Have you ever had the good fortune of having a museum curator allow you into storage to view pottery not out on public display? If so, (you usually just need to ask) you’ll understand the magic of seeing a drawer open before you for the first time, displaying a pottery type you heard about but had never seen in all it’s glory. The friendly curator shows you these pots. Cabinet doors open and there they are. Row upon row. Even if they’re of a style you previously thought not terribly interesting, that moment of breathlessness is remarkable.
This magic moment must have been magnified and condensed down to one single item back in the 19th century, particularly for children. The lucky kids in question, initially from well to do families but increasingly from a broader economic pool, were occasionally given token pottery gifts. These were usually small mugs, or sometimes mini bowls, plates, or other forms – but always with some transfer print image and/or quote alluding to the joys of behaving.
These children’s pots might have been meant as toys, or maybe they were the kids’ own set of dishes. Birthday presents. Graduation presents. Rewards. Specialties. But they were never first line production items. Most pottery firms made them, but hardly any bothered to advertise them. Initially made of porcelain, as the 19th century wore on these giftwares were usually done in cheap yellowware with a decal hastily slapped on, often with a copper luster band along the top.
How did the kids feel about these pots? Were they received in awe as treasured gifts? Some small part of the explosion of styles and techniques known as the Industrial Revolution made just for them? Or were they accepted like today’s cheap, plastic, collectible “Happy Meal” junk?
Some gift pots show considerable use. It seems those with the most popular motifs and images were ‘loved to death,’ played with or otherwise used until they inevitably broke and were tossed in the garbage. Others are to this day in pristine condition. Many of these later pots tend to carry the most maudlin, moralizing sayings. It’s almost as if, once given, they were unceremoniously shoved into a corner hutch, to patiently await collectors from a hundred years into the future.
One wonders about these neglected gift pots. Who exactly were they really for, the child or the parent?
Gifts for Good Children, The History of Children’s China 1790-1890. Noel Riley. The Old Chapel/Somerset England. 1991.
English Yellow-Glazed Earthenware. J. Jefferson Miller. Smithsonian Institute Press/Washington DC. 1974.