), which has
an extremely fine grain. Though this type of clay was abundant in China, it
proved scarce in Europe and Europeans were simply baffled by the complex porcelain-making
process. It was not until the early 1700's that they understood the technique and
began creating their own "china". Bone china is a type of porcelain specific to
Europe and contains powdered animal bones. Both Chinese and European porcelain
were imported to those members of the American colonies who could afford the
luxury of it. Not being a sturdy ware, porcelain items would have been used only
for special occasions.
It was not until the late 1700's that U.S. production of porcelain began. Again,
it proved something of a puzzle. Finding appropriate clay sources and mastering
the techniques of the art were a challenge, and to this day, American production
of porcelain is not equal to that of Asia or Europe.
Fortunately, the considerable achievements of American earthenware potters in the
20th and 21st centuries have made owning ceramics which are both beautiful and
durable. Emerson Creek Pottery enjoys particular popularity for its handpainted
ceramic vases. These lovely vases are a delicate complement to any floral
arrangement and are so well made that they will become the next generation's
treasured family heirlooms.