When Odyssey’s team of archaeologists, historians, technicians, and researchers located the remains of the SS Republic on the Atlantic seabed 1,700 feet deep, the discovery soon revealed a unique time capsule of life in mid-19th century America. Spilling out of the ship’s cargo holds and strewn about the adjacent debris field was a stunning assortment of bottled goods, religious items and ceramic ware—a host of everyday essentials lost on the ocean floor for more than a century.
Of the 14,000 artifacts recovered from the wreck site, nearly 3,000 pieces were pottery table and toilet wares made of sturdy white ironstone china. Heavy, thick-bodied, utilitarian earthenware, ironstone was first introduced by Staffordshire potters in the early 19th century as an alternative to white porcelain. Also referred to as English porcelain, stone china, and white granite, it was much less costly than the finer porcelains and yet had the added advantage of greater strength and durability. The Staffordshire district in particular, offered an abundance of clay and proximity to the seaports of Liverpool, Bristol, London and Hull to ship finished wares. By the early 1840s, America received its first ironstone imports which were soon mass produced for the U.S. market. English potters had discovered that the inhabitants of the ‘colonies’ greatly preferred this unfussy, plain and durable china to more exotic wares. It was an immediate success and public demand soared.
Discovered among the assortment of tableware were seven unmarked ironstone mugs. Typical of ship ware of the period, simple mugs such as this example could have been functional shipboard items intended for serving the passengers and crew. Yet, they more likely represent the remains of a larger ironstone consignment bound for New Orleans. Upon arrival at the docks, the shipment may have been received by wholesale agents established by the British pottery manufacturers, or perhaps by commission merchants who played an important role in the city’s trade through their handling of incoming (and outgoing) goods.