Porcelain or china dinnerware is one of the most popular items found in antiques stores, probably because of its ability to endure for decades and retain its beauty. Whether for a collection, entertaining, or everyday use, vintage china offers some of the loveliest and most intricate embellishments to be seen on ceramic dishware. Most older pieces have been handcrafted with vivid glazes, hand-painted details, or metallic rims. The fine details and artwork on vintage dishware is rarely seen in modern times.
Anyone who shops for vintage china should first understand the nomenclature and clarify his or her intent, since both "vintage" and "china" can be interpreted differently. Buyers should be able to differentiate between actual china and other types of ceramic materials. Knowing what kinds of china are out there further helps to distinguish available items. Being familiar with some of the most famous china manufacturers in the world can steer buyers in the right direction if they are seeking true porcelain china.
"Vintage" means different things to different people. In the most general sense, "vintage" equates simply to "old." However, some people refer to different historical periods by different names. For example, vintage cars date to roughly the Roaring Twenties; vintage china is sometimes thought to refer only to china from the 1950s through the 1980s. When shopping, the buyer should be sure to clarify this terminology with the seller’s full description of a product to make sure they are both on the same page.
About Ceramics and China
As with the word "vintage," it is important for consumers to understand that the word "china" can be used in two different senses. Thus, depending on what the buyer is looking for, "china" may or may not apply. Dictionaries define "china" in at least two different ways:
- A white ceramic material fired at a high temperature; its resulting characteristics including a glassy translucence and luster and low porosity
- Any ceramic tableware
Hence, some folks may refer to their Pfaltzgraff stoneware or Fiesta as "china." Thus, "vintage china" can mean anything from old dishes to porcelain from the 1960s. Buyers should make it clear when shopping whether they are looking for any vintage dishware or specifically for true porcelain china.
There are three basic types of ceramics, each possessing different qualities. Earthenware is the lowest quality, and stoneware is a step up from earthenware. The echelon of ceramics is porcelain.
Earthenware is the most rugged-looking type of ceramic used in dinnerware, although ironically, it is the weakest. After firing at a relatively low temperature, earthenware is opaque and also somewhat porous and fragile. As one can observe by watering a plant in a terracotta pot, unglazed earthenware absorbs and conducts water. An advantage of earthenware, however, is that it is less costly.
Subtypes of earthenware include
One can see that while "earthenware" sounds like (and sometimes is in fact) crude pottery, it can actually be quite lovely, particularly when glazed in a decorative manner. The natural tones of unglazed earthenware are those found in bricks and typical clay pots: reds, browns, and blacks.
Stoneware is a step up from earthenware in terms of refinement and durability. As the name implies, fired stoneware is roughly similar to stone, both in terms of color and hardness. Whereas earthenware tends to have deep, rich colorations, natural stoneware is more likely to be buff, tan, or gray.
Subtypes of stoneware include
- Bartmann jug
- Böttger ware
- Cane ware
- Crouch ware
- Rosso Antico
Fired stoneware is generally leakproof, even before glazing. Stoneware is quite common for everyday dishware and casual use.
China or Porcelain
In the most technical sense, "china" is synonymous with "porcelain," although in common usage, many people talk of any tableware as china. Techniques for making porcelain were developed and perfected by the Chinese, and because kaolin (the predominant ingredient in porcelain) is also known as china clay, this is where the interchangeability of the two terms originated from.
Subtypes of porcelain include
- Bone china
- Hard paste
- Soft paste
Porcelain must be fired at a very high temperature in order to vitrify the kaolin. After firing, porcelain absorbs very little water and is extremely hard and durable. Unexpectedly, porcelain also has the finest look of all the ceramics. Because of the fine texture of the kaolin, porcelain is smooth and lustrous, with a milky white glow.
There are hundreds of well-known China manufacturers, but novices to china collecting may want to peruse the following list of top brands to look for.
This is not to say that these are the only desirable names in vintage china, only that they are names a collector hears frequently and may want to be familiar with. Each maker stamps the company name or a symbol on the bottom of most pieces, so when looking at untagged vintage items (or even tagged items), buyers should learn how to double-check for these identifying marks to determine a piece’s authenticity.
Styles of China
The china options available may be overwhelming, so it helps if a buyer has a general idea in mind of the desired look or style. China from the 1900s is different from that of the 1950s, which is different from that of the 1980s. If the china is for use on the table, it helps to select a decade that is in keeping with the overall style of the kitchen or dining area décor and the color scheme in place. The following chart gives a general idea of the look of china from certain decades:
Typical Looks in China
bright colors; melamine, Princess
bright, cheerful colors; Corning Ware
Rustic-looking stoneware and earthenware; earthtones (cream, rust, brown, orange, gold, green)
soft neutrals and pastels (almond, mauve, blue)
These are just approximations; one can find floral patterns and fine china in any decade. Classic pieces in plain white or with gold- or silver-toned rims have been popular for years and never seem to go out of style.
Where to Find Vintage China
You may have to do some creative shopping to find vintage china, but you will likely have fun doing it. Good places to start are antiques dealers, estate sales, and auctions. It may be possible to find vintage china at consignment and thrift stores, junk shops, and flea markets. There are newer stores that specialize in upcycled and "reincarnated" items for the home. Yard sales and classified advertisements are some other possible sources. If you prefer to shop online, you can find classified ads on the Internet as well, along with specialty retailers and auction sites.
How to Buy Vintage China on eBay
An auction site such as eBay is an ideal source for vintage china for many reasons. For one, most mainstream retailers deal in new merchandise, not old or pre-owned items. Additionally, private sales and even in-person auctions are not likely to feature a wide variety of pieces. On eBay, you can literally search the country and even the globe in just a few minutes.
One way to go about looking for vintage china on eBay is to use the site directory. Start at the homepage and click on the link for all categories. Next, navigate through the directory until you arrive at china. Finally, enter the keyword "vintage" to eliminate all new and modern china. You may even try varying your keyword to "antique" or "collectible" to see if that returns different listings.
You can also use the keyword search function by returning to the eBay homepage. This allows you to quickly move to a specific product. For example, you could type "vintage blue Mikasa creamer" or "vintage china plate 1900." The keyword phrase does not need capitalization or punctuation and does not even have to be a grammatically correct phrase, just a string of your most important keyword tags.
Many collectors seek out vintage china, but what they are actually seeking may differ. "Vintage" can mean simply "old" or refer to items from a particular time period (usually the 1950s through the 1980s with china). "China" can refer to porcelain or to dishware in general. Buyers should have a clear idea of what they want before shopping and dealing with sellers. Knowing which companies are the top makers of china helps buyers identify quality pieces from unknown, no-name china. Because vintage china is often unlabeled, buyers need to inspect the bottoms of pieces and look for identifying marks (symbols or logos) as indications of authenticity. If the vintage china is to be used instead of simply displayed, the buyer should try to incorporate the color and style with existing decorations in the kitchen and dining room. Vintage china may be lovely, but if it sticks out like a sore thumb, it may look tacky and even ostentatious. By taking this advice into consideration, any china connoisseur can know exactly what to look for and pick out the best pieces.