Decal Decorated Wares
Also known as lithographic or chromolithographic decoration, this process involved the production of a pattern on paper or paper-backed sheets, from which the design was transferred onto a ceramic vessel. This process enables the accurate and uniform reproduction of logos, drawings, paintings and illustrations in single or multiple colors. Decals were not stickers applied to a vessel; they were enameled images transferred to the vessel (Caron and Strevey 2012). The term “decalcomania” (meaning “the love of or craze for decals”) is sometimes used when describing the blossoming of this form of ceramic decoration (Simmons 2012).
Decals were created through a process using lithographic stone plates that had been etched with the desired pattern (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:146; Scott 1994:112). Varnish was applied to the etched stone, after which the design was transferred in varnish from the stone to decal paper. Powdered enamel colors or precious metals were then dusted onto the varnished paper. After drying, the decal paper could be overprinted from another etched stone plate and additional colors added to the paper. Separate etched stones were used for each color in a multi-colored design.
After trimming, the decal paper was moistened with a sizing (ftn1) of turpentine and oil (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:146) and then placed, enameled side down, on the vessel awaiting decoration. Rubbing the reverse side of the paper transferred the design to the ceramic. The decal paper was subsequently moistened and removed. When decals were first developed, the surface of the vessel to be decorated was initially coated with a layer of varnish to which the decal adhered (Savage and Newman 1985:180). Later technological improvements eliminated the need for varnish.
While decals allowed the production of detailed designs and a greater range of colors than earlier printing processes, they were prone to damage by cutlery, since most decals were applied over the glaze and affixed through a lower temperature firing in a decorating kiln.
The first experimentation with decals as a method to decorate pottery occurred in Europe in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the late 1870s that ceramic manufacturers in France made significant technological advances in the use of decals (Blaszczyk 1994:145, 148). Attempts to copy this technology were made without success in Trenton, New Jersey at about the same time (Blaszczyk 1994:145). Perfected enough by the 1890s to be commercially viable, lithographic decals replaced underglaze printing on ceramics before the end of the first decade of the twentieth century (Venable et al. 2000:120; Henry 1987:368, Blaszczyk 1994:148). Decal decorated ceramics first appeared in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogue in 1902 (Sears, Roebuck and Company 1902). Decals remained the most common technique for decorating ceramics well into the 1950s (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:147).
The use of decals on American-made ceramics was rare prior to around 1900, appearing primarily on imported European porcelains before that time (Henry 1987:368; Majewski and O’Brien 1987:147). The earliest successful decals were manufactured in England, France and Germany (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:147; Venable et al. 2000:122), and North American firms largely relied on imported decals for their white earthenware throughout the first several decades of the twentieth century.
Chromolithography is in many ways similar to the transfer printing technique used to decorate ceramics starting in the eighteenth century, but provided a way for manufacturers to create multi-colored designs through a one-step process. Because decals could be applied by unskilled labor, wares embellished with decals could be produced and sold for less than printed or painted wares.
Distinguishing decal decorated wares from transfer printed decoration is not difficult. The motifs on decal decorated wares have sharp, crisp lines, and the colors, which are bright and natural, can exhibit shading (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:146).
Decals were used on a variety of ceramic bodies, including semi-vitreous wares, porcelain and white earthenware.
Decals were generally applied over the glaze.
Decals were often used for floral and geometric accents around the rims of vessels, frequently in conjunction with gilt or molded decoration (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:147). Some single color decals were embellished with enameling (Venable et al. 2000:140).
Decals have been used to embellish tableware, teaware and toiletware, as well as commemorative plates and tiles.
1. Sizing improved the surface strength, water resistance and printability of the decal paper.