Identifying Patterns!

Contributed by Rachel Manning

Out of all the artifacts that I have worked with over the course of my career, one of my favorite types has always been historic ceramics. There are so many different ceramic types and beautiful decorative patterns that it’s easy to see why ceramics can often become collector’s items. Transferware has always been particularly interesting to me. Maybe it’s because there is such a wide array of images and scenery that can be depicted on this type of ceramic.

One of my previous jobs dealt heavily with colonial and antebellum artifacts, so transfer printed ceramic fragments would come through the lab on a regular basis. One of my favorite things to do there was to identify the specific patterns on the fragments as best I could. In order to do that I had many resources, including a Powerpoint with typologies found at the site and access to the Transferware Collectors Club website.

Last week, I decided to inventory a drawer which has historic ceramics in it. I rarely see historic ceramics here, so I figured it would be a good way to keep them fresh in my mind. When it came time to catalog the ceramics, I organized them in my workspace by colors, and then further broke these groups into design patterns.

Organizing ceramics!

I had kept the aforementioned Powerpoint on a flash drive in case I ever ran into historic ceramics again. It was open on my computer while I was going through this particular drawer and it proved to be a valuable resource once again. I had a few fragments of transfer printed ceramics in front of me and noticed that even though they were tiny sherds, I was able to see that they contained images of grain, a foot, and a window with some shrubs.

The foot of a gleaner
Ceramic fragment with a window and shrubs
Ceramic fragment with gathered wheat

Going through the Powerpoint, I immediately recognized that these match up with a transfer pattern that is known as “Gleaners.” The rim pattern also was a dead giveaway, but that didn’t make it any less exciting to see that from a few tiny pieces of ceramic, I could get a vision of what the entire vessel once looked like!

An entire vessel with the “Gleaners” pattern.

Finding fragments of transfer printed ceramic is always exciting and can be like having pieces of a puzzle that you need to put together. Many antique transfer printing patterns are still used and reproduced to this day. If you have any in your possession, or know anyone else who does, I’d encourage you to look it up online and see what you can learn about something you might have once thought was just a cool decorative piece.

The Inventory Specialist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. to improve the intellectual and physical control of the institute’s collections. We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs, and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at or 978 749 4493.

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