16 December 2011

Spode, Christmas Tree in the Modern Era and the Pattern Books

Triangular Tray and backstamp, 1986
Recently I have had chats with collectors who have asked questions about the more recent Spode pieces decorated with the famous Christmas Tree pattern. 

I have written in these pages about some of the backstamps used for this pattern and last year about Christmas Tree pattern itself.

In 1938 when the pattern was first produced it looked as though only a plate was going to go into production for one year with the words 'Wishing You a Merry Christmas 1938' printed in brown on the back. However such was the enthusiasm of the American market for this new design that as early as September 1938 it had been decided the motto was to be omitted as well as extending the design to a whole range of tableware - the rest is history! Details of some of the variations of the design are given in my earlier blog about Christmas Tree.

Pattern Safe, 2002 (detail)
There are over 75,000 patterns recorded in the Spode pattern books of which Christmas Tree is just one. Each time a variation was made to a design a new and unique pattern number was allocated. This was the practice from about 1800 to about 1998.

So in 1938 when Christmas Tree was given a crimson band rather than green it had a new number; when it was decorated on Marlborough shape (with a wavy edge to the plate) rather than Kailas shape (with a plain edge to the plate) it had a new number. This was a sort of quality control which prevented any mix-up in orders and kept the high quality of the Spode product consistent.

The pattern books were regarded as 'commercially sensitive' by the Spode company until the early part of the 21st century. They were treated with respect and usually had a dedicated member of staff responsible for keeping records up to date working in the Pattern Safe. This door to this room was very heavy, thick, low and metal like a typical safe door - I always had to remember to duck when entering also having eaten a hearty breakfast to have the strength to actually pull it open! The safe door and lock date from about 1840 but how long this secure room was used as the pattern safe is not recorded but certainly not from the start of the books' history in c1800.

Recording in the pattern books changed little in principle from about 1800 to probably about the 1980s and was administered by the Spode company.  Even when the Spode Museum Trust was formed in 1987 and then the museum registered in about 1999 the contents of the pattern books still belonged to the Spode company and the museum only looked after their physical well-being. By the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s the company no longer entered patterns in the pattern books; computers gradually came in and I would expect that patterns were recorded somehow on these but this latter record did not come to the museum.
Detail of  a pierced design, early 2000s
So all this preamble is to explain the complication of finding what new shapes, borders and versions of Christmas Tree pattern were produced in the modern era. Variations were no longer given a unique pattern number so most have S3324 - whatever their appearance. So for those who collect the variations in the pattern in the recent past the bad news is that it is difficult to be sure just what items were produced in Christmas Tree but the good news is that from about 1995 to 2008 I collected all the new sales, marketing and publicity material produced by Spode and these are deposited at the Stoke-on-Trent City Archives and are part of the Spode Archive. More bad news though is that no research has been done to extract the information from these papers which of course were not produced for the benefit of collectors. Any such research would take quite a while to complete.

0th Anniversary plate, new shape, new border, 2008
Pierced ware made in the early 2000s was inspired by late 18th century Spode museum pieces in which  the design was hand cut into the clay before its first firing. The modern version of cutting was developed by Spode and was machine-cut by a type of sand blasting - very clever.

Another point to remember is that cutlery (flatware in the US), glass and non-ceramic hanging decorations were not made by Spode and there is no record at all for any of these items which were mostly exclusive to the USA market.