Through travels to antique shows, shops and flea markets you may come across this unique pottery, which is thick and often adorned with flowers, crustaceans, seaweed, seashells, vegetables and fruit, all of which were applied as tiny sculptures layered on top of the bowls, dishes, pitchers, plates and cups. What is Majolica earthenware? Majolica is a lead and tin glaze process that creates an opaque white film that is painted on the surface of pottery. The process of making Majolica consists of first firing a piece of earthenware, then applying tin enamel that upon drying forms a white opaque porous surface. Majolica is often colorful and bold. While attending Parsons School of Design several years back, I worked at an antique shop on Lexington Avenue in New York City that had an extensive collection of Majolica. It amazed me how many designers and collectors would pay high prices for this pottery that seems rough when compared to finer porcelains, but after dusting off these pieces day after day, I became enthralled with the distinct styles of this unique earthenware.
Where did this interesting pottery come from? Majolica was first produced in Staffordshire, England, beginning around 1850. Its name was taken from the earlier tin-glazed Majolica ware made in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. There were many pitchers and tea sets made in various shapes, from fish to cauliflowers. Umbrella stands and fountains are the most voluminous and available. This brightly colored, coarse tin-glazed earthenware became very popular by the time of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The craze spread to the United States and after production started here many Victorian families collected Majolica across the country.
Almost every country has its form of Majolica earthenware, but the American Majolica is often referred to as Etruscan Majolica. In the United States the shell and seaweed pattern became the most popular and helped to establish Griffen, Smith and Hall as the primary American makers of Majolica in the late 1800s. Ironically, the American Majolica fetches the steepest prices of all this earthenware because of a limited amount of product in the market due to the Griffen factory closing because of a fire. I came upon Wildgeraniums Antiques at a recent antique show and they have an extensive collection of various periods of Majolica, as well as many vintage platters, porcelain and antique wire baskets. They have been featured on “The Martha Stewart Show” as well as design magazines for their interesting collections. Mimi Swaney and Pam Konopka gave me helpful hints about collecting the pottery and wire baskets. During the antique show Wildgeraniums hung a grouping of these plates on a wall attached to the wire baskets. During Victorian times Majolica was showcased and used in these twisted wire baskets to elaborately serve fruit at a low or high tea, and after dinner with cheese, crackers or cakes and wine. Due to the lack of refrigeration during these times fruit was a luxury and most Europeans served it as a dessert after the main meal. The ornamentation of oysters, lobster and other extravagant food details on the pottery reflects the opulence of the social gatherings during the Victorian era.
Armed with this new information, I headed out last weekend to an antique show in town and come across a quirky piece of Majolica. It is a pretty plate with purple and green flowers applied to the edges, and after inspecting the craftsmanship I bargained with the salesperson for my very first piece of Majolica.
Majolica photographs taken at East Hampton Mulford Farm from Lawrence Farms Antiques & Interiors; plate baskets from Wildgeraniums Antiques & Design.