Care & Cleaning of Ironstone

by Denise Andre’, WICA charter member

White Ironstone China - What Is It?

When anyone asks me to describe what this white ironstone china stuff I collect is, I always tell them to think of the Norman Rockwell paintings of the Four Freedoms.  The one entitled “Freedom from Want” shows a family sitting down to a holiday dinner, complete with huge turkey on a large white platter.  The plates are white, and in a prominent place on the table is a large white tureen.  The china on that table is white ironstone.  The pattern is Ceres, with heavily embossed designs of wheat stalks and husks.  Ceres, named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, is the most collected wheat pattern in white ironstone china.  The pattern was first registered by Elsmore and Forster in 1859.

Ironstone china is not porcelain; it is a porous, glaze-covered earthenware, consisting of clay mixed with iron slag and feldspar, and a small amount of cobalt.  First patented in 1813 by Charles James Mason in Staffordshire, England, it was decorated with under-glaze transfer patterns.  Eventually, by the 1840’s, undecorated, or white ironstone china, was being manufactured for export to the Americas.  This is the white ironstone china collected today.  Older white ironstone has an almost bluish cast to it, due to the cobalt, while later examples have a creamy color.

Other related collectible china includes Tea Leaf ironstone, which is white ironstone china decorated with copper lustre banding and tea leaf shaped and other variant lustre motifs.  Transferware is the transfer-decorated ironstone that was first patented by Mason.  Flow Blue is ironstone with a blue design, either a transfer pattern or hand painted brush stroke, that has been fired in an atmosphere containing volatile chlorides which has caused the design to blur or bleed into the clear over-glaze. 

Serving Food On White Ironstone

In general, ironstone can be used safely for serving food.  There are no harmful chemicals in the glaze or in the china itself.  To avoid cracking when putting hot foods in or on white ironstone, preheat platters or tureens at a low oven (175) for 10 or 15 min.  Boiling water can crack ironstone at 212 degrees, so keep oven temperatures below 200. 

 I have a number of pieces of white ironstone china with small chips or holes in the glaze.  I rarely use these pieces to serve food, as any time there is a hole in the glaze, it is very easy for grease or food particles to seep into the clay under the glaze.  Occasionally, I will put a little clear nail polish over a hole or chip in the glaze to seal it.  I only do this when I want to display the piece – I never use it for eating, and you shouldn’t wash the piece.  But for display it’s fine.

Washing White Ironstone

Scrape any food off the plates with a rubber spatula or sponge – don’t use metal flatware, as that can scratch or leave marks.  Rinse the china as soon as possible after the meal is over.  Foods with high fat or grease content or acidic foods can damage your ironstone china if you’re not careful, by seeping through the glaze and into the porous china underneath.   

As a rule, don’t wash white ironstone china (or any other antique china) in your dishwasher.  The water may be too hot, and the detergent too strong.  For crazed pieces, prolonged submersion in water can cause damage.  The term "crazing" means minute hairline cracks in the glaze, which do not go into the body of the ware.  Sometimes they’re easy to see, sometimes they’re not clearly visible.  Some collectors use their dishwashers all the time, without any damage to their white ironstone.  It is up to you.  If you decide to try the dishwasher, use a gentle cycle, warm vs. hot water, and a mild detergent, and wash those pieces that have no crazing. 

As when hand-washing any antique or valuable china, line the bottom of the sink with a rubber mat or dish towels.  Line the sides with dish towels as well, to help prevent any damage from bumping.  In addition, wash one piece at a time so they don’t hit each other.  Don’t let pieces sit in the sink to soak.  Only use mild dish detergent; never abrasive or harsh cleansers, and use a soft sponge or dishcloth.  If you have a piece of china that really needs scrubbing use baking soda, it's non abrasive and won't harm the finish.  Don’t use anything with bleach in it, and don’t use any lemon-scented detergent, as it can contain acid.  Warm water, not hot, is best.  Although white ironstone china is very sturdy, and doesn’t break easily, don’t take any unnecessary chances.

Dry your dishes with a soft towel, don’t leave them to air dry.  Also, don’t stack them too high.  They can topple, and white ironstone china dishes are heavy! 

Cleaning Stains

Silverware can leave gray marks on china.  Use a little toothpaste on a soft cloth to rub them away. 

Some of the most common stains seen on white ironstone china are dark staining under the glaze.  Sometimes the whole piece can look dirty, and often a buyer won’t think of purchasing it.  Some stains have gone deeply into the clay itself, and won’t come out, but quite often they can be removed quite successfully. 

Common cleaners that will remove some stains include naval jelly & ZUD (rust stains), denture tablets, calgon water softener with a Z code, and ammonia (sealed in plastic). 

You don’t see professional cleaning instructions here because of the danger involved – chemicals can explode, and they can cause injury.  There are people who do professional china cleaning, and it can be well worth it to engage them to clean valuable pieces for you.


Using Hydrogen Peroxide to Clean Stains

The only relatively safe chemical that we know of to clean white ironstone china is hydrogen peroxide, and it is used frequently.  Its chemical formula (H2O2) is very similar to water (H2O), but it has an extra oxygen atom.  This gives hydrogen peroxide the ability to oxidize organic and inorganic materials, producing water at a reaction byproduct.  This makes it useful as an agent to both whiten the stain and make the stain easier to be flushed from the china. 

If you want to try cleaning a piece with hydrogen peroxide, by the regular 3% hydrogen peroxide in the grocery or drug store.  Buy enough to cover your piece as you soak it.  Put the peroxide in a tightly lidded plastic container.  After several days, take the piece out and put it in strong sunlight, so the hydrogen peroxide vaporizes from the heat.  You can also try to bake the piece in an electric oven, at the lowest possible temperature, not to exceed 200 degrees.  Using a gas oven could cause a fire or an explosion when the hydrogen peroxide is heated.  Heating in an electric oven is safe to you, but your dishes could very well break.  Heating in sunlight takes longer, but is safer for the dishes.  You can repeat this process until the piece is clean. 

WARNING!!  Using a stronger solution of peroxide is extremely dangerous.  It can burn the skin off your hands and cause permanent damage to mucous membranes, and unless you know chemistry very well you could have an explosion.  Leave the work with stronger hydrogen peroxide to the professionals.

After you have cleaned your white ironstone piece, wash it thoroughly, as any cleaning chemicals that remain can migrate into your food. 



One of the most common mistakes is to use Clorox or some other chlorine bleach to attempt to clean white ironstone.  You may get rid of the stain, but you likely also will ruin your dish.  Chlorine gets under the glaze and has a chemical reaction with the clay and glaze.  Chlorine bleach has the ability to exist in several states, liquid, gas and crystal.  The bleach penetrates the glaze and goes into the clay body.  There, when it dries, it turns into crystals, which expand and will push the glaze right off the piece.  The clay body of the piece is dissolved by the chemical, and the ironstone breaks back down to clay particles.   

You will sometimes find a piece of white ironstone that is covered by a white powder.  It may have been cleaned with bleach.  Often these pieces will smell like chlorine bleach, and the surface is crumbling to the point where the glaze is coming off.  Over time, the piece will continue to deteriorate, and eventually the clay body will begin to crumble.  Soaking the piece in vinegar will stop the deterioration, but won’t repair the damage.


Displaying White Ironstone

We all love to display and show off our collections.  Dust your dishes regularly, and wash them gently about once a year. 

 Plate racks and stands are a good way to display white ironstone, as long as they’re sturdy, stable and secure enough to support the weight.  Some people use plate hangers, and some people don’t.  If you do, be careful.  The metal hangers can damage the edges of plates, and even crack the plates if they’re too tight.  Slipping a little bit of plastic tubing over the metal “prongs” of the plate holder may help protect the edge of the plate. 

 White ironstone pitchers marching across the top of a china cabinet or hutch look wonderful.  However, over time, traffic rumbling and other kinds of vibrations can cause the pitchers to “march” themselves right over the edge.  A little museum wax, putty or gel will secure them in place, and it won’t harm the ironstone.


Packing and Storing White Ironstone China

When storing white ironstone in a china cabinet, place something soft between stacked plates to avoid scratches and chipping.  You can use cloth, felt, paper plates, paper towels, or even coffee filters.  Don’t use plastic, it’s a moisture barrier, and can stick to the dishes.  And don’t use printed newspaper directly around the pieces, as the ink can get under the glaze and stain the china. 

Keep white ironstone china in a room where temperatures are moderate, and do not box china away in a basement, attic, garage or other places without climate control.

When packing for storage or moving, wrap each piece individually in white tissue or cotton, and then bubble wrap it, or wrap in several single sheets of crumpled paper.  Crumpled paper in single sheets provides more cushioning than flat sheets wrapped together.  Place the dishes carefully in a sturdy cardboard box with a barrier of crumpled paper or bubble wrap around the inside of the box.  This will keep the pieces from bumping the outside edges of the box.  Use packing material to fill the box to the top.  Another trick is to pack the box inside a larger box with a 2 inch cushion of packing material. 

Packing peanuts can be used, but they can shift as the box is moved, so use lots and pack them tightly.  And remember, they go flying around quite easily and it can be frustrating to chase them around the floor.  Some packers have taken to tying them inside plastic bags to keep the mess to a minimum.



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