Japanese porcelain has a highly vitrified white to off-white hard paste created with kaolin and ball clays combined with feldspar and silica (Ross 2012:15). Under short and mid-range ultraviolet light, the glazed surface of Japanese porcelain appears magenta or dark purple.
Porcelain production in Japan began in the early 17th century (Willmann 2000), but Japanese trade with the United States did not begin until after the signing of the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa. Trade between Japan and the West had been closed for more than two hundred years prior to Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to re-establish commerce.
Most of the Japanese porcelain sold in the United States between 1880 and World War I were traditional teawares or vases (Venable et al. 2000:245). The 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog advertised Japanese porcelain cake and tea plates, side dishes and tea services decorated in floral and landscape motifs (Montgomery Ward 1895). Very little Japanese tableware, however, was imported by the United States until after the turn of the 20th century (Venable et al. 2000:245). By the late 1920s, over 50% of household ceramic table and kitchenware imported into the United States was made in Japan, and this percentage had risen by the mid-1930s (Venable et al. 2000:246). For the first four decades of the 20th century, much of this porcelain consisted of inexpensive, relatively poor quality novelty ware; Japan shipped huge quantities of inexpensive porcelain to the United States during the 1930s (Venable et al. 2000:199).
In addition to porcelain produced for foreign export, it is not uncommon for Japanese porcelain made for the domestic market to turn up in archaeological assemblages. An excellent source for these wares is Douglas E. Ross’s article “Late-Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Japanese Domestic Wares from British Columbia” (2012). Some of these wares are discussed in the Decoration section below.
The inclusion in a maker’s mark of the word "Nippon" (Japan) dates the manufacture of a vessel between c. 1891 and 1921, when trade agreements mandated that the word “Japan” be used instead. From 1945 to 1952, the United States occupied Japan. Ceramics marked “Made in Occupied Japan” or “Occupied Japan” were manufactured during this period. After the war, higher quality porcelain began to be imported in greater quantities. By the third quarter of the 20th century, Japan had become America’s leading foreign supplier of porcelain and the quality of the product and American’s perception of it had improved considerably (Venable et al. 2000:245). Today, Japanese porcelain fine tableware, like the wares produced by Noritake, is considered some of the finest in the world.
Japanese porcelain is characterized by a highly vitrified white to off-white paste created with kaolin and ball clays combined with feldspar and silica (Ross 2012:15). The paste is impervious to staining or crazing.
These wares are characterized by a fine, extremely compacted white body with a clear shiny glaze. They are translucent and generally thin-bodied. These porcelains have a clear, glossy feldspathic glaze that is usually fused to the paste. Chinese and Japanese porcelains can sometimes be distinguished from each other by the tint of the glaze. Japanese glazes tend to be a white or grayish white, while there is often a faint bluish tint to the Chinese porcelain glaze (Deagan 1987:103).
Japanese porcelain can be decorated in a variety of ways, including stenciling, transfer printing, under and over the glaze painting, molding and resists. The most common motifs employed were of plants (plum, cherry, chrysanthemum, peony and bamboo) and animals (usually birds). Specific decorative motifs or types of decoration can be assigned manufacture date ranges; these types are discussed below.
The use of paper stencils to create decoration began around 1875, gained popularity several years later and remained so until around 1920 (Ross 2012:5). Stenciled wares could either be negative (a masking technique where the pigment is sprayed or spattered around the perimeter of the design, creating an outline) or positive (where the pigment was applied through slits or holes in the stencil paper). Motif elements in positive stenciled wares will be characterized by dashed lines or dots of pigment (the unpigmented spaces are caused by the bridges necessary to make a successful stencil). These mass-produced wares often show signs of overlapping stencils, smears and unevenly applied pigment (Ross 2012:7).
Transfer printing on Japanese porcelain began in 1888 and by around 1920 had completely replaced positive stenciling as a means of decoration (Ross 2012:8). Blue underglaze printing is most commonly seen, but colors like pink, green, yellow, black and brown were also used.
Phoenix Bird, a popular pattern printed in underglaze blue, features a phoenix-style bird set against a background of scrolling vines. This pattern, advertised by 1914 in the United States, likely appeared around this time (Ross 2012:5) and remained popular until World War II (Kovels 2016).
Japanese Geisha Girl Porcelain, a particular subset of Japanese porcelain shows up regularly, albeit in small quantities, on late 19th to mid-20th century archaeological sites in North America.
These wares are thin white-bodied porcelain with printed overglaze decoration, manufactured for the western market as an inexpensive pottery sold in variety stores or given away as advertising premiums (Kovels 2016). Because they are usually decorated with kimono-clad women in stereotypical Japanese settings (temples, pagodas, arched bridges), they are known in collector’s communities as “Kimono Lady ware” and “Geisha Girl porcelain” (Litts 1988). Over 200 patterns have been documented in Elyce Litts 1998 publication, The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Geisha Girl Porcelain. These wares are usually printed in red over the final vessel glaze—the printed lines can clearly be felt when a finger is run over the surface of the pottery. The red printed designs are further decorated with overglaze enamels in blues, reds, greens and yellows.
The wares began production in the last quarter of the 19th century and continued to be manufactured into the early 1950s (Litts 1988:8, 11). Most were produced prior to the beginning of World War II, although they continued to be made during the period of Japan’s occupation by Allied forces (1945-1952). A general rule of thumb to follow for marked pieces of geisha girl porcelain is as follows: vessels marked “Nippon” dated between 1891 and 1921 and items marked “Japan” or “Made in Japan” post-date 1921 (Litts 1988:58). Vessels marked “Made in Occupied Japan” date between 1945 and 1952.
Printing was done most often in red, but some geisha girl porcelain has the primary design printed in black or dark brown (Litts 1988:16). The red printed motifs are usually embellished with detailing in overglaze enamels in blues, gold, reds, greens and yellows. Gold gilt is sometimes used to decorate handles and rims. Around 1910 to 1915, white and yellow enamel dots, lines, stars and zigzags began to be used as a less expensive alternative to gold enamelling.
Forms produced in Japanese porcelain included western-style vessels associated with food and beverages: teapots, cups and saucers, cocoa pots, creamers, plates, bowls, mustard jars, butter pats, salt shakers, eggcups and bon-bon dishes. Toiletry and household wares were also produced in forms that included hair receivers, hat pin holders, pin trays, baskets, vases and ash trays. Traditional Japanese forms are also seen on North American archaeological sites, including rice bowls, pickle dishes, sake bottles and sake cups.
Deagan 1987; Kovels 2016; Litts 1988; Montgomery Ward 1895; Ross 2012; Venable et al. 2000; Willmann 2000