The tableware assemblage aboard the SS Republic was comprised largely of sturdy white ironstone china, the product of a number of Staffordshire, England potteries, a major ceramic production center due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal, and proximity to a number of seaports to ship finished goods. From as early as the 1600s, hundreds of Staffordshire companies produced decorative or industrial ceramic items.
Also known as English porcelain, stone china, and white granite, ironstone china was first introduced by Staffordshire potters in the early 19th century as an alternative to white porcelain without the cost of these finer wares and with the added advantage of great strength and durability. These British wares, the least expensive lines available for price-conscious consumers, undercut the popular white French porcelains produced by Haviland and other Limoges and Paris makers.
Invoices of earthenware shipped to Philadelphia show that by the early 1840s, America had started receiving steady shipments of undecorated ironstone china and "white granite" imports. English potters had discovered that the inhabitants of the "colonies" greatly preferred this modest, plain and durable china to more expensive, exotic wares. The extreme hardness of ironstone, as well as its durability, and simpler style of decoration, was in fact, a key selling point and ceramic dealers began expanding their market to include services used by large steamship companies, clubs, taverns, colleges and hotels, advertising in city newspapers and via popular trade cards.
The most prevalent forms of tableware recovered from the wreck site, numbering well over 2,000 pieces, are ironstone china teacups and saucers in several shapes and sizes, including the smaller demitasse variety. All of the saucers bear the maker’s mark of John Maddock & Son, a prominent 19th-century Burlsem (Staffordshire) pottery. One especially unique piece is an ironstone relish dish molded in a scalloped pattern, and bearing no maker’s mark. The scalloped shell design was an especially popular decorative motif produced by a number of potteries during the period. The only such piece from the Republic, it is quite possible the relish dish was stored among the ship’s inventory intended for serving the passenger’s and crew. Ironstone china ware was in fact, the most common tableware found on vessels of the era. However, it may represent the remains of a larger consignment of similar wares lost in the Atlantic Gulf Stream.