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On Friday, on my seventh anniversary, I woke up with an unshakable desire for china. Something elegant, in cobalt and dripping gold. Or frivolous, in tumbling roses. A set of china awash in fragile impracticality, with cream soups sporting delicate handles. This is where eloping will get you. Get married properly, with all the traditions of the day, and you'll end up with a set, or at least part of a set, of china. Don't... and you're stuck with whatever is in the cupboard.

My grandmother did not use china, and I inherited my grandmother's plate. My grandmother had dishes. Stolid ironstone dishes. Drop one, and you'll like as not break a toe. A full set of perfectly serviceable, practical, unimaginative, ironstone dishes. Which, until recently, were inoffensively useful. Thick prosaic plate from another era, today they look frumpy as they sit resentfully on the table, glowering at me from under the eggs and toast.

At my grandmother's breakfast table coffee poured from the pot like melted chocolate, thick and black with lumps of unmelted grounds to sink in the bottom of the cup. Coffee made the old way, boiled in a pot until someone thought to push it to the edge of the cookstove. Every now and then my mother would offer a new coffee maker. One that perked on the electric stove. One that did the same in a self-contained unit. And finally, a Mr. Coffee. But my grandmother's coffee remained as it always had been; grounds boiled in springwater. An electric stove did nothing to refine the recipe.

Thick coffee drunk from an old blue cup with a matching saucer. Three cups, and then begin the day. Three cups to watch the sun rise, the birds on the feeders, or listen as the rain pattered down against the windows. Three cups, black, then a rinse before setting cup and saucer aside for tomorrow.

The rest of us drank our coffee from the teacups which came with the ironstone dishes. The teacups held half the liquid of the old cup. We drank ours with sugar, which did nothing to take the edge off the bitterness, and milk, which if poured with a heavy hand might push the blackness into a grudging deep brown. One cup and you were wide awake. Two, and your heart didn't stop racing until noon. Three... but nobody ever did three.

On her last day, my grandmother made coffee, had three cups, rinsed her dishes, and set them out to dry. By then the cup was lightly yellowed, stained from years of use, with a chip on the rim and a permanent ring in the saucer. She rinsed them, and set them out, neatly, as she always did. And so, like her ironstone dishes, my grandmother's cup came to me.

And for eight years the cup and saucer sat up on a high shelf, a faded tribute to my grandmother in blue and white, while her ironstone dishes did duty at the table. Until the fateful morning I awoke with a hankering for real china, and chanced to take down her old blue cup.

The ring remained stained into the glaze of the saucer, the haze from countless cups of chocolate thick coffee remained in the cup, but on the bottom in neat blue script it said "Spode's "Camilla" Copeland England."

Spode china is something of a miracle. Josiah Spode perfected the art of blue underglaze printing on earthenware in the late 1700's. To create the pattern, artists engraved copper plate, which was then brushed with color. Tissue paper was carefully laid over the plate, and pressed down to pick up the color, creating a reverse of the original pattern. The elements were then cut out before being carefully applied to the porcelain piece. The process required no less than three firings, immensely tedious and careful hand work, and yet represented a breakthrough process at the time.

Today, Spode still manufactures patterns from molds and plates originally created in the early 1800's. Still uses the same painstaking process and still uses 20% more calcium phosphate (bone) in their china than other makers... creating a china which can withstand 17,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Beautiful, durable, Spode graced the tables of kings, commoners, and traveled to the new world.

The "Camilla" pattern is probably named for the tea leaves which form the center of the design. First introduced in 1833, early examples of Camilla have been excavated on the sites of former Hudson's Bay Company. While the pattern is still produced today in pink, it was originally introduced in this blue which made Spode famous.

So, I scrubbed. This had little effect on the coffee stains, so in desperation I decided if it took stains out of bathtubs, those little scrubbing bubbles might have some impact on old coffee stains too.

They don't on the first try... but by the third soaking the Spode emerged bright white and dazzling blue, a credit to the artists that created it.

At least once an episode Antiques Roadshow tells a disappointed owner the value of their antique has been vastly reduced because they cleaned the item. Removing the patina of age is a misguided attempt at improving the piece. And, as this cup sits here glowing lighly, no stains to mar the bowl, no ring in the saucer, I realize I've done more than bring it back to its former glory. I inadvertently removed my grandmother too. The cup is no longer hers, it is simply a cup and saucer.

An old cup and saucer. So old, that perhaps it once belonged not to my grandmother, but to her mother. Or her mother's mother. One little bit of luxury, purchased long ago, and carried forward through time by women who were destined for simple ironstone plate. Scrubbed and polished by each heir until it shone new, only to slowly grow untidy again, aging with its owner.

A hill farm is a spare thing, with little room for frivolous fancies. Fences are built stone on stone, "two rocks for every dirt" my grandmother would say, striking sharply at weeds and fate with an old iron hoe. On hill farms soup is made from Sunday leftovers, ladled out lumpy. Not something spooned smoothly into shapely bowls with delicate handles and underplates. Ironstone was in the cupboard when I came, and ironstone will be there when I am gone.

But between now and then are many mornings for coffee, in a blue Camilla cup.

Spode's Blue Camilla has been reintroduced and is now available through the nice folks at Small Island Trader (they ship everywhere)! Imagine... a Camilla cup and saucer is still only $18.50. It doesn't seem like much, does it?

Used Spode Camilla is available on Ebay

 
 


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