Selling Pieces from the Past – Part One

In my bio, I have described myself as a historian and collector. . . my first collection, books. History and literature stretching from the middle ages to the present. How many? I never knew. I never counted. I knew there were books that I needed. Books that I needed to read again, paragraphs to ponder, sometimes to wonder. Some books you know you will always go back to again and again. Then there were the rare books. Books the university library did not have that I needed to read slowly. I would check out books from my library at home – Alden Library – usually, I had over 200 books from that source. I was writing a dissertation that spanned two continents and the lives of two brothers, sons daughters. I read constantly. My appetite was voracious. Then I moved to a cabin in the woods – I needed to purge that collection. I gave away so many books without any sense of loss.

In turn, I started a new project, the history of Ohio River Pottery. I began collecting pottery made in Ohio. I wanted to write a history – not a guide to identification but rather a history of the people who built the industry and how they kept that business going for the next century. As I discovered, the story is a political, economic and social history. I also realized after that collection took shape, that the patterns told their own history of cultural change – colors, ornamentation and shape reflected taste and fashion. A new journey of discovery. . .  In turn, I am now selling that collection. In my mind, the sales would allow me the time to write the history.

Impetuously, I forged ahead into online selling and a storefront – the collection had grown too large for my barn! Now I was faced with a new learning curve. . . what came naturally for my children, by the way, was not natural for me. Certainly, I had used the internet to research in libraries from Quebec to Paris. But selling required another kind of knowledge – lots and lots. And organization and most of all presence . . great stress soon followed!

Books are simple to organize . . the miracle of the Dewey Decimal System! I can walk to my bookshelves and find a booka in a matter of seconds. But plates . . . over my head it seems. I have always favored white. Simple, pure and the eye is drawn to the form. While I had know Homer Laughlin since I first needed a plate, or so it seems, I at long last discovered Russel Wright! He understood form and the way in which everyday objects affect our lives. . .

Russel Wright, Steubenville, Relish Tray
Russel Wright, Steubenville, Relish Tray

I suppose the first big surprise was that other people wanted to buy parts of this collection. . . . lots of people and lots of pieces! Nothing to complain about except that the intellectual did not have a system in place. Have been working on that for the last few weeks. . . It feels like I have been thrown into the ocean and now we will see if I sink or swim. . .  Hmmmm, I have no intention of sinking. I am learning, too slowly it seems.

Last week, an angel from Canada ordered four Russel Wright plates. Now these are pure white dessert plates. They are a captivating white . . I so hate to sound romantic but – they are white as angels wings. Not a sterile white, not at all clinical, but pure like an angel’s wings, like Sugar White! Truly. I have seemingly millions of white plates, but these are different. So now back to the process of selling. I had not yet shipped anything to Canada. So how best to ship the plates . . . .that research took time. Then the packing. The mail carriers are not gentle with packages, they are in a hurry as the whole of civilization is now. And remember, we are forging relationships with people that we do not know. So, how do we trust. . . especially, the buyer? It is all such an interesting process of give and take without the usual social cues of shaking a hand and getting to know another.

After we had all the details worked out, in packing the pristine white plates, I looked around but could only find three! I had the good luck to know a dealer who happened to have more . . . but now, the shipment is late. . .

We have devised a new way to organize those things that we list online. I also now know that shipping to Canada is simple albeit expensive for the buyer! And this “angel” from Canada inadvertently forced me to learn new lessons for parting with this collection. . . I am in her debt. Whenever I think of Russel Wright especially, Sugar White, it will be her that I remember.

In looking back, I remember a letter that Noel Sillery once wrote to the governor of Canada seeking assurances that donations would go toward the new building of a convent and church. . . he was seeking assurance and trust across great distance. . . with a letter now an email! That time in history was a process of discovery. Ahhhh, she thinks, the more things change the more they remain the same.





Can This Plate Be Saved?

So, you have a favorite plate or you are thrifting and you come across a plate that looks like this one. Can the crazing be removed? Is the piece useable? Well, it depends. In the case of this plate, the stain can not be removed because the damage is too deep. In fact, the crazing is evident on the underside of the plate.IMG_2820

Also, note the kiln marks – one of them was not glazed before it went into the kiln. Over time, the unglazed spots are infiltrated by all that was served on the piece. Here you can compare two kiln marks – the mark on the right was glazed.

Detail, Kiln Marks
Detail, Kiln Marks

But many times, if the problem is only surface deep then the Hydrogen Peroxide Bath usually will clean it up! It is really a miracle – of science.

So, toute de suite, are the detailed instructions from The White Ironstone China Association – and even though restaurant ware is glazed, fired and finished differently – this recipe works.

Cleaning Stains

Silverware can leave gray marks on china. Use a little toothpaste on a soft cloth to rub them away.

Some of the most common stains seen on white ironstone china are dark staining under the glaze. Sometimes the whole piece can look dirty, and often a buyer won’t think of purchasing it. Some stains have gone deeply into the clay itself, and won’t come out, but quite often they can be removed quite successfully.

Common cleaners that will remove some stains include naval jelly & ZUD (rust stains), denture tablets, calgon water softener with a Z code, and ammonia (sealed in plastic).

You don’t see professional cleaning instructions here because of the danger involved – chemicals can explode, and they can cause injury. There are people who do professional china cleaning, and it can be well worth it to engage them to clean valuable pieces for you.

Using Hydrogen Peroxide to Clean Stains

The only relatively safe chemical that we know of to clean white ironstone china is hydrogen peroxide, and it is used frequently. Its chemical formula (H2O2) is very similar to water (H2O), but it has an extra oxygen atom. This gives hydrogen peroxide the ability to oxidize organic and inorganic materials, producing water at a reaction byproduct. This makes it useful as an agent to both whiten the stain and make the stain easier to be flushed from the china.

If you want to try cleaning a piece with hydrogen peroxide, by the regular 3% hydrogen peroxide in the grocery or drug store. Buy enough to cover your piece as you soak it. Put the peroxide in a tightly lidded plastic container. After several days, take the piece out and put it in strong sunlight, so the hydrogen peroxide vaporizes from the heat. You can also try to bake the piece in an electric oven, at the lowest possible temperature, not to exceed 200 degrees. Using a gas oven could cause a fire or an explosion when the hydrogen peroxide is heated. Heating in an electric oven is safe to you, but your dishes could very well break. Heating in sunlight takes longer, but is safer for the dishes. You can repeat this process until the piece is clean.

WARNING!! Using a stronger solution of peroxide is extremely dangerous. It can burn the skin off your hands and cause permanent damage to mucous membranes, and unless you know chemistry very well you could have an explosion. Leave the work with stronger hydrogen peroxide to the professionals.

After you have cleaned your white ironstone piece, wash it thoroughly, as any cleaning chemicals that remain can migrate into your food.


One of the most common mistakes is to use Clorox or some other chlorine bleach to attempt to clean white ironstone. You may get rid of the stain, but you likely also will ruin your dish. Chlorine gets under the glaze and has a chemical reaction with the clay and glaze. Chlorine bleach has the ability to exist in several states, liquid, gas and crystal. The bleach penetrates the glaze and goes into the clay body. There, when it dries, it turns into crystals, which expand and will push the glaze right off the piece. The clay body of the piece is dissolved by the chemical, and the ironstone breaks back down to clay particles.

You will sometimes find a piece of white ironstone that is covered by a white powder. It may have been cleaned with bleach. Often these pieces will smell like chlorine bleach, and the surface is crumbling to the point where the glaze is coming off. Over time, the piece will continue to deteriorate, and eventually the clay body will begin to crumble. Soaking the piece in vinegar will stop the deterioration, but won’t repair the damage.

If you know of any tricks of the trade – like a process or recipe to clean wood with built up wax and dirt – let us know!

Pottery made in the Ohio Valley

I like restaurant china because it is built to last and tough to break in everyday use. Hitting it with a hammer will break it. But it is tough and durable. But I did not know anything about the history much less the economy of the along the broad swath of the Ohio River. For example, East Liverpool, Ohio was crowned as the Center of Pottery. I did not even know there was a place called East Liverpool!

The first pottery in Ohio was established in the mid-eighteenth century according to The Museum of Ceramics in East Liverpool, Ohio. Fifty years later there were thousands of potteries – large and small supplying the country with wares for their homes. You have certainly used Ohio River Pottery in a restaurant – eg. Hall, Laughlin, Syracuse – many believe that the best restaurant dinnerware is still made along the Ohio River!

Locally, it was bricks. In 1920, the Brick and Clay Record informed their readers that production at the two plants in Nelsonville and the one plant in Logan were busy fulfilling orders placed from the previous year. Bricks made in Nelsonville won accolades at the World’s Fair and what is more, are highly regarded to this day.  But still   many believed that the best ceramics were produced in Europe.

Local potteries fought to win the American market. This backstamp from Homer Laughlin illustrated their business plan – the American Eagle has launched an attack on the English Lion.

Homer Laughlin Backstamp
Homer Laughlin Backstamp

Patterns from all of these potteries abound. The colors and images reflect the taste and style of previous generations – and sometimes politics. The durability of “restaurant china” is truly amazing – you can almost throw it. And it all looks great no matter the pattern or the mix.