Jim McGhee

Mauchline Ware

by Jim McGhee

I knew absolutely nothing about Mauchline Ware before this talk; now I feel quite well informed! Jim McGhee gave us a very enjoyable and detailed talk covering the history, manufacture, development and collection of Mauchline Ware - a subject he is clearly very enthusiastic about. My pen was red hot as I tried to take some notes and I can only give a flavour of Jim's talk, but here goes!

A classic little Mauchline Ware boxAlthough referred to commonly as 'Mauchline Ware', this is a generic term and the manufacture of small boxes and wooden trinkets was undertaken in a number of towns in East Ayrshire. Box making originally started in Cumnock about the 1780s and the Mauchline firms acquired many of their craftsmen from there. Purists prefer the term 'Box Ware' rather than 'Mauchline Ware'.

Charles Stivens (of Laurencekirk) was manufacturing 'classic' snuff boxes between 1780 and 1830 and Crawford, a jeweller in Cumnock, also started making snuff boxes copying the techniques used by Stevens.

There were many box companies including:

Caledonian Box Works

Hayes and Howgarth

W & A Smith (in Mauchline 1810-1939, the biggest company)

Jack Davidson & Son

The manufacture of the boxes involved many innovative techniques and specialist machinery. The wood was kiln dried (very unusual at the time) and the accuracy of manufacture was amazing. Jim picked up a diamond shaped box and was able to fit the lid either way round with equal quality of fit! The wood for the boxes would be cut and prepared to size. The sides would be glued together then the top and bottom surfaces glued on and top curved edges routed. The box would then be cut in two to create the top and bottom parts which were then finished on a linisher. The box was then lacquered with many coats to create the beautiful finish.

Much of the specialist machinery used was designed and built by W & J McDowell which combined with the high level of craftsmanship used created products that were not matched anywhere else in the world. At its peek, hundreds of craftsmen were employed in the industry in Mauchline alone at its height. Over a million boxes were manufactured. It is important to remember that these were not exclusive, high cost items but bulk quantity economy products sold at low cost or even given away with another companies products.

The boxes were used for an extraordinary range of purposes: tea caddies, needles and sewing, snuff, storing games, money boxes, hairpins to name a tiny few! The companies also developed beyond simple boxes, creating different shapes, cylinders and turned items, and even wooden book covers. They were exported across the world.

The companies were always trying to beat each other for finish and quality which resulted in a constant evolution of different finishes. Perhaps the most common is the photographic ware with photos or illustrations of locations or places of interest on the lid. After this came:

Fern Ware,

coloured ferns,

shell patterns,

lacquer ware (with Japanese black lacquer finish),

chromolithic ware,

white floral ware,

geometric ware,

basket weave wicker ware,

chequer ware,

blue willow ware,

mock tortouise ware,

tartan ware, and more!

Many of the patterns were created on paper first then glued to the wood before lacquering. For tartan ware, a special machine was designed with lots of pens to draw the tartan patterns. W & A Smith produced a book of 'Authenticated Tartans' which they used to authenticate there own tartan parts. (19th century spin!). Imagine trying to glue the paper decorations to some of the curved objects that were made - how about the wooden eggs?

Most genuine Mauchline Ware boxes are made from sycamore (but not all!). The industry cleaned out all the sycamore trees in the region and had to import it from Ireland. The boxes tend to use a characteristic interlocking joint and a particular cloth covered base. Look out for items which can be accurately dated, have special interest (eg: sold by Harrods or another retailer's name) or have scenes of particular interest.

The second half of the meeting was 'hands-on' and it was wonderful to admire the craftsmanship up close and ask Jim specific questions.

Many thanks to Jim McGhee for both a fascinating and informative talk and for letting us handle and admire his magnificent collection of Mauchline Ware. Thanks again for a great talk!

John Rattenbury.

 Coloured fern ware                     Tartan ware


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