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How to Date Pottery

Pottery tells a story.
pottery still life image by Jeanne Hatch from Fotolia.com

Pottery tells a story and pottery made for import to the United States relates its own history, but most of us do not know how to read the date or history of pottery. Dating pottery and history intertwine as the pottery marks reflect changes in import and export laws established by the countries. Country of origin and import laws control the information on pottery imported to the United States.

Locate marks to date pottery. A stamp or marking with the country of origin usually indicates an item made after 1891, the date of enactment of the McKinley Tariff Act in the United States. This act required that country of origin be marked on all imports. According to Harry Rinker, a noted authority on collectibles, marks were not required on individual pieces of a set. Items that were part of a set may have no marks.

Look for "made in" marks on pottery. Changes enacted to the Tariff Act in 1914 required the words "made in," followed by the country of origin. Items imported after about 1914 should be marked with this additional information.

Look for foreign names for country of origin. The 1921 changes to the Tariff Act required countries to use the American spelling of the name. Japan could no longer mark pottery with the Nippon name and the newly-formed Czechoslovakia developed an American spelling that was often hyphenated Czecho-Slovakia.

Check back stamps or marks for changes in countries. After World War II, Germany became East Germany and West Germany, so imports marked "Made in Western Germany" date from about 1950 to 1990. East Germany used various marks, including GDR or German Democratic Republic until the 1990 unification. The unified country used "Made in Germany" after 1990.

The American occupation of Japan lasted from the end of World War II until 1952. Items imported from 1945 until 1952 were often marked, "Made in Occupied Japan." When the occupation of Japan ended, the marks returned to "Made in Japan".

See how art parallels history and life in pottery marks, as the United States no longer requires permanent country import marks. Removable paper labels abound on pottery imports and removal prior to retail sale is common. Mary Frank Gaston notes, "Paper labels were used from the Nippon era to the present to denote country of origin on Japanese goods. Because they are easily removable, many Japanese items must be relegated to the unmarked category."

Use marks to date pottery and combine knowledge of marks with the style and shape reflecting fashion trends of an era. Flowing fancy designs of Art Nouveau were typical prior to 1920, when angular square shapes became fashionable. Modern shapes became popular about 1950 and acceptance world-wide affected all imports, including pottery. Knowledge of history combined with marks is the best way to date pottery.

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