The most conspicuous concentration of earthenware on the Jacksonville "Blue China" wreck site is British shell-edged earthenware, consisting of plates, platters and shallow soup plates produced for use on tables and recognized as the most popular and long-lived style ever produced by the English ceramics industry. Statistically this ware was the third most numerous class of ceramic on the wreck based on counts of surface artifacts: 134 examples or 14% of the total. Initially marketed for upper middle class families and sold as complete dinner services, British shell-edged ware very quickly became accessible to the masses. Contributing to its popularity was the decorative pattern itself, a molded rim frequently colored blue or green, which excelled at framing the food on the plate. While the rim design was sometimes highlighted in red, brown, black and purple on early shell-edged ware, both blue and green remained the most popular and cost-effective colors.
British shell-edged earthenware was produced and exported in such large volumes between 1780 and 1860 that it appears to have been used in almost every American household. In terms of quantity, being the least expensive English earthenware available with color decoration, shell-edged ware was in fact one of the most successful developments in ceramic production during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The prevalence of British shell-edged ware is well documented in the archaeological record through ceramic fragments unearthed from most archaeological sites of the period, regardless of socio-economic class. Supporting the archaeological evidence, records of Staffordshire potters document the vast quantities of shell-edged wares that were made both for the British market and for export. While shell edge was used all over the world, pottery-hungry Americans were the largest consumers. Enoch Wood’s Burslem pottery works shipped 262,000 pieces in a single consignment. The surviving invoices of American merchants are especially telling: shell-edged products accounted for 40-70% of dinnerware sold in America between 1800 and the eve of the Civil War in 1861, despite the introduction of a number of more fashionable styles during this period.
The shell-edged products recovered from the Jacksonville "Blue China" shipwreck are heavy whitewares featuring unscalloped, straight rims impressed with simple repetitive lines colored blue, indicative of mid-19th century production of the 1840s to 1850s. By the 1850s blue shell-edge had become a common, generic ware produced by virtually all of the British manufacturers involved in the pottery export trade. Thus, without identifiable maker’s marks it is virtually impossible to attribute the objects to a particular manufacturer since most potteries were producing virtually indistinguishable wares.
Some 35 soup plates were recovered from the wreck, all of which incorporate a dark cobalt blue border. With the exception to one example, all of the soup plates bear a tally mark on the bottom. These marks, also known as ‘potters batch marks,’ consist of variations of a pinwheel blossom with triangular petals. They were used by pottery workers to keep track of the vessels that came out of the kiln in marketable condition. Workers in the typical British earthenware factory were paid on a ‘good-from-oven’ basis on the number of pots that successfully made it through the many different manufacturing steps. Naturally, some pieces made it through with flaws and were sold nonetheless, but as seconds.