Monday, April 27, 2015

The Bluebird of Happiness

QUESTION: Some time ago, I purchased six dinner plates, each with a large bluebird design on it, from a church sale. I love the bold design on these plates and have yet to see any others like them. On the back is the mark of the Buffalo Pottery. I thought they only made restaurant china. What can you tell me about my plates.

ANSWER: What you bought is commonly known as bluebird chinaware. The large, bold bluebird on your plates is one of over 50 different variations made by as many potteries. And while Buffalo Pottery did make a lot of restaurant china, they also made some for home use.

Bluebird china was everyday dinnerware. It was mostly made in America, beginning in the late 19th century. It featured  a decal of a bluebird, often with flowers or other designs incorporated into it.  Potteries made this china to be functional, and being so, it often broke from daily use. In many cases, started  out as a grocery store premium, perhaps a free gift received after collecting the required number of stamps. People could also buy complete sets from the Montgomery Ward Catalog and from Sears Roebuck & Co.

By the mid-1920s, bluebird china was available everywhere. But its popularity didn’t last long since by the end of the decade, manufacturers had begun phasing it out. By 1930, it had all but disappeared.

While many Ohio potteries, especially those in the vicinity of East Liverpool, made bluebird china, collectors prefer that made by the Homer Laughlin China Company. The pottery most often decorated its Empress dinnerware, which it introduced in 1914, with bluebirds. The company also decorated some of its other dinnerware shapes with bluebird decals, include Cable, Hudson, Kwaker, Newell, Republic, Riviera, and Tea Rose.

Homer Laughlin usually used a design showing two or three chubby bluebirds surrounded by differing shades of pink flowering apple blossom branches. Other potteries also produced china with the same motif which seemed strange. As it turns out, Ohio Valley potteries all bought their decals from the same company, Meyercord Decal, in Chicago.

Other potteries outside of Ohio also made their own versions of bluebird china. The most important of these was the Buffalo Pottery of New York. Many collectors seek out pieces by Homer Laughlin with decals showing bluebirds in flight that the company used on its wares. The bluebirds found on Buffalo Pottery wares appear to fly in flocks across the surface of each piece. Buffalo also sold bluebird dishes to restaurants.

The Larkin Soap Company first introduced a butter tub with a drainer and pitchers, both sporting bluebird designs, as a premium in its 1918-1919 catalog. Larkin’s catalogs from 1919 to 1922 featured a bluebird tea set consisting of tea plates, cups and saucers, sugar and creamer. Larkin also offered special pieces, like a baby dish, that could be specially ordered.

Another bluebird variation popular with collectors is the Flying Blue Bird pattern produced by Knowles, Taylor & Knowles of East Liverpool, Ohio. While the bluebird decals used by Homer Laughlin depict a small, pale blue, plump bird, KT&K's bluebird decals show large, bold birds in rich dark blues that seem to be circling around the china's outer edges. KT&K put their bluebird decal on pottery from their white Nina line, making the bluebirds stand out even more.

In order to compete with American bluebird china makers, European potteries began adhering bluebird decals to their dinnerware. This was odd since bluebirds aren't native to Europe.

There are many variations of the bluebird designs. D.E. McNicol Pottery, also of East Liverpool, made calendar plates with a finer, stylized bluebird floating between each month's calendar page on the plate's rim. The Edward J. Owen China Co. of Minerva, Ohio, often used a decal showing one or two bluebirds in flight among flowering rose branches.

As far as the value of bluebird china, shape doesn't seem to enter into it. Plates are common and sell for around $35 while rare large pitchers sell for lots more. Collectors especially seek the larger pitchers. A 6 3/4 inch water pitcher, made by the Buffalo Pottery, can sell for as high as $200.

And finding items in good condition is also a challenge since people used this dinnerware. Items like egg cups, salt and pepper shakers, and complete tea sets are particularly hard to find.

China decorated with bluebirds was especially popular because of what the birds represented. The 1920s was a time of optimism and the bluebird became synonymous with that. Bluebirds became a symbol of rebirth and renewal as well. Bluebirds and happiness seem to go together.

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