Dishing It Up: About Pottery, Porcelain & Ceramics

{And you thought it was just a cereal bowl!}

This is a short article on china- not the country, the object. It seems that human exploration, deception, and even wars have been fought over the discovery of a certain formula….one that delineates the ingredients of a hard, ceramic substance called porcelain.

Porcelain, you see, is a very fine, translucent object that is non-porous and can be used to hold both hot and cold foods, liquids or objects. Decorative pieces with nice, shiny surfaces are often used for formal dining and showing off ones’ wealth.

When compared to fine porcelain, pottery is a very heavy, dark, and porous ceramic that can be decorated, but not easily. It is rather clumsy, compared to porcelain, and often seen as a stepchild. It was made for common purposes, such as holding whiskey, salt or flour.

America has always had a good deal of pottery. It’s made from common clay and can be formed by either itinerants or local potters. It’s not very pretty, however, and was never seen as something glamorous. Porcelain, on the other hand, was always considered elegant. Even in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was desired for use and trade. Even Marco Polo reportedly admitted that his real quest in the Orient was finding the holy grail of ceramics: porcelain. As were others, since we began trading heavily with England and others who were buying blue and white porcelain from China. This type of porcelain was called “Chinese Export Porcelain,” and it was made for us hungry westerners. It had all the right stuff. It was fine. It was translucent. It was decorated with wonderful patterns and scenes. It didn’t absorb liquid (great for eating)…but it was EXPENSIVE.

The reason it was expensive was that the Chinese knew the secret ingredient….and we didn’t. It was called kaolin (a special clay or soil). The entire rest of the world longed for the secret and fought many battles, real and scientific, for the treasure. Finally, a few Westerners succeeded. In Germany, it was the people in Meissen; in France, the district of Sevres; and in England (a little belatedly), it was Wedgwood. America….sorry, you never got it. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that we finally produced a decent product (the forerunners of Lenox). By then it was too late. We were stuck with pottery. (But stuck in a very good way, since we excelled at it and began making some of the best pottery ever seen.)

So, you see, the story IS about China – the country and not the object. For nothing really exists called china. It’s either pottery or porcelain or somewhere in between. It’s not china!

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