Before the days of plastic and Pyrex, most American homemakers used a set of yellow ware bowls in their kitchens. These earthenware bowls were the world's go-to dish choice and came in a fun variety of colors and patterns. Although they were passed over in favor of quaint casserole dishes in the mid-20th century, they're making a resurgence with avid vintage collectors around the world.
A Brief History of Yellow Ware
The first pieces of yellow ware, made in Scotland and England during the late 17th century, were made from a clay that was a yellow buff color. Yellow clay contains a much lower level of iron, causing it to vitrify at temperatures much higher than red clay, making yellow clay pieces much harder and more desirable for use in the kitchen. The popularity of yellow ware, also known as yellowware, spread from England to France, Canada, and the United States.
By the 1830s, the beautifully colored pieces were being made in the United States using fine yellow colored clay found along the banks of the rivers of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Depending on the origin of the clay, finished pieces ranged in color from a deep mustard yellow to a beautiful light yellow resembling the color of fresh butter.
Due to its low cost and durability, yellow ware remained the popular choice for use in kitchens for more than a century. It fell out of favor with homemakers in the 1940s, though, and was replaced by pieces made of more modern materials of the time.
Collecting Yellow Ware Bowls
Since the 1980s there has been a renewed interest in collecting yellow ware. Many collectors try to put together an entire set of yellow ware nesting bowls with the same design or pattern. Generally, they have the most difficulty finding the largest and smallest of the graduated sized bowls, making them the most valuable pieces. The bowls were originally sold as individual pieces or in sets of five, six, eight, and 12.
Yellow Ware Bowl Designs
The diameters of the graduated sized bowls range from three inches to 17 inches. In addition to nesting bowls, there are many single piece yellow ware bowls of all sizes that're of interest to collectors.
The earliest pieces of yellow ware were made by hand, thrown on a potter's wheel. Most pieces made after the mid-19th century were manufactured using molds. Once molds were used, yellow ware pieces became more decorative, often having designs impressed or embossed into them. Popular designs and decorations that you can find include:
- Slip banding
- Geometric designs
- Floral designs
- Scenic motifs
How to Determine the Age and Origin of Yellow Ware
It's often difficult to determine the origin and age of a piece of yellow ware since approximately only five percent of the pieces were ever marked. The following are several tips to determine age and origin of yellow ware bowls:
- Presence of mold marks and designs - Mold marks and designs mean the piece is from the mid-19th century or later.
- Different lip shapes - On bowls, the lips of pieces made in the 19th century are usually rolled. Bowls from the 20th century typically have lips that are much less rounded or they have a rim that is wide collared.
- Different sounds - Solidly tap the piece using the tip of your finger. If the sound you hear is a thud, it is probable that it was made in the United States. If you hear is a ringing, it's probable that the piece was made in England.
- Different glazing - One way to tell that a piece is not authentic is to check the color of the glaze. The glaze should be clear, if the glaze is colored it's most likely a reproduction or a counterfeit piece.
Yellow Ware Values at Today's Auctions
Generally speaking, yellow ware isn't as common of a collectible as something like depression glass or pyrex, but the bowls that do make their way to market usually sell for about $30-$50, with other yellow ware dishes selling for $10-$20 on average. Yellow ware dishes made during the 19th century can even sell around $100 if they're still in good condition. Age seems to be a predominate factor when it comes to pricing these bowls, seeing as the older pieces are harder to find intact. Additionally, shape and color contribute on the personal level with collectors, pushing people to make choices about which ones to bring home based on their favorite colors and designs.
Typically, these antiques aren't too difficult to find at local thrift shops and antique stores, as the technology was incredibly common. But, if you find yourself looking for these dishes online, here are a few examples of some bowls that've recently sold to give you an idea of what they're selling for today:
- Antique yellow ware bowl with blue bands - Listed for $89.56
- Early 20th Century pair of small yellow ware bowls - Sold for $120
- Antique McCoy green glazed yellow ware bowl with girl watering flowers design - This McCoy pottery piece sold for $160
Caution: Yellow Ware Glaze Contains Lead
The glaze on yellow ware contains lead. If you have a bowl with chips, cracks or deep crazing, don't use it for mixing, cooking, baking, or storing any food. Never store food in the refrigerator in yellow ware, regardless of its condition, or use it in any way with foods that are acidic or for baking. Using yellow ware in these ways can cause the lead to leach out of the glaze and into the food.
Don't Beware the Yellow Ware
Yellow ware dishes are just the right level of understated that they'll blend into whatever aesthetic your kitchen is currently decked out in. Whether you've nicked a few from your grandmother's cabinets or you've stumbled across a great deal at your local antique store, you can't go wrong with adding one of these bowls to your kitchen collection. Now for more kitchen collectible info, learn about antique stoneware crocks, vintage Corningware and Pyrex bowl vintage patterns that will also complement your kitchen design.