Our Museum Feature this month is a colossal Historic America-Blue cup and saucer set by Johnson Brothers. Adorned with the “View of Boston” motif, the cup in this distinctive set measures a whopping 9 3/8 inches across, while the saucer is an equally impressive 11 1/4 inches wide! Historic America is an iconic pattern that features a variety of distinctive American-themed tableaux like “The Alamo, Texas,” “View of Niagara Falls,” “San Francisco During the Gold Rush,” and many others. The pattern was produced in several different color schemes, including pink, blue, brown, and brown multicolor.
The practice of using American scenes to decorate tableware is almost as old as America itself. According to Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi in “Visions of America: Johnson Brothers Pottery in the US Market, 1872-2002,” American-themed scenes began appearing on Liverpool creamware around 1790. The decorative elements applied to tableware at that time were typically scenes of major American cities, and were based on extant engravings. However, these decorative patterns only occupied a small niche in England’s export market. From the early to mid-nineteenth century, most china exported to America from England was plain white granite ware. In order to appeal to the American consumer, many of these undecorated patterns were named for populous American cities, like “Savannah,” or popular figures, like “Franklin.”
In 1939, Johnson Brothers introduced the decorative Historic America pattern, partly in response to similar American-themed patterns produced at the time by other companies, such as Homer Laughlin’s Historical America and Vernon Kilns’ Our America. Producing patterns bound for export abroad, like Historic America, was also a way for Johnson Brothers to stay afloat during WWII (the manufacturing of ceramics for the domestic market was put on hold in England during WWII, but production of wares designed for export was allowed). The distinctive oak leaf and acorn border design of Historic America was copied almost exactly from a nineteenth-century design by Ralph Stevenson. Most of the different American scenes featured in the pattern were engraved by artist Claude Whittingham, and were based on previous engravings by Currier & Ives, many of which he updated with his own touches. In addition to updating these existing engravings, additional designs were added to reflect America’s expansion during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. These designs deviated from the traditional designs centered on landmarks and cityscapes to include American-centric themes like westward expansion (e.g. “The Mail and the Stage Coach,” and “Covered Wagons and the Rocky Mountains”). Historic America was a success upon its premiere in 1939, and was produced for 35 years, until 1974. Because of its popularity, a new version of the pattern was reintroduced in 2002.
The Charles Street Works factory, in the Staffordshire area of England, had already established a legacy for crafting fine dinnerware when Alfred, Fredrick, and Henry Johnson acquired it via a bankruptcy sale in 1882. Grandsons of the famous Meakin dinnerware lineage, the brothers shared a heritage in the production of fine dinnerware. The purchase of the factory in Stoke-on-Trent marked their first venture as entrepreneurs. Building a reputation on basic whiteware known as "semi-porcelain," the company created a slip that had the delicate characteristics of fine china, but the durability of ironstone. A fourth brother, Robert, relocated to the United States around 1900 to establish a presence in the tableware market that was emerging in the United States.
Johnson Brothers continued its growth in the tableware industry into World War I. With new techniques, the company was able to introduce wares that, when chipped, revealed an underlayer that was the same color as the outer glazed body. Brighter colors and award-winning designs, like Old Britain Castles and Historic America, became very popular in England and the United States. In addition, the company won the favor of the Queen Of England, not once, but twice. She awarded the company the "Queen's Award to Industry" for their contributions to the tableware industry and to the English economy.
World War II nearly halted production at Johnson Brothers factories. Although a struggle, the company managed to survive this hardship with sporadic shipments of product to the United States. War damage and the need for increased productivity dictated a major overhaul of the Johnson Brothers’ factories. Modern equipment and larger facilities were installed to improve the day-to-day production capability of the company. Various plants in England, Canada, and Australia were purchased for decorating and glazing and firing of pieces. In 1968, to offer access to even larger markets, and to remain competitive, Johnson Brothers joined the Wedgwood Group, which in turn was purchased by Waterford in 1986.
The Johnson Brothers Historic America colossal cup and saucer set in our museum is not for sale, but we do have colossal Historic America cup and saucer sets available for purchase, along with a variety of other Historic America items; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our 500,000-square-foot facilities hold more than 12 million individual pieces in more than 425,000 patterns! Our showroom and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The showroom and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!