Everything About Ceramic Decals
             History of Decals
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A Brief History of Decals

by Jon Simmons

 [Note: This not a critically researched history. It is a generally accurate overview.]

   The progress of the invention of the decal is comparable to the progress of the invention of the wheel. When we compare today's steel-belted radials to yesterday's wooden ox-cart wheels, they hardly seem to have anything in common. So it was when decals first come on the scene.

   About 1750, a Frenchman named Simon François Ravenet perfected a way of engraving on copper plates so that under-glaze colors could be rubbed onto the heated plates, then tissue paper would be pressed onto the color, which would adhere to the tissue paper, which was then removed and transferred to the awaiting bisque or greenware to be decorated. Typically, the bisque or greenware was coated with a tacky varnish, which would hold the color while the tissue paper was removed, after which the piece was fired.

    Well, if you engraved to the right depth, and used the right mixture of colors, and heated the copper plate to the correct temperature, and used the right kind of tissue paper (which had to be hand made in those days; the paper-making machine wasn't invented for another 70 years), and you used the right pressure, and applied them in the correct way... you too could decorate with decals!

   Now if that seems like a lot of work, you're right! But in the good old days, that was the only way you could mass-produce ceramic ware with pictures on it. By way of example, two guys from Liverpool, England, John Sadlier and Guy Green, signed an affidavit on July 27, 1756, certifying that they had hand-decorated 1200 tiles in one 6 hour day for Josiah Wedgwood (ring a bell?). And that's a lot of tile! It figures out to about 200 tiles per hour, or 3 tiles per minute.

   Now Wedgwood had to send those tile to Sadlier & Green's factory by pack horse because decorating with decals was a new technology and was kept a closely guarded secret. (That is, until someone who was working for you learned how it was done and then went out and started their own factory.) So it was, in the beginning, decorating with ceramic decals was a highly technical process, that only the initiated few could render.


   In the 1750's and 1760's, Robert Hancock used Ravenet's engraving techniques to produce the best designs of that era. His apprentice, Thomas Turner, opened the Caughley Pottery Works around 1775, and in 1779 introduced the most famous and best selling decal of all-time, the "Willow Pattern", or, "Blue Willow", as we call it today. Note: It was Turner’s apprentice, Thomas Minton, who perfected the Willow design a year or so later (tho some sources say he was the original engraver, nevertheless, his efforts were at the behest of Turner). And due to Minton’s later popularization of it through his own pottery, it is he whom most collectors associate with this now highly collectable pattern.

    In 1784, Josiah Spode (heard of him?)(Guess what? Minton designed for him from 1789-93) perfected a way of treating the tissue paper with soft soap so that it would pick up the color more uniformly.

   In the early 1800's, rubber glue bats (something like "glue pancakes") replaced the tissue paper. The glue bats were reusable, plus they conformed better to the curved surfaces. In fact, we'd be using glue bats today had it not been for the Pratt Brothers.

   Now there have been 5 inventions that have contributed the most to making decals easier to use and less expensive. These are 1) the invention of the paper-making machine by Henri Fourdriner in the 1820's; 2) the invention of the lithograph printing process by Alois Senefelder of Austria, in 1796; and 3) the ability to print more than one color onto tissue paper, figured out by the Pratt Brothers in 1840. (I'll tell you about the other 2 inventions later.)

   Multiple color printing was a big deal, because heretofore the only kind of decals that were made were one color, mono-tone designs. Well, the Pratt Brothers used multiple copper plates to achieve this. But very soon the lithograph process would take over.

   The lithograph process, back then, used gigantic lime-stone slabs for "printing plates". These were usually about 2' by 3' and 6 inches thick, weighing hundreds of pounds. These were polished flat on one side, and the design was etched in the stone, whereupon they were inserted in enormous flatbed presses. Using these plates, a tacky varnish was printed onto the tissue paper, which was then dusted with dry color, and the residue wiped away with lamb's wool. (Kind of like the way they make litho decals today.)

   These decals were applied more or less in the same way as they always had been, namely, the tissue paper with the design on it was pressed onto bisque or glazedware that had been coated with a tacky glue. Then the piece was wetted with water, which released the tissue paper, leaving the color on the ceramic ware, which was then fired.

   Things were going along pretty good until disaster struck. It happened about 1876. It had a name. It was "Popular Demand". Somehow, somewhere, someone started decorating with decals as a hobby. Maybe it was because decals had become much easier to use. Maybe it was because the lithograph process could turn out such high quality. Maybe it was because the emerging consumer class couldn't afford hand-decorated china, but they sure could afford to decorate their own. Nobody knows. But we do know this: in 1875, there were only about 300 designs available to decorate with; 2 years later, there were 10,000 !!!

   It is from this period that the word "Decalcomania" was coined (meaning "decal craze" or "love of decals"). And even today, Decalcomania is still a common word for decals in many countries. (The singular is "decalcomanie".) But the actual word "Decal" is short for the French word "Decalquer" (pronounced "De-Kalk "), which means to "copy by tracing". Remember our friend, monsieur Ravenet?

  Other names for decals have been "mineral transfers" in the United States; "diaphanies" and "cockamanies" in England (and, yes, that's where we get the word "cockamamie" from); and "lithographs" and "lithoplanies" in Europe.

   Anyway, in 1895, the next big deal happened... Duplex Paper. Duplex Paper would reduce the cost of making decals by 80%! It seems that all this time when decals were being printed onto tissue paper, the tissue paper had to lightly stuck onto ZINC PLATES before you could run it through the press. Not exactly quick and easy. Well, the Brittan’s Paper Company had a better idea. In 1895 they introduced a two part, or "duplex", paper. 

   The top part was a light but tough tissue paper, and the bottom part was a thicker stiffer paper. Using Duplex Paper, printers could run sheets of decals at a much faster rate, plus then cumbersome zinc plates were eliminated, which meant ease of handling and storage. In the 1880's, a sheet of decals cost about $4.00. (Not exactly cheap for the 1880's.) By the 1930's, they were down to 50¢ to $1.00 a sheet! Thanks, Brittans!

   P.S. The Brittans Paper Company is currently the largest manufacturer of decal paper in the world.

   As you can see, ceramic decals are largely a European ospring. The first decals were probably not imported into the United States until 1860. The first decals were not printed in the United States until 1894. These were done by George Meyercord, using a single-hand press. (The Meyercord Decal Co. is a very large decal company today. Alas, they haven't made ceramic decals for a very long time.)

   The last big deal to impact decals was the advent of silk-screen printing. Commercially developed in the 1930's(?), silk-screen printing would first make it mark not in the printing of color, but in the ability to lay down a cover-coat or top-coat of lacquer on top of the printed design. This would then be used as the transfer medium of the color, instead of the tissue paper. In 1936, the first firable decal was printed using a top-coat. It was a glass decal. But it proved to be so easy to use that within 3 years all glass decals had top-coats.

   Decals with top-coats or cover-coats came to be known as "water-mount decals" because you had to put them in water before you could mount them. Interestingly, while the glass industry quickly embraced water-mount decals, the ceramic industry was much slower on the uptake. It wasn't until the early 1960's that water-mount decals came to dominate. This was partly because the potteries were comfortable with the old "varnish mounts" as they called them. Plus, you got more decals for the money with varnish mounts (because the designs could be packed more tightly together). Plus, They were cheaper because the step of printing a top-coat was not needed. Plus, they lasted longer. (Varnish mounts never go bad.)

   Since the 60's, printing technology has advanced at an amazing rate. Computerized scanners and image editors, desktop publishing and the internet, and an ever improving silk screen industry, have combined to make ceramic decals so easy to use and in so much variety, that to compare them with the first decals produced in 1750 is like comparing steel-belted radials to wooden ox-cart wheels. The only thing they have in common is that they're pretty.

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