Transfer Printing

By Erica D’EliaAssistant Lab Director


Blue was the first color to be used in underglaze transfer-printing as cobalt was the only color that could withstand the high heat of the firing kiln. Black was next to be introduced and other colors, such as red, purple, green, and brown did not become viable choices until much later. The above sherds are from our type collection and not from a specific site.

We’ve talked a bit about some of the different types of ceramics we find for example tin glaze, white salt-glazed stoneware, creamware, and porcelain, but you might be wondering more about how these pieces were decorated. Our recent work at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park recovered a number of sherds decorated with transfer-printed designs. Underglaze transfer-printing began in the early 1780s and is ubiquitous on archaeological sites through the mid-nineteenth century.

You may already be familiar with transfer-printed tablewares. They are often staples at antique stores and make beautiful decorative pieces (I have a few gracing my dining room hutch at home) and some manufactures, such as Spode, still produce these designs. In the 19th century, people were purchasing full matched sets for their tables. Perhaps the most recognizable element of this technique is the very intricate designs which typically cover the entire vessel. The same pattern is mass produced and can be found on different vessel forms such as plates, platters, teacups, and bowls.

As the name suggests, transfer-printing is a method of transferring an image to ceramic vessels. Before transfer-printing, individual artists painted designs by hand on to each piece, leaving room for much variation and characteristic brush strokes visible on the vessels. Though highly skilled engravers were still needed, transfer-printing required fewer artists and was less labor intensive than hand-painted wares. The patterns produced and use of cobalt blue ink on white-bodied wares served as an imitation of more costly Chinese porcelain.


To create a transfer-print design artists would engrave a reusable copper plate. The plate would be inked and the excess ink removed. Then a piece of tissue paper was placed over the inked engraving. The tissue paper was used to apply or “transfer” the design to the bisque-fired ceramic vessel prior to glazing. Once the design was affixed using soft soap the tissue paper was removed and the piece was dipped into a clear lead glaze and fired to produce the final product. This technique resulted in the ability to produce large quantities of matching vessels and ceramic sets. Transfer-print can be distinguished from hand-painted vessels by the fine detail of the designs, lack of brush strokes, and often a fine stippling or series of diagonal lines visible from the engraving. A short video demonstrating the process can be viewed here. If you’d like to see a more in-depth narrated demonstration check out this video by one of the masters at Spode (I don’t get any kickbacks from Spode, I promise). Often, women usually did most the transferring of the pattern, while children, sometimes younger than ten, performed a number of jobs in the factory.

Transfer-printing was commonly used on white-bodied refined earthenware ceramics. Most of these vessels were produced in England by manufacturers like Wedgwood and Davenport and then exported for the American market. Certain patterns, representing American themes, scenes, and images were even produced specifically for overseas consumption. Some potters identified their pieces by placing their trademark on the bottom of the vessel, but this was by no means a common practice in the 18th and early 19th century. The consumer revolution that occurred throughout the 17th to early 19th centuries ensured that people of all social classes, including slaves, had access to these household goods.

For archaeologists, one of the most useful aspects of transfer-printed wares is the diagnostic utility. Different stylistic motifs on both the central portion of a flatware vessel and the border pattern changed over time and each style was popular for about 15-20 years. Additionally, printing technique and even color can be diagnostic clues. In some cases, we may even have records of the years of production for a specific pattern. One of the most recognizable and enduring patterns is “Willow” a British perception of Chinese culture. A fantastic resource for dating transfer-printed styles can be found courtesy of Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

By the latter half of the 19th century demand for transfer-printed vessels declined and were replaced with minimally decorated or undecorated ironstone pieces.


“Printed Underglaze Earthenware.” Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Accessed May 10, 2016

Galle, Jillian E. “Costly Signaling and Gendered Social Strategies Among Slaves in the Eighteenth-century Chesapeake: An Archaeological Perspective”. American Antiquity 75.1 (2010): 19–43.

Goodby, Miranda. “Children in Staffordshire’s Potteries.” BBC Legacies. Accessed May 10, 2016

Miller, George L. “A Revised Set of CC Index Values for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from 1787 to 1880”. Historical Archaeology 25.1 (1991): 1–25.

Nelson, Christina H. “Transfer-printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market”. Winterthur Portfolio 15.2 (1980): 93–115.

O’Hara Patricia. “`The Willow Pattern that we Knew’: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.” Victorian Studies. Summer93 1993; (4):421.

Portanova, Joseph J. “Porcelain, The Willow Pattern, and Chinoiserie. Accessed May 10, 2016


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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