With the exceptions of pieces owned by famous people, or particularly rare or valuable examples, ceramics are often overlooked as important aesthetic and historic objects. This is unfortunate because dinnerware, vases, figurines, and the like have much to tell us about the people who made and used them, and their societies. The National Heritage Museum owns a diverse group of ceramics, ranging from commemorative mugs for Masonic events to delicate porcelain teacups. The sugar and creamer set and the vase, seen here, were donated to the museum in 1977, and have been waiting for their stories to be told.
Both the sugar and creamer set and the vase are examples of the so-called "Nippon China" that was popular in American homes between 1865 and 1921. "Nippon" is the transliteration of the more formal Japanese name for Japan. While Japanese craftsmen had made high-quality porcelain for centuries, the Western world only developed a strong interest in Japanese culture in the late nineteenth century, when many American and European artists began to incorporate Japanese-inspired motifs and imagery into their work.
The end of the Tokugawa policy of seclusion in the 1850s meant that Japanese borders opened to foreigners for the first time since the early seventeenth century. This allowed Westerners to discover Japanese fine art and decorative arts, triggering a new fashion for Japonisme - the influence of Japanese art on Western art and design - that lasted into the early twentieth century. Likewise, Japanese artistic influences inspired many notable decorative artists who were active in the Art Nouveau movement, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Edmond Lachenal.
Like most other pieces of Japanese export porcelain during this period, the Museum's objects were hand-painted by Japanese artists with designs that were specifically created for Western audiences. Americans who purchased porcelain tableware and housewares in the early twentieth century were drawn to the ornate and the exotic. They were also used to the gilded, highly decorative designs hailing from Limoges and Staffordshire. Both the floral motif of this vase and the idyllic landscape pictured on the sugar and creamer set reflect the popular designs of contemporary products from France and the United Kingdom, which had dominated the American market. Ironically, during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when these objects were made, the Japanese favored simpler designs. Gilded lusterwares, like this vase, were unfashionable in their country of origin.
The marks on each of these objects provide insight into their history. Both the sugar bowl and the creamer are marked on the bottom with a trademark consisting of an “M” encircled by a wreath, with the words “Hand Painted” printed above and “Nippon” printed below the wreath. The “M” signifies that these pieces were made by the Morimura Brothers factory, which later developed into the Noritake China corporation. Morimura Brothers used this mark from 1911 to 1921. Likewise, the maple leaf stamp on the bottom of the vase was also a trademark of Morimura Brothers, which branded various products with this distinctive mark between 1891 and 1921.
The year 1921 signaled the end of an era for Japanese export porcelain, as a new American law required that foreign manufacturers mark the country of origin of their products in English. Japanese products designed for the American market began being labeled with the anglicized name “Japan.” In turn, this evolved into the once-ubiquitous “Made in Japan” label that came to appear on everything from toys to electronics sold in the United States later in the twentieth century.
Alden, Aimee Neff, and Marian Kinney Richardson. Early Noritake China: An Identification and Value Guide to Tableware Patterns. Des Moines: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1987.
“Japanese Porcelain Noritake Marks.” Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collector's Help and Info Page. Nilsson, Jan-Erik, 2006, http://gotheborg.com/marks/noritake.shtml, accessed September 29, 2010.
“Nippon China Dinnerware History.” Antique China Porcelain & Collectibles. Nacq Partners, Ltd., 2010, http://www.antique-china-porcelain-collectibles.com/nippon_china_dinnerware.htm, accessed September 29, 2010.
Van Patten, Joan F. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Nippon Porcelain: Identification and Values. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2001.
Vase, 1891-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Dorothy A. and Albert H. Richardson, 77.70.38.
Creamer, 1911-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Edith V. Carlson, 77.46.1.
Sugar Bowl with Lid, 1911-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Edith V. Carlson, 77.46.3a-b.