Though originally intended as useful wares, colourful cow creamers were one of the most delightful, even humorous, creations of the 18th-century ceramics industry, and are collected today purely as ornamental pieces.
Tea drinking was a fashionable habit for a while before anyone thought of adding a little milk or cream to their cuppa, but by the mid-18th century, virtually everyone was doing it. The British ceramics industry responded by quickly adding all manner of milk jugs and creamers to its growing repertoire of household pottery. By far the most endearing was the cow creamer.
Shaped like a dairy cow, with a looped-over tail providing a handle and an open, lowing mouth serving as a spout, they may have started life as a novelty item, or a joke, but
soon caught the popular imagination. The hollow belly of the cow held the milk or cream
- about a quarter of a pint - and it was refilled through a lidded hole in its back.
DUTCH OR ENGLISH?
Though they seem quintessentially English, right at home in a country cottage kitchen, cow creamers may have originated in Holland. Two emigre Dutch silversmiths, Johann Schuppe and David Willaume the Younger, made
finely modelled, free-standing silver cow creamers around 1750. The hinged lids were modelled in the shape of a pad of flowers, with a bee as a knob. Enterprising potters may have copied them. However, to confuse the issue, an earthenware creamer in Stoke's City Museum has been dated to 1740.
Wherever they came from, cow creamers were soon being made in potteries all over Britain. Some featured a milkmaid, inevitably wildly out of scale, others had daisies applied to the base. The modelling of the cow ranged from naive to fairly realistic, but the painting was usually surreal, to say the least; some had transfer-printed rural scenes on their sides.
The heyday of cow creamers lasted just 100 years. Difficult to clean, they caused several outbreaks of salmonella poisoning, but it took the new respect for hygiene brought about by the cholera scares of the 1850s to finally retire them from the table to the quieter pastures of the mantelshelf or kitchen dresser.
Though Edwardian potters revived the manufacture of cow creamers as decorative pieces with some success, these aren't as collectable as their working predecessors.
You don't have to like cows, or even cream, to enjoy cow creamers. Their great attraction lies in their variety of expression and their naive decorations. Some of them are richly comic, and some surreally proportioned, but all but the most crudely made have undeniable character and charm that makes them one of the most popular types of 18th- and 19th-century ceramics with today's collectors.
COW CREAMER COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Cow creamers have been widely collected for a while now, and you're unlikely to find them at car boot sales. Auctions, country house sales and antiques dealers and fairs are your most likely sources.
A bit of research helps a lot in this field. A visit to the City Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, where huge herds crowd the shelves, is well worthwhile. Choose a breed that appeals to you to collect.
Staffordshire creamers were made in salt-glazed stoneware,
creamware, glossy black 'Jackfield ware', pearlware and bone china. Some lustre glazes were used, but the commonest finish was tan dappled with green, black, yellow, blue or orange. The bases are usually green.
Early Welsh pieces were in splashed lustre ware, but later ones had transfer-printed rural scenes on the
side. Yorkshire creamers had oblong, waisted bases with chamfered corners, and colourful lustre-ware creamers were usually made in Sunderland.
Creamers have been widely copied, so be careful when buying, especially 'Jackfield' cows with golden horns and hooves, prime candidates for Edwardian reproduction. One way to tell early pieces is to run your finger round the
outside. Those made before 1830 tend to be rough to the touch. Remember, too, that old lustre ware looks mottled pink in a soft light, but shows up gold in the sunshine.
Beware heavy gilding on horns or hooves; it may well have been put on to conceal a repair. A missing or replacement stopper will cut the value dramatically, so make sure the stopper fits well and is a perfect match in glaze and body. Crude modelling is a feature of early cows, and can only add to their charm, but damaged missing horns will devalue them.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).