I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with majolica but I have been collecting it for some time. This colorful, whimsical pottery always brings a smile to my face. While majolica can be found in all the colors of the rainbow, I prefer the rich greens and golden hues, particularly for displaying during the cooler months. I think it enlivens a space and creates a warm festive feeling.
Majolica typically features themes of fauna and flora, with an abundance of leafy patterns, which are my favorites. Antique majolica is tin glazed earthenware which has a distinctive metallic sound when “pinged.” The glaze in early pieces often contained lead so it’s more decorative than suitable for food use.
Majolica, also known as maiolica, takes its name from the Spanish island of Majorca. It was originally made by 14th Century potters and was popularized in the mid-15th Century. It was exported from Majorca to Italy during the Italian Renaissance and debuted in the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.
By the 1870s, majolica was being mass-produced for an expanding middle class in countries like England, France, Sweden, Portugal and the United States. Griffen, Smith & Hill was a prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”
Over the years, it has fallen in and out of fashion, but was particularly attractive to 19th-century collectors. For the Victorians, with their heavy drapes and dark wood-paneled interiors, it brought much desired light and life to homes. This tactile pottery with its naturalistic shapes, vibrant colors, and often humorous themes appealed to a growing consumer society.
Due to over-production, majolica fell from fashion by the early 1900s. But it began to be re-discovered in the 1960s, and because of its popularity, reproductions abound today. Modern majolica is food safe as lead-based glazes are no longer in use.
Majolica is soft and porous and chips easily, so older pieces that have survived can be quite valuable. I have purchased most of my pieces at antique shops, estate sales and online, but occasionally I see a piece at a flea market or thrift store. Even with a chip or hairline fracture, I feel quite lucky if I find a piece for under $40 and when I do, I snatch it up! However true collectors covet early pieces in excellent condition which can be much more costly, in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
For my fall display, I added in a couple of small ceramic pumpkins, some beaded fruits in warm colors and a burlap covered wire basket. This display should transition nicely into the holiday season. After Thanksgiving, I will likely change out the pumpkins and beaded fruits for a few Christmas ornaments and perhaps add some twinkle lights. Stay turned for its next incarnation.