As early as the 1760s, several English companies were making cottages in both porcelain and pottery, to be used as pastille burners, used either to fumigate or deodorize the home.
Over the last few years collecting cottages, especially those made by the company Dept. 56—such as the Original Snow Village and the Dickens Village—as well as the sculptured English homes made by David Winter, have become some of the hottest new collectibles. This collecting of cottages is far from being a new phenomenon, however.
As early as the 1760s, several English companies were making cottages in both porcelain and pottery, to be used as pastille burners. (A pastille is a small pellet of an aromatic paste, used either to fumigate or deodorize.) The small cone of something like charcoal or gum arabic was saturated with the fragrance to be used, placed on a base, lit, and covered with the cottage. The perfume rose up the chimney and helped rid the room of the many odors always present in homes of the day.
By the 1800s, cottages were being used as night lights. These usually had cut-out windows, with a Gothic arch shape being especially popular. The first of these had little open bowls in which a wick floated in oil, often whale oil. Later in the 1800s, when slow-burning, non-guttering candles had been invented, these were used inside the cottage. Most of the cottages were made so that the whole building lifted off the base, but a few just had roofs that lifted off, like the lid off of a box. Occasionally, one of the walls lifted off.
A 19th-century English Staffordshire pastille burner in the shape of a thatched-roof cottage, circa 1850.
An example of a pastille burner that was not made in the shape of a cottage. This one is vase-shaped.
A 19th-century finely molded English Staffordshire cottage pastille burner with shaped roof, circa 1850.
Most of the well known English porcelain and bone china makers produced these cottages. Spode, Rockingham, Coalport, Derby and Worcester all produced a great number of this type of night light during the peak years of 1820 to 1840.
At the same time, cottages were also being made to serve as money boxes, tobacco jars, and even inkstands, as well as night lights.
And just as is true today, the “cottages” weren’t all cottages. There were also castles, watermills, clock towers, farmhouses, toll houses and gatehouses. Many of the pieces had intricate decorations of flowers added to the outside of the structure. Spode’s cottages were almost smothered in tiny little flowers.
At the same time that the elegant bone china cottages were being made, a large number of pottery ones were also being produced. Some delightful ones from the late 1700s were made to resemble half-timbered buildings. This was a popular style than extended well into the 1800s.
These pottery cottages tended to be larger and heavier than those of bone china. They occupied a prominent place on the mantelpiece, where they again served as pastille burners.
Although the earthenware material does not lend itself to the intricate floral arrangements found on the bone china cottages, other interesting effects were created. Some showed every detail incised in the clay, such as the bricks of the chimney.
Pastille burners crafted during from 1810 to 1850 come in a variety of appearances and have a wide range of quality. This ranges from a plain home design with little to no painting to detailed work flowing with color and even some gold trim work.
An interesting variation of the pottery cottage was its use as a watch holder. These could be as much as 12 inches tall, and had a circular hole designed as part of the structure. The pocket watch could be placed in this opening, and the ensemble could then function as a mantel clock or bedside clock. The pottery cottages were often sold as souvenirs, and many of them were made to represent famous buildings. One particular set of two, made by at least three different potteries in 1848, represented Potash Farm, the home of a murderer named James Rush, and Stanfield Hall, the home of his victim, Mr. Jeremy.
Just as ceramic cottages are not a new thing, neither are reproductions. Through the years, there have been reproductions made of these 150-250 year-old pieces, some adding the marks of famous potteries. Of course, by now, many of the reproductions are antiques in their own right. If you’re buying an old cottage, buy it for its own charm and don’t worry too much about who made it.
For a detailed discussion of early ceramic cottages, see “More Small Decorative Antiques,” by Therle Hughes. (This is an old book, published in 1963; check with your library.)
— By Donna Miller
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