Digging into Decorative Orbs

Day 544

One of the new things I told myself I would try as part of this blog project was, "Buy something inexpensive and unfamiliar from an antique store and research its story." On a rainy Sunday, I stopped by the Cambridge Antique Market in search of an object to blog about. By the way, for those of you in the Cambridge/Boston area, if you haven't checked this place out, you really should, it's huge and a wonderful place to wander around. As I started browsing, I realized a small hiccup in my plan: when I'm looking at things I know a little about, I can kind of tell whether it's worth picking up and looking at the price tag, or whether it's not priced for me. I don't mean I have any kind of antiquing expertise, just general knowledge, and sometimes I'm very wrong and very surprised. But, when I was specifically looking for things I did't know anything about, I had no sense of whether the doohickey I was looking at would be $5 or $85.

I kind of hoped to find something with traces of its former owner, but that's easier said than done. I found some pieces I'd happily write fiction about the owners of, like a sleek black purse that was either from the 1950s or imitating that period. I went back and forth as to whether I should limit myself to something with a maker's mark -- a brand name, signature, or something else that indicates who made an object. If it had that, I could dig for a little bit of the history of the particular item, rather than just the type of item. I considered a baking tin that had a brand embossed in the side, but I wasn't particularly struck by it.

The thing I settled on has almost no identifying marks, and I'll never know who owned it before me. It could be from one of many different time periods. It's a porcelain sphere about the size of an orange, with a design in white and blue glaze that feels somewhat Asian or Asian-inspired to me. The price tag called it a "porcelain parlor ball." I wondered whether that's an established name for these things, or whether the vendor just decided to call it that -- I've seen a few misleading object names on Cambridge Antique Market price tags. I've seen these balls before. They're just decorative spherical things, as far as I know. But, I found this one pretty, and it was $6, so I decided this would be my object.

A blue and white ceramic ball sitting on a wood floor.
I own this thingy now.

Before the internet, my first stop would have been a regular encyclopedia, or a collector's guide to antiques (available at a lot of libraries). The search is much easier now, although there's also more irrelevant stuff to weed through. In searching for "porcelain ball," "ceramic ball" "ceramic sphere," and similar terms, I found a couple of articles on the Victorian pastime of "carpet ball," also known as parlor ball, carpet bowl, or parlor bowl. It was essentially indoor bocce, or like a game of pool on the ground without cues, using wooden or ceramic balls. Some places claim that it's Scottish, others Canadian -- my guess is that it was popular in the greater United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The versions I saw used ceramic balls that were kind of striped or plaid, which is pretty far from the swirly blue and white pattern on mine, but it seems plausible. My next stop was to look in history museum collections. These days, museum catalogs are readily available online, and often have more complete information than antiques catalogs. I used many of the same search terms I used in Google, and focused on museums around here and in places the game was popular. The Canadian Museum of History has several, and the National Museums of Scotland have at least a dozen, but with very bare catalog records. From the former, I learned that the average size of carpet balls is about five to eight centimeters in diameter -- mine fits right in that rage at about 7 cm, which makes it even more plausible that a carpet ball is the answer.

A somewhat dingy white sphere with thin black lines circling it in two directions, to form an irregular checked pattern. Beside it is a card with blocks of several colors.
A ceramic carpet ball in the Children's Museum of the Canadian Museum of History. The color strip beside it is commonly used in photographing museum collections, to compare the color to a known standard across different computer screens, photo prints, and aging objects.

This blog post was going to end with me getting more detail, hopefully corroborating my theory but possibly giving me new, different theories, by looking through books on antique ceramics and toys. I had an "adventure" with my library's delivery desk that ended up taking much longer than planned and only got me one of the books I had requested. That book, on toys, didn't mention carpet balls or anything else this is likely to be. Honestly, that's what a lot of history research is -- shots in the dark, and "this source probably won't have anything, but how sad would it be to miss out if it did have something?" If learning about this ball I bought was part of a bigger project, rather than a blog post (or it had really hooked into my curiosity), of course I'd keep at it, but in this case, I'm satisfied with the answer that it's probably for carpet bowls.

A tall, slender teapot or pitcher with an intricate floral design and some gold or copper around the edges.
An early example of blue and white porcelain from China, c. 1335
In the Musee Guimet, image by Wikipedia user World Imaging
I've picked up some small tidbits of knowledge on styles of ceramic glazing, mostly from visiting decorative arts museums. One such tidbit is that blue and white glazing isn't just two colors together, it's practically its own genre, one that originated in Asia. I looked online (and in that ill-fated library adventure) for resources on blue and white ceramics, and found that the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful. Blue and white glazing has its origins in Iraq but first became widespread in China in the 14th century, starting with glaze made from Persian cobalt. These ceramics became popular in the export market, and by the 16th century, European makers were imitating the blue and white styles, as well as attempting to replicate the delicate porcelain often just called "china." The famous blue-and-white pottery from Delft, in the Netherlands, came out of this trend. 

It's not surprising, then, that my blue and white ball has the feel of an Asian art style. I can't put my finger on what style that is, which may be due to my own lack of knowledge on the subject, or because it's a loose adaptation. The Wikipedia article doesn't say much past the 18th century, but a little more scouting around told me that asian-inspired blue and white ceramics were still popular in the Victorian era. With no other marks on the ball or information from the previous owner, I have no way to tell whether my purchase is from the era when carpet bowls was all the rage, or whether it's a recent reproduction. It doesn't matter to me. I have a new curio, and know a bit more about history.

P.S. If any readers have more information or informed guesses about my ball, please feel free to let me know!