18th c. Josiah Wedgwood Jasperware full figure
Back of 18th c. with impressed WEDGWOOD
Medium and large Wedgwood Jasperware buttons
Marie LeBarre Bennett Jasperware classical design
Modern Jasperware by Stella Ryzanski and her sister Shirley Shaw
Backmarks of MB (Marie LeBarre Bennett) and SR (Stella Ryzanski) and date
Jasperware is fine-grained unglazed stoneware that has its origin with Josiah Wedgwood in the late 1700s. He developed stoneware that was unique in composition, and ever since then his pottery and buttons have been called Wedgwood. Stoneware is pottery clay, which is also used for porcelain and earthenware, fired at high temperatures that becomes nonporous and tends toward a gray color when fired. The name Jasperware is derived from the fact that the overlay resembles the natural stone jasper in its hardness.
To get to the beginnings of jasperware buttons, we need to start with Josiah Wedgwood who was born at Burslem in Staffordshire, England in 1730. His father was a third-generation potter, but quite undistinguished. Josiah was the twelfth child and had to leave school at the age of nine when his father died so he could help his older brother with assorted chores at the pottery. He was an unusual child who had a bright and inquiring mind.
When he was 12 years old, he had a small pox infection and couldn’t do all of the routine physical work of an apprentice, so he ended up helping on the business side. At the end of his apprenticeship, his brother wouldn’t take him in as a partner in the business because Josiah wanted to experiment and be an innovator in the pottery business.
Josiah worked with a number of partners and actually conducted thousands of careful experiments before he was satisfied with what we now call Wedgwood or Jasperware. He was very secretive about his experiments. There is an interesting story about one of the ingredients he used, barium sulphate, which gave the clay the pure white color that he wanted and could be dyed by either adding a chemical to the clay or by dipping it into a colored clay overlay. He was so secretive about it that he would not have the substance delivered to the factory, but rather it was sent to London and ground into a powder in order to disguise it and only then sent to Staffordshire. He also made sure that his employees didn’t know too much about the processes by giving them specialized tasks and discouraging contact between different departments.
In the 1770s, Wedgwood made medallions and some small buttons, these we mostly for decorations and mounted in metal. He used a number of different colors but the blue base with white was the most popular.
The base of one color clay is formed by throwing or pouring clay slip into a mold; then, after it dries a bit but while it is still damp, medallions are added in a second or even third color. This is then fired. Most, if not all, modern Jasperware buttons are made by pouring the white clay decoration into the mold first and letting it dry a bit and then pouring the colored clay body on top in the mold. When this has dried so that it can be taken out of the mold the edges of the white are touched up to remove any unwanted white. This is then fired. The way the overlay cameo is put on the base is one of the distinguishing differences in Wedgwood buttons and modern Jasperware buttons. The formula of the clay is another difference. For the most part the Wedgwood buttons have a finer texture than modern ones.
In the early 1950s, Marie LaBarre Bennett started making ceramic and stoneware buttons that looked very much like the Wedgwood buttons. In fact some of her buttons were shown to the manager of the New York Wedgwood Office, and he first thought they were early Wedgwood. He “suggested” that Marie initial and date her buttons and not call them Wedgwood but rather Jasperware in the manner of Wedgwood. Marie used buttons, medals, jewelry, and many different things to make her molds. She made the molds out of plaster of Paris or some similar material. Her buttons are back-marked “MB”.
Marie was one of the first, if not the first, button person to make this type of button that looked like Wedgwood. Since then there are many artists making similar buttons. Most of them today are back-marked and dated. Marie LaBarre Bennett, Shirley Shaw, and Stella Rzanski are just a few of the more prolific makers.
Shirley Shaw started making Jasperware buttons in the early 1970s after buying a Marie LaBarre Bennett button. Her buttons are signed with “Shirley” in script. Shirley and her sister Stella Rzanski shared molds for Jasperware and many other ideas through the years.
Artists today are making stoneware buttons using similar techniques except they do not have the colored overlay on the base. The molded section is painted to provide the second color. The effect is similar to the older types but the manufacturing is very different.
Reprinted from the WSBS Bulletin and the New Jersey State Button Society Bulletin.