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BOOK REVIEW – If Dishes Could Talk

Recently I did an exhibit highlighting my museum’s collection of glass and china. Before I began, I admit I really didn’t know all that much about china. As I searched our research library for books on the subject, If Dishes Could Talk by Mary L. Jackson caught my eye.

Published in 1971, Jackson’s overview of old china covers dozens of companies, providing the reader with a history of each one, as well as representative photographs of key patterns and important pieces. I was able to match several pieces in our collection to examples in this book.

To create my exhibit, I first surveyed what we had in the collection. Whenever I found a company listed in the collections records, I turned to If Dishes Could Talk to see if it was included. Only a handful were not listed in her book, and they were rather obscure companies that I had not heard of either.

The first chapter introduced the concept of Chinese Export Porcelain, which was among the first pieces of china used in Europe and America. Jackson creates an appropriate historical context for the companies she discusses in subsequent chapters.

For my research purposes, chapters on Wedgwood, Spatterware, Majolica, American Belleek, and Haviland were particularly useful. Jackson provides a detailed explanation of the British Registry Mark, instructing the reader on how to decode its many symbols so you can date your piece of china.

If you are hoping to delve deep into any one company, then this is not the book for you. It is more for someone who is curious about the china, or the novice collector who is trying to create a collecting focus. My exhibition was more of a “showcase” of the museum’s collection, with a brief history of the companies whose ware is displayed. I was not looking for a tremendous amount of information on each company, so Jackson’s book was ideal for me.

I would have liked to see some color photographs, if only a few plates in the center of the book. Everything Jackson included was in black and white. Sometimes it is easier to identify a maker or pattern if you can see the piece in color.

As with any work that is 30 years old, you can only trust it until the date of its publication, meaning when the author says “today,” she means “1971” and not “2006.” If you are interested in the more modern story of any of these companies, you will need to do additional research. But as a historical resource, this is a great book!


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