In my by now constant quest for new trinkets and treasures in the way of vintage, I happened across a set of plates last week. They spoke to me. I wanted them. I didn’t want to sell them, I wanted them for me. Half the fun of the hunt is finding an unexpected treasure, the other half is figuring out exactly what you have. When you do this for a living you either develop “an eye for a buy” or you fail epically through bad choices.
Luckily for me, although I was raised by wolves, my mother was a wolf snob, which meant I absorbed museums and interesting places through my growing up years. It wasn’t hard to get me to go, I fell in love with old stuff early and keenly appreciated the quirky to boot. All these years later I am grateful for the early grounding in lovely old things — and my insatiable curiousity.
I am a graduate of the Evergreen State College, with a heavy part of that degree being cultural ethnography. Anthropology of the modern eras is what that boils down to, which fits in exactly with who I am. Grads from that school know how to read and do research better than anyone else. Which is where the curiousity comes in to play. I am fascinated by what I find and do much more digging than the usual Etsy or Ebay seller. I can’t help it, I want to know what I have in my hands. Who made it? Why? Where?
I realize I would be far more wealthy if I shoveled stuff up on my Etsy sites and said “Vintage” whatever it is, but I have a need to know and the finding out is fascinating. Let’s take my stack of plates discovered at a local thrift shop for $3.99 each as an example. There are salad plates and dinner plates and one saucer, I even found two two-handled soup bowls in a different section of the store that matched. By no means is this a complete set, but in this case I didn’t care–which is rare, it was dish love at first sight.
These are glorious. The flowers make me think of an English spring. Robust, blowsy-as in full blown roses, feminine, with wonderful color and detail. I flipped them over. Eureka! The price of $3.99 each for old used crazed plates suddenly made sense. The name on the back of the plates was Wedgwood and Co. I felt smug. I drove home, I unloaded the plates and sat down to do my research and find out what I had.
Well… I had Wedgwood, which is never spelled with an ‘e’, by the way. http://fineartamerica.com/featured/—-blue-portland-vase-wedgwood-.html This link shows the usual run of Wedgwood, blue, green, or black with a relief on it, although Wedgwood also made plates, dishes, and the type of English fine china. It also shows a price tag of $750.00, so you can understand the frisson of pleasure I experienced at seeing that name on my dishes.
I hit the internet and started hunting up maker’s marks. These are the most important clue if you can find them. Hmm…Wedgwood was founded in 1759 in Burslem, England by Josiah Wedgwood and he never used a unicorn mark. So now what? More digging and sifting turned up clues, the name Enoch Wedgwood and the location Tunstall, England, and then a red herring–Ralph Wedgwood.
Fascinating. It turns out that Ralph Wedgwood was a relation and a walking disaster who tried to cash in on Josiah (the big Wedgwood cheese) Wedgwood’s success. Ralph went into business with partners using the name Wedgwood and Co. in 1785. He was apparently so inept and caused so much breakage with his weird experiments and firing style that he was kicked to the curb in 1801 with a nice severance package of a thousand pounds. If you run into really old Wedgwood and Co. and it looks like a cheap knock-off it is probably a Ralph piece. End of Ralph. Moral of the Ralph story: Don’t pay a ton for a Wedgwood classic piece unless you can determine its the real deal and not a Ralph.
Chapter Deux: In Tunstall, England a distant cuz of the family of Josiah ‘Big Cheese’ Wedgewood, of Burslem, went into the family business himself in 1835. Enoch Wedgewood (1813-1879) was a potter who started out with the firm of Potter, Walker and Co., and by 1856 he was a partner in the new Potter, Walker and Wedgewood.The company rented the Swan Banks works and took over the Unicorn Works in Great Woodland Street. Although the company prospered, the partnership dissolved in 1859. Enoch’s brother Jabez joined him and they formed Wedgwood and Co. At one point the factory covered a full acre and employed 700 people. He apparently chose to keep the Unicorn mark because of his incorporation of the Unicorn Works in the business.
In 1965, the company was renamed Enoch Wedgwood and in a bizarre twist of fate in 1980 the Josiah Wedgwood Company took over Enoch’s company, naming it Unicorn Pottery Works. In this economy sadly even the great old English firm of Wegwood has fallen on tough times and its survival is by no means assured. The pottery towns where all this took place banded together and are now collectively known as Stoke-on-Trent, arguably the greatest area for china and potter makers ever in the world.
I am quite pleased with my journey down the Wedgwood rabbit hole. I learned a lot and I like knowing about Enoch, that he was married and had four children, two died in infancy which was common in those days, and the other two sons grew up to be potters and went into the family business.
Now I just have to figure out how old these are…and then find the cups and saucers and the rest of the soup bowls. The best part? These are smaller than modern dinner plates, perfect for our scaled down diet dinners.