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COLLECTIBLES : Dishing Up History on Alphabet Pottery

November 12, 1994|From Associated Press

Long before "Sesame Street" beamed a big yellow, alphabet-singing bird into homes across the country, children got their first taste of the ABCs from ceramic plates bordered in a raised alphabet.

Letters danced around the plate's rim, distracting rambunctious youngsters from the occasionally tedious task at hand--eating dinner.

The first alphabet plates were made in potters' paradise--Staffordshire, England, around 1830--and quickly won the hearts of parents on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps because they sold for pennies.

A transmogrified form even found its way into the 20th Century: Alphabet macaroni began floating around America's soup bowls in 1915.

But more than embossed letters account for the popularity of ABC plates. Illustrated riddles, Ben Franklin maxims ("Little strokes fell great trees") and famous places and faces surfaced as the food vanished. A friendly dose of Victorian morality entertained scores of pre-TV children, who were seen but seldom heard.

With hands powdered white from kneading dough, hard-working Victorian mothers served levity along with the plumb cake: Why would this pastry cook make a good soldier? Flip the plate over to find the answer: Because they seem to stand the fire so well.

The colorful illustrations serve as historical documents revealing what rural life was like in 19th-Century England. We see children in play clothes flying kites and walking on stilts; London dog sellers and blacksmiths; Queen Victoria out for a stroll and men on horseback hunting foxes.

To attract the lucrative American market, Civil War scenes and portraits of presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield were among the illustrations copied from books, then slightly altered (to escape copyright infringement laws), and prepared for transfer printing, a decorative method invented in the 18th Century.

Engraved with the "borrowed" image, copper plates were inked with paint, transferred to paper and pressed onto the ceramic surface, leaving a monochrome outline that a child would hand-color.

The naive brush strokes are a far cry from the clean, tidy lines of Renaissance painting, but the playful illustrations benefit from paint leaping over the outline.

To the eye of a youngster, a swish of green denotes trees, a blob of blue shows sky.

"Potteries were dashing plates off fast," explains Korby Britton of Six-Sept, a Manhattan antiques shop specializing in children's porcelain. "It doesn't matter if the paint splashes over the outline. They weren't meant to be fine porcelain."

Industrious English potters produced wagonloads of ABC plates but viewed children's earthenware as clumsy, unworthy of makers' marks.

The absence of trademarks also helped makers fly below copyright radar. Some plate backs, however, carry a pottery's secret seal of approval: coded letters, initials or numbers.

"Sometimes you find an anchor impress," says Britton, "which tells us that the plate is from the mid-1870s."

Believed to be part of a 1904 campaign on behalf of the deaf, rare sign-language plates show hands forming the manual alphabet.

On the underside, look for the mark "Rd. No. 426673," which indicates the English manufacturer H. Aynsley & Co., whose plates are among the most coveted by savvy collectors.

Pottery marks began to appear on later plates when mechanical methods enhanced illustrations but decreased charm. Instead of names, inspect plates for cracks and scratches, which can help negotiate prices downward.

Plates with temperance themes and other adult concerns may have survived intact because they did not inspire children to action as did rough-and-tumble nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill or Humpty Dumpty.

ABC plates without chips and scratches can fetch $150 to $500, while an even rarer species, ABC cups, can gulp down $800. Because plates were less likely to be broken than cups, more of them survived the century.

"Children don't easily throw plates," says Britton, "but they drink milk out of cups and boom--they crash to the floor."

Currently, a debate rages in the pottery field over whether the plates were intended for use.

British author Noel Riley suggests ABCs were mostly ornamental: "One mug survives for every 10 plates, which shows the mugs were used but not the plates."

But Britton disagrees. "Let's face it, ABC plates were cheap. People bought them at circuses and used them. It was not fine china."

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