• Well I never! Find out about some of the more unusual treasures in the Wedgwood Museum’s collections.

Fascinating Objects

  • by the Wedgwood Museum team

Biscuit model of a pyrophorous vase

Theme

Beginning in 1812 orders for pyrophorus vases came in from the Wedgwood travelling salesmen. Research has revealed that these intriguing items, formerly identified in Wedgwood collections as inkwells, are actually ‘instantaneous light devices’.

Until the invention of pyrophorus vases the method of creating a flame was both awkward and time-consuming. Friction and safety matches did not appear until much later in the nineteenth century, but for a short time before their development scientists were able to offer to sophisticated members of the public a convenient, spectacular way of creating a flame.

The principal ingredients of these ‘instant light-boxes’ were a sliver of wood, which had at its head a compound made from chlorate of potash and sugar; and a small glass bottle containing sulphuric acid. Frequently a small holder for a candle was also provided. When the sliver of wood was dipped into the acid and then exposed to the air sufficient heat was generated by the chemical reaction that had took place to immediately ignite it.

The first ‘instant light boxes’ made of metal began to appear in 1810, but Wedgwood seems to have been the first ceramic manufacturer to turn these utilitarian items into decorative ceramic art objects. The factory combined beauty with utility which meant the pyrophorus vase was attractive enough to be housed anywhere in the house from the bedroom to the study. The London based firm of Accum & Garden of Compton Street in Soho supplied Wedgwood with the acid and acid bottles to make these intriguing devices.

The factory used many existing inkwell shapes and adapted them to form pyrophorus vases, which has led to some confusion over the years. Many of Wedgwood’s traditional ceramic bodies were used in the production of these items, with rosso antico and black basalt proving both popular and versatile. Caneware was also favoured – and rare examples in the new fine bone china body developed by the factory in 1812 are also known. A factory memo written by Josiah Byerley on July 17th 1813 mentioned that – ‘Everybody who has had the Vases speaks highly of their utility – only a few days earlier he had visited the Court and shown examples to Queen Charlotte and the Princesses Elizabeth and Mary’, who went on to purchase their own examples.

An examination of the factory shape books indicate that about forty vase forms were used – but it is possible that not every shape went into commercial production. The demand for pyrophorus vases gradually diminished as the novelty subsided, and following the introduction of friction matches the purpose of these small objects was soon forgotten. Indeed it could be said that their existence was something of a ‘flash in the pan’.

Catalogue

Wedgwood made pyrophorus vases or ‘instantaneous light devices’ from 1812 in a variety of ceramic bodies. Existing inkwell shapes were adapted to form the vases - which housed slivers of wood topped with a compound of potash and sugar. The wood was dipped into a small bottle containing sulphuric acid, and on exposure to the air sufficient heat was generated by chemical reaction to result in spontaneous ignition.